It was simultaneously dazzling, workmanlike and as casual as a stroll in the park. Here’s how you know that we’re a team on form: Beating European opposition like a gong looks easy. On the up side, the Panathinaikos players got dry, probably still smelling of fabric softener match shirts. On the down side, they took a hiding in front of their home fans. Was it really that bad where even after going a goal down, they were still playing not to lose?
The final score was a fair result for a club that absolutely dominated this match from start to finish, with a rousing team performance, even as individual players didn’t have very good matches. This, for me, shows off the quality of the side and the form that we are enjoying right now. When some of the best players in the world are simultaneously hitting high notes all at the same time, it’s a pretty amazing thing.
At some point, people are going to stop detracting from our victories. Sevilla didn’t try, Valencia did this, Villarreal didn’t do that, Almeria were this, Panathinaikos was that. Whatever. We’ll keep taking the wins, however people try to explain them away.
Guardiola rolled out a number of interesting things this evening, in a starting lineup of Valdes, Alves, Pique, Puyol, Adriano, Mascherano, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Pedro! and Villa. What struck me the most was the two roaming Brazilian fullbacks, and the effect that they had on our offense. With Adriano and Alves pushing forward, it in effect gave us, even with a parked bus, almost as many attackers as defenders, particularly with the defense playing such a high line that at times our centerbacks seemed like midfielders.
Three things made such daring possible: the pace of Alves and Adriano, the ball control of our midfield and Javier Mascherano, who just destroyed pretty much everything that came near him. It’s also impossible to describe the pleasure of seeing Adriano’s long-range blasts from the left-hand side of the pitch. Yes, the keeper made the saves on 4 humming shots, but it’s the sheer possibility that helped to unbalance the Panathinaikos defense.
And none of it would have been possible without a voracious defense, and a passing attack that reduced the British announcers to a 90-minute rave about our quality, movement, speed of thought and passing. And you know what? They’re right. Here’s a news flash of sorts, that just occurred to me: If we play our game, the quality of our opponent doesn’t matter. We keep the ball, and the few times that we do give it up don’t yield, percentage-wise, enough chances to really put us in danger. Even if we give up a goal or two, something highly unlikely in the form that we’re in right now, we’ll probably be able to get them back.
Form is fleeting, class is permanent; an adage worth noting because right now we are on form. But we also have the class to weather individual players having very off matches, or a collective malaise. Here’s something else: Our playing style is almost lack of form proof, because it’s short, direct passes to players who are constantly making themselves available. Who can’t complete a 10-15 yard pass along the ground, right? Most players can. The complexity is in what to do next, and what will that player do next. When Xavi passes to Alves passes to Iniesta passes to Messi, it’s like an escalating scale of difficulty for the defense. Throw in a scampering Pedro! and the thread of Villa, and it’s a fraught situation at best.
And to boot, our one-touch game was on amazing display tonight, particularly for that wonder of a second goal. In less than 10 seconds, 6 passes were made and a goal was scored, an absolute wonder of a team goal that encapsulates the way we play as eloquently as any verbiage anyone could come up with. So advance this video to 2:09, and enjoy.
Best of all with this match is that the home match against Rubin Kazan is meaningless for us, as we secured first place in the group with our victory, since FC Copenhagen lost today. A great day all ’round. Panathinaikos played hard and (mostly) fair, but it really was a class gap that couldn’t be bridged with effort, and a stroll in the park for us.
Team: 8. Excellent collective performance, a couple of defensive lapses excepted. But even then, somebody always picked up the slack.
Guardiola: 9. The perfect match to roll out the Roving Brazilian experiment, to great effect. Right substitutions, as well. Pique needed to come off.
Valdes: 8. Dude’s gotta learn to yell more. That blunder between he and Pique in the first half shouldn’t have happened. He was awesome after that, including that killer stop on Cisse. That play was huge.
Alves: 8. I know that business logic dictates that the club sell him, but matches like the one he played today shows why something should be figured out. He went forward and got back, stole balls, played tika-taka and battled for possession, after getting off to something of a funky start. Sweet, sweet assists for the opening goal.
Pique: 5. Looked shaky and out of sorts getting the match cobwebs out of his system in preparation for Monday. Usually he can compensate of lack of quickness with positioning. Not today.
Puyol: 6. Strong match, but why less Cisse loose? Instead of stopping and throwing up your arm, track back with the player, until you hear the whistle. Very solid beyond that and a few other moments.
Adriano: 6. Didn’t show much in the way of defense, but his offense was excellent, from the midfield passing game to his accurate shots from distance. By far his best outing in the colors.
Mascherano: 9. A Man of the Match performance from our midget destroyer, who was everywhere on the pitch today, and had to be. He also passed, controlled, tika-takaed and even got off a shot on goal. I don’t envy Guardiola with his DM complexity. When sMasch was pure destroyer, it made the Busquets decision a snap. Now that he’s showing fine passing and passing range, the decision isn’t so no-brainer any longer.
Xavi: 7. Our metronome was in full effect today, even as he was the target of all of the Panathinaikos midfield pressure. Thing is, you can play to not let him kill you, and our Tiny Vampire will rip out your jugular.
Iniesta: 9. Wow, what a match. His touch, control and fleetness of thought are amazing. He really is a beautiful player to watch, and works magically with Xavi to make the best midfield combo on the planet.
Messi: 6. He was on cruise control, showing up when he had to, with some remarkable runs and passes. He also showed leadership when he got on his mates for not getting into the box when it was clear that he was going to cross the ball.
Pedro!: 7. His brace consisted of two very well-taken goals. His match consisted of excellent movement and an all-pitch performance, from defensive harassment to tika-taka.
Villa: 2. When he wasn’t offside, he was losing the ball with ill-considered passes. His slowness of thought and foot continue to be a liability, as well.
Keita (for Xavi): 5. Solid. Might have played to a better rating with more time, but his contributions to midfield defense and possession for us are never, ever to be underestimated.
Abidal (for Pique): 5. A shockingly bad back pass that he cleaned up himself. Looked like a player coming off an injury, and not wanting to go all out to me.
Maxwell (for Adriano): incomplete. Got some time, but not enough to really be evaluated.
Next up is a big-ass date on Monday, with a simple task: Win and we assume first place in the Liga. Can’t wait.