So, this picture looks just like all of the other pictures, except that it isn’t like all of the other pictures, though it certainly might be 5 years from now. This match was a glimpse of the future, courtesy of a first team that took care of business to a degree that rendered this final Champions League group stage match against Rubin Kazan meaningless.
But still meaningful, which was pretty cool.
This was, frankly, one of the weirdest matches I have seen in a while. Rubin Kazan rolled into our house with a recent history of a win and two stalwart draws against us. The side should have been brimming with confidence. They also had to win, and hope that Copenhagen lost its match against group whipping boys Panathinaikos.
So I’m sure that someone can explain to me why they came out and played turtle, sticking their neck out only when a crystal-clear counterattacking opportunity presented itself, which wasn’t often. It was almost as if they saw the shirts, instead of the bench-emptying lineup of Pinto, Pique, Fontas, Adriano, Maxwell, Mascherano, Busquets, Dos Santos, Thiago, Jeffren, Krkic, and played to not get killed. Or maybe they didn’t want to vex Guardiola to a degree sufficient that he would insert Messi and Iniesta. Whatever. They were defensive and about as passive as I have witnessed, for a side that had to win.
We just stroked the ball around, and looked at glimpses of the future, one that looked simultaneously bright as day and somewhat uncertain. For although players are still developing, we could see a lot, such as we’re going to be buying strikers for a while yet, folks. But with the money that we will have saved on midfielders and defenders, we should have one hell of a transfer kitty.
We also saw a bit of why Jonathan Dos Santos has been passed by Thiago on the “Young’un Most Likely To” list.
And man, did we see the next Pique!
But we had a match to play, one in which we at times looked sloppy and disjointed, exactly like what we were: first-team subs and B-teamers, cobbled together by a coach who would have liked to win the match, but not enough to really play the real guys, because they have important work coming up. Long balls were flying hither and yon, establishing the value of tika taka in a very visual way.
Then still other times, a sequence of one-touch football would happen in which the Bs and the Subs combined to look just like the first team …. almost. The difference, really, was mostly two-touch football instead of one-touch. When the ball did move quickly in true one-touch fashion, we were in, only to find that we really didn’t have a striker, even when Krkic was on the pitch. We did put men in the box, but they were sort of like nudists at a fashion show. “Um, okay. But now what?”
Helping our cause immensely was the fact that Rubin Kazan was, frankly, chicken. I know that a coach plays the match that he thinks his side needs to play, but at least try to play to win. Possession stats were absurd, in the high 70s for us. And you just can’t give a team the ball for that long, and not expect it to score.
And so it did, in a goal that wasn’t coming, really, a goal that was was lovely and ugly, an unusual goal that saw Thiago in the box to slide a ball to Fontas, who smashed a shot that even a defender’s hand couldn’t keep from nestling into the goal, so clear was his shooting lane. It was 1-0, and the Bs were celebrating as if they’d won the whole Champions League their own selves. Which was fine, their undiluted joy at having scored against a side that looked about as likely to score as I am to be borne upon a bier by 8 supermodels, and walked into a room filled with cash. So that was the match, really.
We notched a second goal off a lovely feed to Victor Vazquez, who had acres of space in which to compose and finish and did so, smoking a shot past the keeper, a shot that had me noting in the LiveBlog (much thanks for the last-minute step up, Vicsoc!) that you didn’t have to hit it right at the keeper, like our current first-team striker has done in similar situations. And it was 2-0, done and done and done.
And finally, we beat ’em, but not without some pain. Jeffren, Final Fantasy himself, wouldn’t have any luck at all were it not for bad luck. He gets injured, then returns to the side in time to cop a late, but important goal in El Clasic, the tally that enabled the full-on manita, then in his second match back he is injured again. One or two weeks for him, a player who looked devastated coming off the pitch, for good reason. Dude can’t catch a break.
Krkic, on the other hand, almost did indeed catch a break but not of the good kind, when he got a face full of Rubin Russian hip. The worst of the damage might have been a bloody nose. For that we can be thankful, since Krkic is half of our striker force.
And that’s that. We finished the group stages undefeated, in form and ready for the knockout stages when, as they say, it’s for all the marbles.
Team: 6. It was an uneven display to be sure, against a side that found its way into our end on a few occasions, and even looked semi-dangerous a couple of times. We played like strangers and the closest friends. The long ball stuff has to stop, and it will.
Guardiola: 8. Hats off for the lineup, for resting key players and substituting with farm boys, until Messi. I still don’t understand why Messi had to play this match, a meaningless encounter against an increasingly desperate team. It vexeth me so.
Pinto: 7. I liked his play, even as it was very clear why he isn’t our first-choice keeper. He commands the box well and, while not as quick or reactive to danger as Valdes, is a fine sweeper keeper in the Barca tradition.
Pique: 7. Very solid, and the Piquenbauer stints were becoming increasingly necessary, as we had nobody to really attack the opponents’ goal. OUr Captain for a Day had moments of quality that made it clear the difference between first and B team.
Fontas: 9. He was our best defender, a combination of size, silky smoothness and Piquenbauer-like abilities, but with more pace. He even looked like Pique on the shot for the goal. His care of the ball moving forward was flawless, except for a couple of times where he was caught in possession. He was also the fireman, sliding over to extinguish the rare instances of danger. He has, in my opinion (and judging from the evidence) vaulted the other defenders, including Muniesa, into the “most likely to be promoted” spot. This is the second time he’s featured this season, and he was even better than the first time, again, helped by Rubin’s passivity. But the skills were apparent. A keeper who should be first team next season.
Adriano: 8. An excellent match from Dani Alves Lite, who marauded up and down the wing, stealing balls, laying off passes and being a general thorn in the side of our opponents who never really tested his defensive skills.
Maxwell: 5. Mostly anonymous, and kind of clunky when he wasn’t, seemingly demonstrating rust from Abidal’s return to first-choice left back. The midfield role doesn’t suit him as well as it should.
Mascherano: 7. Again, very solid. A few people during the LiveBlog were commenting on his consistently missing passes, something that I just didn’t see happening. He was smart with the ball, and made life difficult for any opposing attacker that came near him. And he was everywhere on the pitch, even showing up in their box.
Busquets: 8. You have to really watch to see how good he was, but in shot after shot this No. 16 comes flitting in to do something cool, then slides out of the picture again. From passing and defense to ball control, Busquets was on today except for a couple of Bad Busi! moments.
Dos Santos: 5. I wasn’t a big fan of his performance today. He was invisible mostly, and didn’t seem to know what to do with the ball when he got it, losing it on more than one occasion. The side worked better when he exited, only in part because the player replacing him was one Lionel Messi. His role seemed to be part playmaker part DM, but we had a guy named Busquets already performing that role, so now what? That uncertainty seemed to permeate Dos Santos’ play. Of the Bs out there, he looked the youngest, not visually but in quality of play. Looks like he needs more time in the oven.
Thiago: 5. Again, some good and some bad, in equal portions. He’s way too casual with the ball, with long passes that hardly ever found their target, hospital balls and mishit passes. Then he would enjoy a run of wonderful play that makes the reasons for his promotion apparent. Definitely the next Iniesta rather than Xavi, however, as he roams far and wide to work his magic. He’s a keeper, for sure, even as you can see the lack of maturity in his game. I don’t think it’s anything that real exposure to the first team can’t cure, though. The talent is there, and if the rumors of his January promotion are true, it’s welcome news.
Jeffren: incomplete. FF showed flashes out there, and is moving less like the driverless Ferrari that he used to seem like. He needs some luck.
Krkic: 3. He looked like a B teamer today, folks, after a run of excellent showings with the first team. He was almost completely anonymous, until he got the ball, fell down and lost it. Hopefully this won’t damage his fragile confidence. He was in a tough spot today as the 9 against a big, physical, resolute and organized side determined to play defense. Better, more experienced players than he have fallen prey to the very same thing.
Vazquez (for Jeffren): 6. I really liked his match today. I don’t know that ultimately, he has the quality to break into the first team except as a squad player, but his movement and passing skills were on fine display, as was the fact that he is really green. His goal was exceptionally well-taken. B teamers always look surprised when they see that shooting, passing and scoring are the same, no matter the opponent. The way his face lit up was a riot. It remains to be seen what his future holds, but I don’t really see him as a first team player in the future.
Bartra (for Krkic): 6. Nice work in his hybrid role, and excellent movement. Strong pace and good instincts should see him getting more and more first team looks next year. He won’t be promoted, nor should he be, but he’s definitely a keeper. His future is bright.
Messi (for Dos Santos): 7. You could see him taking the match off and just leaving the motor purring rather than running, but even with that, the side’s performance stepped up a notch when he entered. And that mazy, crazy run of his, even though it resulted in nothing more than a blocked shot, was a delight. I’m not usually a fan of his solo runs, but that one had such danger and intent written all over it. It wasn’t running directly into a nest of defenders, but rather taking on a bevy of them and leaving them all in his serpentine wake. That run deserved a goal, but there was one defender too many.
This is also Guardiola’s best group stage record, in a win that dispatched a demon in Rubin Kazan. It was also a match that gave us the opportunity to examine from key future first teamers in depth in real match conditions for extended periods, rather than a sub that comes on in the last 5 minutes of a decided match. And I liked what I saw, particularly from Fontas who, with every appearance, makes the sale of Txigrinski seem less crazy, tactically (not fiscally).
And that’s all I got, folks, except does anyone see anything Yayaesque in this Fontas shot? Just asking.