“Held to the past too aware of the pending.” The Barcelona Derby rarely fails to live up to the hype, in one way or another. Today’s match at El Prat again made for another highly impressive and entertaining match. Barcelona hit 5 again, in what I believe shows how far the team has come since the beginning of the year, and how all the pieces are coming together. He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named decided to take a nice little break from scoring and instead contributed a hat-trick of assists. Future FIFA Ballon d’Or winner, Xavi, contributed a goal from a spectacular angle and at least 1 assist. Face of the organization Andres Iniesta played his heart out, in what seems to be a game that continually weighs on him more and more each year. Espanyol finally broke the high line for the first time in more than 600 minutes against Valdes and the defense. And the team played a wonderfully complete game, overcoming a defense that normally gives us fits.
I will say this up front in this post mortem, and I wholeheartedly mean it: I respect Espanyol. There are those here who despise Espanyol with a passion that I reserve for people who abuse kitties or puppies, Sarah Palin, and bigotry (which are usually synonymous), but I on the other hand see something that I admire in the blanc-i-blaus. Whereas many clubs likely view the Barcelona tie at home to be something of a must-win, to Espanyol it is effectively their Champion’s League Final every year. They play at El Prat against Barça with a force that befits a cornered dog fighting for its life. The other reason is the force with which they have adopted Andres Iniesta. Due to his continual commemoration of close friend and former teammate Dani Jarque, Espanyol seems to have adopted him with their own tributes and honors. Upon leaving the pitch today after being subbed off, Iniesta was met with a standing ovation by the rabidly anti-Barça Espanyol fans. GolTV showed fans with #21 Espanyol shirts with Iniesta’s name on them. It is to me an endearing adoption by a team of a worthy player and apparently excellent friend. A fitting tribute.
Enough of that though. Espanyol came out and showed that they were not going to sit back. They were going to foul and foul hard and they were going to push forward on the counter while playing the high line that had served them well so far this season, but that turned out to be a disastrous. Chasing Messi around all the way back to midfield may have assisted in his what-will-surely-be-momentary scoring draught, but it also pulled another defender so far forward that Pedro was effectively holding steady at the back line and outrunning every perico to the ball. Eventually the same opened for Villa with Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, and Alves acting as primary playmakers. It made for an entertaining match to be sure.
I would say “we started slow” or that “Espanyol caught us by surprise” but neither is true in any real sense. Before Barcelona could establish control and possession, Espanyol used this to their advantage and held our defense on its heels until Xaviniesta asserted itself and began immediately providing open shots on goal. To say that we have seen this outpouring before is a truth universally accepted, but it is also no less of an understatement. Putting 5 through on Espanyol is actually a feat that no Barcelona team has ever accomplished, and to do so in such a blindingly beautiful fashion on their pitch only added to the importance. In the past 2 season the Blaugrana have managed almost nothing against Espanyol, at home or away, and certainly nothing even approaching acceptable for a team with so much talent.
However, today was a destructive force that we would have been hard-pressed to find or even hope for after the Hercules loss or the Mallorca draw. But now the engines are throbbing in perfect motion. Where once we had complacency and missed opportunities there are perfect passes, defensive cohesion, and offensive imagination. Some might say it’s that Messi has come on since then, now with 17 goals and 11 assists in La Liga this year or that Villa finally started to integrate more fully into the side or even that Xavi seems to be healthy after achilles problems early in the year. I however believe the culprit is something much less tangible and focused and is more a team-wide complete integration resulting in a side that can outscore its two fiercest rivals 10-1 in derbies, captured first in its UCL group, and has outscored opponents 44-4 in 11 games since drawing with Copenhagen on November 2nd. In short, this is the type of side that can come to Espanyol, attack a rival, bludgeon them even when they are playing their best football in many years, and do something than even 6 trophy side couldn’t do.
Now moving on to the goal, since it will likely be the most discussed occurrence of the night. Firstly we must remember that any time you play a high line with as many as 7 attackers, you will be vulnerable to the counter-attack. Now, was it anyone’s “fault”? That’s more difficult to say. Mostly because establishing fault in a team sport where one player did not absolutely shit the bed is almost impossible. Was it Alves’s for taking a bad angle coming back? What about Pique and Abidal for keeping him onside? Puyol for getting masterfully beaten by Osvaldo and failing to keep up? Or Valdes for not coming out more quickly? Well it’s all hard to say on this goal, but it seemed to me to be a well-played ball that Osvaldo ran on to, that none of our players were capable of stopping. When playing Puyol we know that he is getting slower, we know that Alves takes bad angles sometimes, and the chances of Valdes reaching that ball or altering the outcome in the event that he comes out earlier are slim, at best. I give Espanyol credit for making this play and don’t necessarily “fault” one player other than our general style of play, which hadn’t allowed a goal in more than a month.
The positive of doing a post-mortem and not a review is that I can talk generally about what the match means and not just review the goals and big plays, which I abhor doing. Problem here is that we only have one more match before a short holiday break and we know our boys are wont to shit the bed after breaks. So let’s hope that is not the case here.
Oh player ratings. Well, football is a team sport, so ratings for individual players, in my opinion, are meaningless. The arbitrariness of assigning a number based on a player’s supposed performance for a game is a giant factor counseling against such a system. Do you rate Pique today as a 5 or a 7 or an 8? Well, he missed a ball that came through that led to a half chance for Espanyol but was stalwart after that, providing the class Piquebauer we know and love. What about Puyol? He’s a leader and a wonderful defender who sprays balls around, but he also got lapped on Osvaldo’s goal; 4 or 7? What about Villa? Well he had 4 goalscoring chances at least, 2 of which succeeded. Then the refrains come that he isn’t playing well or something like that, until you realize that his spacing and work with Messi have been staggering of late and he made at least 3 splendid runs on goal. However he was in and out during the first half, so 3, 5, 7, or 8? You see my predicament. The point is that without Xavi or Messi, Villa and Pedro wouldn’t have scored. And without defensive lapses in front of him, Valdes would have never been put into that position. Unless a glaring or glistening performance of such magnitude arrives that it shocks the conscience, then it’s usually safe to rate everyone as a 6 or 7 on a win and rate the team accordingly. Thus, I would say this match results in an 8.5 rating. It was about as strong as we can get, and even the goal was just one of those things that happens. It also came against Espanyol. This was simply a work of art.
Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images Europe
Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images Europe