So it was about 947 kinds of awesome how we lost our first match in 28 of ’em, a meaningless impossibility against Betis, and everyone started wondering about our invincibility, do we secretly suck, etc, etc. And in rolled Racing Santander, a side who our own Guardiolus gave full-time credit to, saying they play like Betis, only they’re actually in the Primera, so we’re as worried as a long-tailed cat at an ax convention about these dudes. Really. Fo’ sho’. Aieeee!
And it took about 90 seconds
minutes for the club to put those worries to bed, which was about the time it took for the Messi/Villa/Pedro!! combo platter to gut the Racing defense and bang in a goal that (yes, it did) had just a sniff of offside to it.
From that goal, the match was ovah, done and put to bed, because Racing were doing the usual: defending in depth, playing turtle and hoping to cadge something on a counterattack, but that wasn’t going to happen now, was it? So it didn’t, and we won even after cutting back to about 3/4 speed by halftime.
As much as I like to natter on, there really isn’t a whole lot to say about this match. It isn’t that winning is becoming routine. I, and hopefully you all as well, enjoy every second of watching this amazing side create beauty on a football pitch. They do it at high speed, they do it at low speed. They get from end to end with 4 passes, or 24 passes. Sometimes goals are scored, other times just “Oooooh!” moments that you wish were goals, so that you could relive them for eternity on YouTube. And this doesn’t even get into the moments of individual brilliance, through balls, passes, episodes of control that make you marvel. Of this, my favorites in recent memory came from Xavi, who rode challenges from two different Racing defenders to spin, keep the ball and continue on and Iniesta, who at about 65 minutes into this match, just destroys a cadre of Racing defenders with control so sublime, the mind boggles.
The lineup was a serious one, as Guardiolus chose Valdes, Adriano, Puyol, Abidal, Maxwell, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Pedro!!, Messi and Villa. The objective was to take nothing for granted, while honoring the pace-y counters of Racing by having Abidal in the center of the pitch, where he can bail out everybody and their mamas, which he proceeded to do.
So let’s marvel at some goals, shall we?
1. Messi dribbles, makes a little run and slides a pass to Villa who feeds it back to Messi, who lobs a perfect pass for the chest of Pedro!!. Pretty simple, right? Then you look, and realize that there are 9 Racing defenders plus their keeper in the box. So the passes that happened had to do so at a full run, and perfectly, because any time spent controlling the ball would have a defender on top of you, or in the way. So as with a practice pitch dare, that’s what happened. Messi runs, lays the ball to Villa whose return pass is in the exact spot that it needs to be for Messi to continue his dart to the end line, and scoop the ball with a running motion, toward P!!.
2. For those who might forget, we have a defender on loan to Racing Santander. Some refer to him as Henrique. To me, he’s Gone Adriano, because we have Here Adriano, playing at right back. So G.A. recently said that he has progressed to a point where he is ready to compete for a spot in the side. And that may well be, but he’ll have to do it naked, since David Villa undressed him with a series of moves that culminated in a “now you see it, now you don’t” ball drag that found Henrique tripping Villa in the box, and earning a penalty kick that Messi promptly converted. And admit it, after the Betis blowup, you were a little worried, weren’t you? Not to be. He even planned on scoring, using a traning top that would cost us mere mortals some EUR40-50, to say hi to Mommy.
3. Yet another goal in which Villa was involved (yes, that’s all three of ’em), as he darts up the left, slides a pass to P!!, who does the only thing that he possibly could to get the ball there with a minimum of stress, a delicate backheel to Iniesta, who spanked a shot that took a deflection past the keeper. What made this goal so lovely was not only the speed of the attack, but the fact that we such a direct team. You don’t often think of back heels as being direct, but if it’s the most effective passing option, we take it and deal with the showboating accusations later. Only they rarely come, because everything makes sense as it has to happen at speed.
But our defense had to show up as well, and so it did. Adriano was continuing his stand-in role for the injured Dani Alves by ladling on a cauldron full of frustration. But no matter what happened or where it happened, our French Greyhound was on the case. He bailed out Puyol, he bailed out Adriano. He intercepted balls, took long passes on his chest, pillowing the ball to his feet where he calmly played it to safety. And he leapt.
The club throttled back, for the obvious reason that Racing, at 0-2 down, were playing as if they were protecting a similar lead. It isn’t even that teams want to keep us from scoring these days. They seem to want to keep it from being embarrassing.
And to be fully fair to Racing Santander, they played hard, working like dogs at trying to control Xavi in an effort to keep him from picking their side apart. They were reasonably effective at this, which freed up Iniesta to destroy with through balls, movement and pinpoint passing. When they decided to keep Ghostface from killing them, Xavi took over and the machine continued.
Do I think that this team is unplayable? No. Teams have done it this season, most recently Bilbao. But you have to resolve to not score anything, committing everyone to the defensive task, to keep us out. And still, it rarely works. So now what? Good question. Ratings, for one thing:
Team: 7. Mostly powerful and convincing, with some moments of weakness that allowed Racing more possession than we usually allow teams, almost as if they weren’t taking this one as seriously. But when the motor was running, it was beautiful.
Guardiola: 9. This would have been a 10, but you forgot how many subs you’d made? Come on. Really? Getting the side ready to play after a loss seemed to be an easy notion, because the players were hungry. But keeping from trying too hard, getting too tight and making the right subs, you had to do.
Valdes: 8. Brilliant in his role as sweeper keeper, including bolting out of his box to keep what could have been dangerous balls from becoming nothing more than a passing exercise. And quite the amazing reflex save off Adrian’s header. The only thing keeping him from perfection is that he didn’t have much to do.
Adriano: 3. Not as bad as the Betis match, but note that the right side of our offense has ceased to be a place of productivity. Static and in the wrong spot, with absurd shots and the wrong shot when right on the doorstep. I know he isn’t Alves, but at least be the best Adriano he can be.
Puyol: 5. Solid, but beaten like a drum for pace on more than a few occasions. He usually solves this with superior positioning, but that wasn’t happening today.
Abidal: 8. Ye gods, what a match. Took a gamble on the steal of a Racing pass that didn’t pan out, and put the side in danger. Aside from that, he was in monster mode, making the continuing argument for a slide into the center, once his wing pace diminishes.
Maxwell: 5. Better, but still not convincing. I like his positional sense, and he was more involved in the offense today. But for too much of the time today, he played like a newcomer to the side, tentative and uncertain.
Busquets: 6. Good match overall that featured some distressing, “Bad Busi” moments that gifted Racing possession in the wrong end of the pitch, namely our end. But so strong defensively, coupled with that wondrous sense of where the ball is about to be.
Xavi: 7. Despite some uncharacteristic looseness, and stopping play in expectation of fouls that never came, a fine match from our metronome. He didn’t dominate the midfield, but he did with his mere presence. And whenever he slipped his shackles, it was to devastating effect.
Iniesta: 9. A healthy, fully functional Iniesta is an absolute marvel. This is his second goal off a shot from distance, again off a ball rolled across the box to take advantage of a packed-back defense. The force field is down.
Pedro!!: 7. As involved as he has been in the fluidity and creativity of the offense, rather than taking full advantage of the end result of that offense. And suddenly it’s more more attacker who is immensely dangerous, as capable of making a perfect pass as shooting for goal.
Messi: 6. Man, he lost a lot of balls today, and created a lot of brilliance, and evinced quite a bit of selfishness as he seems to get focused on scoring goals. And he wasn’t always his usual leonine self when it came to getting it back. It’s most obvious when Messi throttles back.
Villa: 5. Yes, he was involved in all three goals, but his moments of bad control, not making runs or the wrong run, frustrated. It was a one step forward, two steps back kind of day for Villa.
Pique (for Puyol): 8. Easily his best performance in some time. Simply put, he owned. Any ball that came near him, he stole. Any long pass that floated his way, he headed away. Where has this dude been all season?
Keita (for Xavi): 8. Brilliant, and with more time would have played to higher rating. This is exactly the use for Keita, human backboard to reset offenses, anticipator who understands where the ball is going to be, and security blanket for Busquets.
Krkic (for Pedro!!): incomplete. Thankfully, this appearance was brief. In but a few minutes, he was horrible. Bad movement, loose control, he was where good attacks went to die. Guardiola said that if Krkic’s teammates had gotten him the ball during his last outing, he would have had three goals. So they got him the ball today, and he either turned the wrong way, stumbled over it or got fouled. Awful.
The busy period continues, folks, with a midweek Copa encounter with Almeria, then the return match away against Hercules, a date that is guaranteed to be circled in red on everyone’s calendar. And until then, how about a midget high five?