While watching this match, I was speechless. While trying to find verbiage to adequately characterize what I watched twice, I couldn’t really do it. I still can’t. And in thinking about what I, what we all witnessed today, the tears flow.
It’s times like this when doing a match review is kind of absurd. I hope that we all realize how special, how amazing this club that we are seeing is. Week after week we get to witness it all. We got to see the buildup, from an egg-faced loss to Hercules to the dismantling of Sevilla, of a team rounding into form. And after the last round of matches, they were ready for this. How ready, nobody really knew.
Now we do, in what was one hell of a way for the club to fete its 111th birthday.
Rolling into this El Clasic was a monstrous mass of complexities: Mourinho, Thong Boy with willing accomplices, Puyol and Pique in a little bit of a purple patch, tendinitis, mind games and anticipation. Nobody knew what was going to happen. As someone noted in one of the comments posts in the zillion El Clasic buildup posts that rained down, things could be 4-0 either way.
But who in their right mind predicted 5-0? Perhaps someone who had a lot more faith in this club, this team, than the typical querrulous cule could have seen what happened every time this club faced a test this season, every time we matched up against a club that was going to have the stuff to do us in. Spines stiffened, contentration focussed and they played like lions. Perhaps that same faith-drenched soul, knowing that this would be the sternest test of them all against a club and a coach, a Svengali-like 12th man, could have predicted that our best football would be on display.
I sure wasn’t that person. I was worried as hell.
Guardiola rolled out with his best lineup of Valdes, Alves, Pique, Puyol, Abidal, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Pedro! and Villa. He also made a liar out of fools like me who had the temerity to suggest that Mascherano might be a better fit for the battle that was to come than Busquets who, like the rest of his teammates, stunned and amazed.
I noted over at the EE Offside that the differences in this match might be that Abidal and Iniesta were fit and healthy, something that hasn’t been the case the past two seasons. But it was more than that.
–The constant attack was devastating. We treated the ball, when they got it, as if their possession was a sin.
–This was one of Messi’s best matches in the colors, despite his not scoring a goal.
–Pedro! was a difference maker, with his constant motion.
–The ball still moves faster than any man. It takes a disciplined defense not to chase.
–An attacking Xavi was exceptionally destabilizing.
–We had too many points of attack to successfully deal with.
It was almost as if the club read Euler’s dissection of what we had to do to dismantle EE, then went out and did it.
They were showing faces before the match, and Messi had the killer eyes that he often has before bit matches. And when he thugged the ball off of DiMaria in the box, he was sending a clear message that he was ready, and everybody else had better be, as well. He underscored that message with a crazy, audacious curling chip that just hit the woodwork, that had Casillas beaten. We were blasting shots from every angle, all over them as we clearly wanted to demonstrate that this was an exorcism, that Mourinho’s demons would be cast out like rancid cava. And the first goal wasn’t long in coming.
Recall the post I put up about our players and the demands that they place upon each other. So when Iniesta took a pass and spanked it exactly as hard as he needed to into a gap for an attacking(!) Xavi, Marcelo tried the sliding tackle off a ball that was a stunner, a pass that couldn’t be made into that space with that much pace, that sure as hell couldn’t be controlled by any player on the pitch. And his tackle just missed, deflecting the ball neatly for Xavi, who one-time chipped it over a lunging Casillas. It was 1-0, we had the early goal and first blood.
Some will claim that EE sat back and watched us pass the ball, that they should have pressed us like so many teams have tried to do, with aggressive, physical play that pushed us back up the pitch. The reason that wasn’t going to work today, was width. Note how many times Villa or Pedro! got the ball on the wing with acres of space, as the defense and midfield compressed to control the likes of Messi, Xavi and Iniesta. You have to pick your poison with us now. So when Xavi popped an inch-perfect pass across the midfield to Villa, Sergio Ramos was caught out of position. Villa dive-bombed toward the end line and spanked another rock-hard cross into the box. It deflected off Casillas’ hands right to P!, who volleyed home.
Just like that it was 2-0, and EE got the bit between their teeth, to play their best spell of football of the match so far, pressing and pressuring with dynamic, possession football, forcing some key interventions from Puyol and Abidal, who were monsters today. Then we got the ball back, and returned to work. Messi justmissed Iniesta with a long pass, that should have alerted the EE defenders that maybe, just maybe, they shouldn’t be playing him for the run. Abidal worked the beginnings of an enticing 1-2 with Villa, bombing up the pitch like a greyhound unbound, shortly after that outrunning an EE defender for a pass up the wing. The attack was about width, about making the field too wide to be played, attacking from as many different points as possible. It was pressure, tempo, passing, pressure, repeat, as we could play very differently with a 2-0 lead, with defense through possession.
It’s also worth noting that as with a lot of lopsided results, there was some luck involved. If Marcelo moves a bit more quickly to intercept Iniesta’s pass, if Casillas doesn’t deflect the ball directly to P!, it’s a very different match, one balanced on the typical Clasic knife edge. Yes, quality created the openings for our players to exploit, but make no mistake, some of the reason for this result was also that it was a team against a collection of high-priced talent. You could see it in the passes that they were missing, or that players had to reach for versus the way we just pinged the ball around, with every player having multiple options and always making the right decision with the ball. It was that quickness of thought that the Champions League commentators were talking about as we destroyed Panathinaikos.
And the passes needed to be perfect, because as we saw, they were a dangerous team with the ball, on a rainy, crazed night that followed Catalan elections, in which the fervor of the fans was at a frenetic pitch. They screamed, they whistled, they made the cavernous Camp Nou feel like a clasustrophobic Tercera home pitch, and the players responded.
The third goal was one of those Messi Moments again, as Alves hesitated to hit a streaking Villa with the pass but Messi didn’t, showing Alves how it’s done. His beautiful, defense splitting ball found Villa in perfect stride, and he spanked a shot that he barely needed to control into the far corner of the goal. 3-0, and that crucial third goal went the wrong way for the visitors.
This might be our Villa World, as he is offside four times, then onside once, but that once finds the back of the net. And again, the pass asked a question of Villa: “Can you handle this?”
Then the same duo did it again, this time more dynamically as Messi made one of those crazy-quilt runs of his, riding a trip attempt to continue across the pitch, moving the defense with him before slapping another ball to a just onside Villa, who finished with a slow roller for the 4-0 lead to effectively end a match, but begin a show of passing possession football. The flicks, backheels, close control and overlapping, integrated runs was amazing to see as we monopolized possession for what seemed like an eternity, periods interrupted by Arbeloa hard fouls. Then Diarra joined in, and we seemed to suddenly pass the ball with a bit more purpose, scoring a fifth goal that I like to think someone said afterward, “That was for you, Arbeloa!”
Bojan Krkic made a pace-y, slashing run up the pitch, snookering his defender and smoking a cross that missed a hard-charging Iniesta but fell right to Jeffren, who did a tidy flip finish to make it 5-0, and then it got messy. Sergio Ramos, trying to one up Arbeloa, came in hard, and viciously on Messi. When Puyol charged up to defend Messi, Ramos shoved him to the pitch, completely losing his cool in a display that he will be ashamed of tomorrow. Phil Schoen said that he could understand it, after the humiliation that EE had suffered, one of the more idiotic statements studding a broadcast history filled with them.
There was, and will never be an excuse for Ramos’ behavior. The red card was deserved, and I would expect an extension to the automatic one-match ban. But even that brouhaha couldn’t detract in any way from what was an amazing display, that showed that this football club is fully capable of. It was awe-inspiring and joyous. People will say that EE played poorly. I say that like any side that faces us, they really weren’t allowed to play. We have the ball, and the rare times that we cede possession means that you have a very few chances with which to threaten our goal. And those odds are in our favor.
Team: 10. A collective that was stronger than any individual, we demonstrated the effectiveness of a team playing a system at its highest level. Great players+a great system+form=destruction.
Guardiola: 10. Right lineup, right modifications of the roles. A more aggressive Xavi and a more selfish Iniesta meant that suddenly, we had, in effect 5 direct attackers, not counting the two wing backs who were constantly coming up.
Valdes: 8. Strong when he needed to be, but a major communication problem with Puyol almost cost us dearly.
Alves: 8. We can’t sell him. Again, I know that it makes sense right now, but we just can’t. His defense was as effective as his offense today. He does need to be quicker with the passes, however.
Pique: 7. Our weakest defender today. Puyol bailed him out a couple of times, and full-on Piquenbauer still isn’t back. But a strong match.
Puyol: 9. An absolute lion, from whistle to whistle. He won balls in the air, defended corners stoutly and raised hell in general.
Abidal: 10. He was a difference maker today, as Di Maria must have been thinking “This game isn’t so easy now. I sure wish this dude would leave me alone so I could do my thing.” He headed away, cut balls off, stole, intercepted, attacked and did everything his club required and more. Brilliant match.
Busquets: 9. Had a couple of ineffective periods, but came into his own when we started to tika-taka the match away. In his own way, he makes life almost as difficult as Mascherano does, gumming up the works and frustrating opponents.
Xavi: 10. Pass after unerring pass, and even a goal. He’s getting rather fond of leading defenders in that dancing game, He did it again today, in between running his offense with metronomic perfection.
Iniesta: 8. Except for a period of invisibility, he was massive today, and another key to the match. A fit, aggressive Ghostface is devastating. And what a pass for that first goal.
Messi: 9. He, like everyone else who does it, loses a point for that dive. He deseved the yellow. Yes, Carvalho’s arm came up, but still. It shouldn’t have happened. Now. He worked harder, ran harder, played defense like a defender and possession like a midfielder. He even attacked like a striker, stole balls and was an absolute dynamo today. He did everything except score a goal, the absence of which doesn’t keep him from being Man of the Match.
Pedro!: 8. The Random Chaos Generator isn’t so random any longer. He plays a very focussed game of almost unrelenting aggression that brings real danger to the wing. And it’s nice to have his scoring touch back.
Villa: 7. Two goals and an assist and excellent movement brought him back from the ratings damage done by the offsides, lost balls and misdirected passes. He’s still feeling his way, and will have matches that are up and down. Both his goals were beauties, as was the assist. He’s still learning the system, and next season he should be the player that people were expecting this season.
Krkic (for Villa): 8. Massive, and another strong performance. He played like the confident, aggressive attacker that everyone has been expecting, and actually looked better in the overall system than Villa did. And what an assist for the final goal.
Keita (for Xavi): incomplete. Insufficient time to evaluate him fully.
Jeffren (for Pedro!): incomplete. Again, despite his scoring a goal, insufficient time. I can say that this was the first time that I saw the skills that got him promoted. He wasn’t a driverless Ferrari toay, and what a well-taken goal.
Finally, the league isn’t over. We have only a two-point lead, a gap that could evaporate instantly with a poor display by us and a strong one by them. Remember Hercules, and keep those heads on straight.