This match took about four years off my life. Is anyone fully aware of the steel that this side has now? We began to see it against Copenhagen in their house, as they played what is still the most aggressive, physical, pressing match against us, and we nabbed a draw. We stared Espanyol down in their house and put five on them. And today, Bilbao in the San Mames, a place where their men become lions, able to run a little faster, press a little harder and feel less fatigue ….
and we advanced in what was a draining, positively brutal match. Bilbao came out with all guns blazing, defending in depth, giving every player who touched the ball a little extra kick or shove, rooted in the theory that the ref won’t call everything. To our credit, we didn’t whine, grumble, dive or call for cards. We just went about our business, and took care of business.
And suffice it to say, I’m pretty sure I won’t get any argument about Man of the Match this time ’round, his second in a row, Eric Abidal.
It took 130 Barcelona matches for Abidal to score his goal, and what a goal it was. Now, I don’t want this to read like an ode to our French Greyhound, and I want to say right off that he was complicit in the goal that Bilbao scored, in a lapse of concentration that could have been fatal to our chances. But the man was everywhere. The Bilbao fans even tried to take him out by hitting him in the head with a cookie, of all things, thrown from the stands. To no avail. He got up, and resumed his task of destroying every hope that Bilbao had of scoring, then topping it off by scoring himself. I’m surprised he didn’t eat the cookie.
Fast learner? For sure. Recall the awful scuffed shot against Levante just this past weekend, compared to the way that he spanked the ball in this time, taking advantage of the space created for him by Messi, a man who wasn’t going to let his club lose today. He fought the lions like a lion for the ball, won it back and slid it to Abidal, who made no mistake. Messi deserves just as much credit for that goal as Abidal. There aren’t many players around with the foot speed, control and tenacity to win that ball back, then have the presence of mind to have already surveyed the field. Don’t discount the amazing diagonal ball from Xavi to Messi, either.
And the Greyhound shall lead them.
Full credit to Bilbao, who got in our faces like few teams have. They didn’t get our best game today, but they got our best effort. We stuck out our chests and in effect said “We aren’t playing like the best club side in the world right now, but we’re still better than you.” Then we proved it by playing through a knife fight. Bilbao wanted this match. Bad. And for the first time in a loooong time, we have a coach who has instilled in these players the backbone that allows them to face up to anything. Kind of makes you wonder how Hercules came into our house and stole one, doesn’t it?
Bilbao fans will say that we skated through on the away goals rule. I say had it gone to extra time, we would have scored again. But it didn’t come to that, in what was a flat-out barn burner of a match. Guardiola wanted this one. You could tell, as he rolled out with an excellent side of Pinto, Alves, Pique, Abidal, Adriano, Busquets, Keita, Xavi, Pedro!!, Messi and Villa. In effect, he traded possession for steel. Keita isn’t Iniesta, but he was just the thing to team with Busquets, and destroy everything. Bilbao resorted to lobbing long balls up the pitch, to bypass the agile, long-legged, two man black hole that sucked everything in.
And Bilbao were defending like fiends, helped by our front line that was still shaking off the vacation blues. Messi was dribbling too much, the runs weren’t materializing and when they did, the passes were off. Then suddenly, gloriously, it all came good as Alves dropped a ball directly onto Villa’s head, and he hammered it …. right at the Bilbao keeper, who to his credit played an excellent match. Defending headers is a simple matter of geometry and axes. Pass to player’s head and the only possible angle is this one, then you stand there. The best headers of the ball can evaluate and strike the ball a glancing blow, which from Villa would have beaten Iraizoz like a gong. Instead, it was a drama-free save.
We kept possession, pressed and pried as their defenders stuck legs out, got bodies in the way and defended their goal in front of their fans, in their house, as if their lives depended on it. And when they got the ball, we won it back and pressed some more, until in the 77th minute, we finally broke the lock. That they came back to score against us was inevitable and frankly, deserved. A beautiful ball caught Abidal in a moment of indecision. He’d been easily dealing with those all match, but was caught pinched in a bit too far toward the center of the pitch.
Yes, the rest of the defense let the runners converge on the ball without lifting a finger to stop anything. Team goal, as most that we concede are. But garbage in, garbage out as for a couple of seconds, Abidal was the trash man. And Bilbao kept pressing for the winner, for the 2-1 margin that would nab the match for them, and our defense did its best to help, by popping headers into the air and defending with uncertainty. Bilbao tried to take advantage, to no avail. There was mutual respect shown after the match, deservedly so. It was 0-0 for a long time, but anyone who says that it was boring, needs their head examined.
I would be remiss if I didn’t castigate Bilbao a bit for their playacting. No quarter was given, so none should be asked. Yet every time we came near one of their players, he fell down as if shot. Even Llorente resorted to trying to draw a late penalty with a ridiculous dive. Do these things detract from their incredible effort? No. But it’s hard to give them the full respect. Yes, a side will do any, all and everything to win against us. I fully understand that. But it doesn’t make it right, or palatable. If you’re going to kick us, you can’t whine and roll around on the pitch at the slightest contact. You just can’t. And fittingly, the toughest, roughest gladiator on the pitch, killed them.
“The most unlikely goal scorer,” as one announcer called Eric Abidal, correctly so. But it was going to take an extraordinary moment such as that, as Bilbao were not going to let the usual suspects beat them. But that’s been the story for us this season, winning the matches that we have to and responding to every challenge, every gauntlet that someone slams down. Perhaps the problem with Hercules was that we didn’t take them seriously. Where was the challenge? But this was different, and it was extraordinary. We have been pretty before, and fast, and flamboyant and exquisite to watch. But we have become psychic thugs, a quality instilled by Pep Guardiola. Is the road to the final now easy, with a second El Clasic to look foward to, with silver on the line? Let’s not disrespect potential opponents like that.
But only a fool wouldn’t say that signs are very positive, signs made possible by pretty boys who are now men.
Team: 8. Individual weakness, collective strength as even players who weren’t having a particularly good match bit, kicked, scratched and fought, playing through negative tactics then taking the other fighter’s best shot.
Guardiola: 9. Right lineup, right substitutions. And his emotion was real as Villa missed a scoring chance that I still don’t know how he missed. He understands when to let the players see him, and when to return to the bench.
Pinto: 7. Fine play and some very good saves, as he patrolled his box with style. But he was a bit slow in his decision making on that goal, a play that Valdes probably makes.
Alves: 5. Some good moments, his best being the header that Villa wasted. For a guy playing for a contract renewal, he hasn’t been all that inspiring of late. He also seemed sluggish getting back, and responding to the Bilbao counters that mostly came to his side.
Pique: 5. Erratic, and his passing was off. He hardened up late in the match, but was a far cry from being the bulwark that we expect. It’s no coincidence that he improved when Puyol entered the match.
Abidal: 8. He should have been more decisive on that goal. Yes, he had a lot of space to play and yes, it was a brilliant ball, but still. Having said that, he was MOTM today, and nobody else was even close. I have said before that he is, match in and match out, our most consistent defender. Now he might also be our best defender.
Adriano: 4. He seemed to run out of energy, a trait that we’ve all noticed before. And he didn’t give us a lot when he had his energy. There were some nice plays, but he still doesn’t seem very comfortable with defending, and it showed. Abidal saved his bacon a few times.
Busquets: 8. An excellent match. He can be a destroyer or he can be a facilitator. Usually during any given match he is both, but I always enjoy watching him as a pure defensive mid, because he’s so frustrating. He gets fouled because the opponent just loses it. Reads the flow of an attack very well, for ball stops and/or steals.
Keita: 8. That man worked like a dog today. He got into the side and showed why in a better world or on a lesser team, he’d be an automatic starter. From box to box, defendending, controlling, passing, even going in hard to give Bilbao defenders a taste of their own medicine, it was hard not to love his match today.
Xavi: 7. As always, the Puppetmaster controlled things, even as it was clear that he missed his pale partner in crime, Iniesta. More than a few times the incessant, physical Bilbao pressure got the better of him. Really settled when Iniesta entered the match.
Pedro!!: 7. Was plagued by intermittent invisibility, but what an all-pitch match. He looked to be flagging a bit toward the end which is understandable, as he ran like a crazy person from offense to defense and back again, stopping Bilbao on one end, taking a pass and trying to set up a teammate on the other end.
Messi: 6. Aside from a few wondrous moments, he was off his game today. Duh. It was his first match back after vacation. Too much keeping of the ball and not quite enough consistent movement. But man, what an assist!
Villa: 2. For every good thing that he did, he followed it with two bad things. I liked the all-pitch effort, as he tracked back like a defender. But he simply has to score goals. In a match such as this, we don’t get that many chances. He had two glorious ones, and hit them both directly at the keeper. Strikers will have periods like this. Kinda puts the Ibrahimovic slump in perspective, doesn’t it?
Iniesta (for Adriano): 7. He entered the match, and suddenly we kept the ball a lot more and looked a lot more dangerous. Amazing what giving Xavi a partner in crime will do for the side. He wasn’t making as many hurtful runs, focussing instead on possession.
Puyol (for Xavi): 5. This was trading back line fire for possession and control, as Bilbao began to press harder and look more threatening. It also allowed Abidal to move to left back, his preferred position. Was a bit sluggish, and an on-form Captain Caveman doesn’t allow that goal.
Afellay (for Villa): incomplete. Don’t think he even touched the ball, but what a match to be dropped into.
Beyond that, there ain’t a whole lot to say that this doesn’t already say.