Look at Carles Puyol’s face. Does that really look like the face of a player who is going let his side lose a match, ever again? This was a crazy one. I had to watch it a few times, just to adequately characterize what went down, and I finally have it right:
We have the pleasure, week after week, of looking at one of the best teams in history. We squabble about this or that, Villa or Ibrahimovic, Ka-TARR or Kuh-terr and meanwhile, this amazing beast of a club just takes whatever anyone can throw at it, and dispatches it.
This Osasuna match is always a difficult fixture for us. Not this time. We even threw in a “You have 5 hours to rouse yourselves and get to Pamplona, or you forfeit the match,” just to make things a bit more complex. Whatevs. Guardiola’s face when he rolled off the bus told you all that you needed to know about this one. His face, were it able to say anything, would utter, sotto voce, “Somebody is going to die.”
Last time here we played a solid match and took a 1-0 lead late into the proceedings. Crazy pressure from Osasuna forced a Pique own goal for a 1-1 draw. This season, Valdes had to resort to absurdly poor clearances directly to Osasuna attackers to give himself something to do. Because every time we had the ball, this happened:
Tika taka was in full effect yesterday, so much so that Osasuna never even got a clear chance at goal. A club that tallied 13 goals in 12 matches wasn’t likely to notch one against the best club on the planet right now, a club that defends with 11 players as even its keeper morphs into a sweeper. So they get the ball, and knock it around, working their way into the midfield, then the Lilliputians descend upon them, and then this happens:
And as an opposing club president, you can’t even argue that it isn’t fair, because we raised our club. Valdes, Pique, Puyol, Busquets, Xavi, Messi, Iniesta and Pedro! all were products of the system. It’s eminently fair. That they are all reaching their apogee at the same time, yielding a juggernaut that kills with elegance is our extreme pleasure, week after week.
Guardiola, being snake-mean, rolled out our best lineup, and the same lineup that dropped a manita on the Evil Empire this past Monday: Valdes, Alves, Pique, Puyol, Abidal, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Pedro!, Villa. And it was pretty much the same effect; comprehensive dominance of an opponent. Osasuna, to their credit, knew what they had to do and they jumped on us from the start, hoping to snag something while we were wiping the travel from our eyes. They got a couple of corners, and we looked a little hinky until we got our feet under us. Once that happened, it was all over but the shouting.
–Pedro spanked a shot
–Messi hit the post
–Villa …. well, um …. Villa …. (never mind)
The first goal came from a sequence that was just us, stroking the ball around until suddenly P! found himself in the center of the pitch, with a defender on the wrong side of him. He noticed, and so did Messi, who laced a pass that found P! in stride, and he finished confidently past the keeper. 0-1, good guys. Osasuna proceeded to not play like a home club that was down a goal. There was some pressure and a bit of physical play, but mostly it was a tika taka masterclass. They didn’t chase the ball, being well drilled by their coach, but we broke them down nonetheless because as long as the wide play continues, there is too much of the pitch to defend.
And then there’s this:
What is an opponent supposed to do with this little tyrant, who has decided to become a playmaker this season, as well as one of the game’s most lethal scoring threats? He’s surrounded by defenders, so let’s just throw up a little sombrero, retain possession and keep on rolling. Hmph, this one, I can just outrun. He had a hand in every goal today, assisting on the first and scoring the next two, the last on a penalty. I actually thought that he was going to give the penalty kick to Villa, as he did last season with Ibrahimovic, to get him rolling. But perhaps he figured that Villa would just screw it up, because he was having one of those matches, performances that are more typical than his Clasic outing, frankly. He got balls tangled up in his feet, somehow got twisted around, shanked shots and somehow managed to miss scoring a goal when he was set up with the keeper and the goal dead to rights.
So Messi took the penalty, and why not. He earned it with one of his squirrel-like runs at a defense that was on its heels and looking around, because what if he stops and dishes to a runner? Then what? This time, he kept running and they fouled him in the box. It was a superfluous third goal, but one that gave him the brace to match the output of that preening ninny from That Other Spanish Team.
Messi’s second goal was a brilliant bit of work as he took a pass on the dead run, one of those passes that was crying out for a run to be made in behind the Osasuna defense. Messi obliged, and slid on the diagonal as he ran at the goal, to give himself more angles to shoot at. Contrast this with Villa’s earlier, glorious chance that he just popped right at the keeper from almost the center of the net.
Nobody was truly spectacular today, though Pedro!, Messi and Abidal were brilliant. But we really didn’t have to be, because even as individual players are up or down, the collective is on song, and beautiful. Perhaps next week, we will be made to walk to the match. It’s at home, after all. “Here, ride these little push scooters to the Camp Nou, and we’ll see you over there.”
On a more serious note, understand what we are seeing. We had an amazing club in the year of the triplete. This club might be better.
Team: 8. Did what it had to do, put the boot on Osasuna’s throat and kept it there. It wasn’t always brilliant, but it was almost always effective. If we have more than 70% of possession, and of that 30% you are battling midgets to get to the Kingdom of Lilliput, the odds of you scoring are stacked, and not in your favor.
Guardiola: 7. Not sure what he said to them, but they took care of business. I didn’t like his subs for this match, that was over after the second goal. Unless very few of the first-teamers are going to play in the meaningless match against Rubin Kazan in midweek.
Valdes: 5. He hasn’t had one of these matches in some time, so he was due. Almost everything that he did had some added drama, which you just don’t need from your keeper.
Alves: 5. Lordy, does Dani just not like buses? Recall how awful he was against Inter Milan after that bus ride. His back line mates, particularly Abidal, compensated for his mediocre play in this match. He wasn’t quite moving right, moving the ball right, or contributing to the attack in any meaningful way.
Pique: 6. Nice, solid match from Piquenbauer, that got off to a pretty pokey start as he was getting outrun or outdone by every Osasuna player that tried him. As we got control of the ball, he settled down, in part because after that he didn’t really see any Osasuna attackers.
Puyol: 7. Solid and strong, with fine positional play. He’s found the fountain of youth, and the club benefits, as he and Pique ranged from box to box …. and they’re defenders!
Abidal: 9. Wow, what a match. He was the official fireman today, taking over from Puyol. That flying header to clear a bit of real danger, for me, typified his match. He has the pace to be able to read a match and do what needs to be done. He had a couple of moments, but was flawless after that, with some very fine passing, as well.
Busquets: 7. I really liked the match that Busquets played today, from the passing and defensive sides. He was a pretty constant thorn in the side of Osasuna, and was able to, when necessary, morph into Lanky Xavi and kill with the pass.
Xavi: 5. He was off song today, with a performance that included some magic, much invisibility and even (shudder!) a number of bad balls.
Iniesta: 7. But thank the stars for Ghostface, who played a strong match. Again, not one for the ages, but it didn’t have to be. The signs that he is going to be the next Xavi are becoming more and more clear as you watch his play in this match. He kept the ball moving, constantly searched for the through ball and quite elegantly subbed for our slightly off general.
Messi: 8. I don’t know what there is to say about him, really. This was a Man of the Match-quality performance for him that isn’t going to earn that accolade, at least not from me. Passing, running, ball control and almost constant aggression were his calling cards today.
Pedro!: 9. P! was amazing today. He never, ever stops running, even chasing the ball back to the Osasuna keeper to force a bad clearance. He was crossing, and passing, and running, and crossing, and scoring, and running and playing defense and running some more, all with controlled alacrity. Move fast, but don’t rush is what P! is doing now, and it’s a joy to watch. Seven goals in the last seven matches for our Random Chaos Generator.
Villa: 3. He’s doing the right things, but he was pretty awful today. I’m thrilled that he found a temporary vein of form against EE. The goals will come, but what’s happening to me is, as with Henry his first year, the system and the way that we play are too fast for him. Balls get tangled up in his feet because the pass is coming at a pace that he isn’t used to, from places that he isn’t used to. The inability to score, even on the doorstep, is inexcusable. He pointed to a spot, P! put the ball there and Villa missed the poke-in. Can’t happen. It will some more, and I won’t like it then, either.
Keita (for Xavi): 6. Did exactly what he was supposed to do, which is aid in ball control and use his pace and physicality to make sure nothing happened that we didn’t want to happen in the midfield.
Krkic (for Villa): incomplete. Not enough time to evaluate him, but the signs of his good form were there in abundance today. He’s gone from running around like a gerbil on crank, to precise, direct movements to exactly where he wants to be.
Jeffren (for Pedro!): incomplete. Pretty anonymous, but not that much time to do much of anything, really.
Next up is Rubin Kazan, in our house. They will be playing for their Champions League lives. We, on the other hand, already have the group locked up and don’t need this match. What will Guardiola do? Good question. Last time he had such an opportunity he rolled out with a group of Bs and subs against Shakhtar Donetsk. But we have unfinished business against Rubin. Or do we?
Claudio Chaves/El Mundo Deportivo “First we took the AVE, which is really fast! Then we have this really cool bus, but traffic was a mess, and I think we ran over a chicken or something. Bojan was pretty upset and wanted to stop to give the chicken a proper burial, but we had to keep going, and who designed the traffic patterns in this town, anyway?”