I woke up from a nap, and Eric Abidal was there. No. Right by my sofa. I ran. Hopped in the car, went to the hardware store, and Abidal was there. Just looking at me, waiting for me to do something. It freaked me out, so I ran to my car, and heard the keyless entry chirp. Abidal pressed the button. How he got my keys, I’ll never know.
Ahhh, it feels good to come back from a break and vex folks by picking Abidal as MOTM over Pedro!!, who scored a brace and the winning margin, but that’s life in the big city. Because every time (except for one) that Levante was threatening, Abidal was there. Even Valdes panicked a couple of times, but not Abidal, who was our best player on the pitch today. Was his play a penalty at minute 20? Some say yes, others say no. The ref said no, and I’m inclined to agree, from what I saw.
Yes. P!! scored two. But what of the player whose omnipresence prevents goals? Valid question.
It was Levante, folks, a team that when last seen was having eight goals dropped on them by EE. Working in their favor: rage, vacations, injuries and suspension, a determination not to be shamed again and the fact that defensive football can hold off offensive football …. for a while. So they rolled out with that “Okay, there will be none of that now” tactic that Athletic Bilbao worked to perfection, determined pressure and defense in depth. And for that tactic to work, you need a lackluster, vacation-bleary Barcelona squad who started the match down to 10 men.
Guardiola’s selction was Valdes, Alves, Busquets, Abidal, Maxwell, Mascherano, Xavi, Iniesta, Pedro!!, Krkic and Villa. Yes, there were a couple of odd bits, including Busquets as a central defender. But it was almost certainly going to work, because of the pitbull-like presence of Mascherano, and the fact that Levante really had no interest in doing much of anything except defending what they rolled in with: a point. And we were complicit in their efforts by leaving the “On Vacation” sign hung out, looking for all intents and purposes like a clunky, funky team that left its sharpness in various European holiday spots.
Because here’s the thing: For there to be ball movement, there has to be movement. And I’m particularly indiciting our forwards today, who lacked sharpness. Villa was walking around, playing a mostly sulky, selfish, pouty match, walking when he should have been running. Krkic decided to make like a statue, and stand in that spot right at the shoulder of the defense, forsaking the very thing that provides him with at least a shot at playing against grownups. And Pedro!! was back to headless chicken mode. So yes, we had more than 70 percent of the possession, with nobody showing any real interest in making a goal happen.
So after 20 minutes in which Levante had better chances than we did, Iniesta took matters into his own hands, twice creating moments of brilliance that should have been goals. That the half ended scoreless was due to appalling finishing, desultory movement and a Levante side that didn’t take either of the very good chances that it had. Whew!
But for the second half, we rolled out a livelier bunch, with a notable addition that came from a substitution that I wouldn’t have made: Thiago for Mascherano. And I wouldn’t have made it because Krkic was dire, and showed no signs of improvement. I would have brought Thiago in, but for him. At any rate, the consequence of not only the Thiago sub but a side with a high-quality rant still ringing in their ears was much better ball movement and real, actual player movement …. well, from Pedro!!, anyhow. And when Alves received a pass in the box with acres of shooting space, he just dribbled, and dribbled, and waited and passed to P!!, who is never shy about shooting. And in about the same space that gave Alves pause, P!! blasted a goal, demonstrating that when in doubt, shoot. Because you never know what might happen. It was 1-0, and there was much rejoicing.
And minutes later, we had our second goal thanks to another P!! rocket, as the Alves to Pedro!! connection looked to be in full effect. But it’s worth noting that brilliant passes from Xavi opened up the Levante defense in both instances. The first one found Alves onside in the Levante box, a pass with millimeter-perfect weight that got to Alves just before the onrushing Levante defender. Perhaps his shooting paralysis was due to being stunned that the ball actually got there. The second was a ball in space to Krkic, who had one of those Gudjohnsen-like “What do I do with this thing” moments, before rolling it over to Alves, who fed the man who actually did know what to do.
It was 2-0 and we were on cruise control, going back to 11 men when, right after Xavi put the ball directly onto Krkic’s foot only to have him fall down and lose it, Guardiola inserted Keita for some midfield steel. Was this his way of saying “My bad” on the Mascherano substitution? Perhaps. Or maybe he had it planned all along. Either way, he probably wasn’t anticipating Levante deciding to make things interesting by scoring. They’d fired a warning shot across our bow by previously taking advantage of a long ball over our midfield pressure-fest, only to have Valdes easily save the rocket of a header. Would Mascherano have prevented the goal? Good question. Maybe he would actually have been back, where Alves and Milito were playing a game of “After you, my dear Alphonse,” and suddenly one hell of a golazo meant that the match was interesting again. And where was Keita? Another good question.
But it was 2-1, and Levante had life. They came out of their shell and began to play football, rolling forward with something that wasn’t quite abandon, but was certainly interest in seeing how the grass was on our side of the pitch. More frustrating was that the goal came after Villa wasted a brilliant opportunity by screwing about with the ball, instead of just shooting it. It could have again been 3-1 as Villa took a pass and rolled toward the goal with absolutely zero intention of even looking at the conga line of players holding themselves onside, waiting for the pass that should have been made. Yes, he got the corner. No, nothing came of it.
And suddenly, the match was over after a series of heart attack-inducing long balls from Levante, aimed at taking advantage of our seemingly soft center. It was a desultory 3 points, but 3 points nonetheless. Almost two weeks is plenty of time to lose sharpness, as we so capably demonstrated, but not enough time for Levante to develop the killer instinct to take full advantage of us. Which is a very good thing.
Team: 5. A win despite itself, as the side played with precious little sharpness, urgency and cohesiveness. The Thiago injection helped a lot in getting things back on the right track.
Guardiola: 7. Right lineup, though pretty much the only one that he could have called upon, and the right substitutions, even if they didn’t quite work out the way he intended. But I have no idea why he left Krkic on for as long as he did.
Valdes: 7. Strong saves and good play, though he tried to gift Levante a goal with a silly clearance. Yes, you can laud his ambition in the spanked outlet pass, but the player was covered all day and all night.
Alves: 7. Good defense, good passing and some nifty steals, but shoot Dani, shoot! The goal-scoring window is a small one, and he who hesitates is lost. Boy, did he miss him some Messi, but adapted to P!! very well.
Busquets: 7. He deserves more love than he will get for a wide-ranging performance that consisted of him doing what he does: Be a thorn in the side of the other side’s attack. He was equally strong with and without Mascherano, too, which blows one theory of mine out of the water.
Abidal: 9. That scuffed shot was riduculous. Pique so would have scored that one. Other than that, he was extraordinary, and our best player on the pitch for the entire match duration. He is so calm with the ball, easily dribbling his way out of defensive danger, running down players, stealing balls and intercepting long passes. He plays CB as he does LB, with the entire pitch, from sideline to sideline, as his playground.
Maxwell: 4. Kind of anonymous. Levante wasn’t offering much from the attacking side but when they did, Maxwell was like a turnstile. And he didn’t make up for it with attacking flair, either.
Mascherano: 7. Solid and omnipresent, even coming up into the attack and facilitating the short passing game that makes our club go. Guardiola has to start finding more playing time for him. He just makes everything in the middle so difficult for an opponent.
Xavi: 8. He was a little slow on a number of passes. Yes, he completed more passes by himself than the entire Levante team, but he’s been sharper. He seemed buoyed by the arrival of Thiago. Yes in his defense, the players weren’t making runs as they should have been. So get in their faces, Captain.
Iniesta: 8. An excellent match. He was full of danger, inventiveness and movement. I do wish he wasn’t so fond of that end line dive move, but what are you going to do? He, Xavi and Thiago were constant danger. I can only imagine how they would have fared with actual, functioning forwards.
Pedro!!: 7. He picked it up a lot in the second half. In the first, his movement was way off, and he wasn’t reading the match as he usually does, including one glaring error off a Levante inbounds play that resulted in a dangerous chance for them. Two lovely goals and excellent movement, once he got into the match. Fearless and accurate are qualities that you want in an attacker.
Krkic: 2. He gets credit for the pass to Alves, even though it came as a consequence of his own uncertainty. He was just terrible today, too small to play like a 9 even though he kept trying. And the full-sized Levante players just knocked him out of the way, and he whined. His movement and control on the move are brilliant, so why give those up by being so static? Notice also the times that he gets the ball at the top of, or just inside the box, and runs away from goal.
Villa: 4. Selfish, static and petulant was how I would describe his match today. He did some good things, including a few runs and some excellent tracking back on defense. But it’s worth noting for Villa that when he has the ball, he has teammates. He passes back to Messi, but when Messi isn’t out there, he takes on too much by himself.
Thiago (for Mascherano): 9. Would you all just promote this dude already? Why keep screwing around? “He has more growing to do,” says Guardiola. Perhaps, but he picked the team up today, providing a jolt of electricity when it was needed. He was passing, shooting, stealing, defending and moving like a player who sure looks ready to me.
Keita (for Krkic): 5. Helpful in the midfield possession role, his quality seems to be diminished by a lack of reps, as he wasn’t his usual fluent, athletic self out there. Partly in his defense, Levate’s Route One footy disabled many of his strengths.
Milito (for Maxwell): 5. Having a hand in conceding a goal mere minutes after your entry is not exactly what I would call ingratiating behavior. Solid after that, and might have played to a higher rating.
And yes, the Xavi tribute was magic.