Years from now, when people are looking back on this club, irrespective of any silver that it might or might not have won, irrespective of any stars that don the shirt, it will be matches such as this one, the decider in a Copa del Rey semifinal that was decisively decided by a Camp Nou manita, that define the side.
It doesn’t matter who is on the pitch, it’s still Barca. It’s still a way of playing, a way of moving, of defending, of comportment, of winning. Almeria rolled out the same side that got hammered at our house for the home leg, hoping for a Betis — that is, a pride victory in a match that we don’t really care about. But unlike the Betis match, Guardiola rolled out the subs, players who don’t have to save anything for a weekend tie or looong season.
And it was 0-3, 8-0 on aggregate, and a trip to the Copa del Rey final to face one Evil Empire for the opportunity to grab our second piece of silver of the season.
When people point to our dominance of La Liga, leaving off the fact of whether it’s bad, good or indifferent, this match will be their evidence. Guardiola rolled out a side that featured only two starters, Pinto, Alves, Busquets, Milito, Adriano, Mascherano, Keita, Thiago, Afellay, Nolito, Krkic, but it still played like Barca. Almeria came out with its Liga-contending side, and got its butt handed to it.
The match wasn’t all that exciting, really, because we played like a club with a 5-0 aggregate lead in the tie: confident, willing to absorb some pressure and not work super hard because with a 5-goal cushion, there wasn’t any real danger. But it was definitely a chance for people to show what they have. Phil Schoen is usually a barely sufferable blowhard, but in this instance, he was right in saying that the lineup was filled with players who have a shot to shine, to demonstrate their skills. Nolito wants to stay, Thiago to prove his promotion wasn’t a fluke. Afellay is still settling in, but his pedigree has been proven. Milito stayed, and wants more time, Krkic is just trying to play his way out of an epic funk, Pinto wants another year as our No. 2 keeper.
So even though there wasn’t anything at stake or any real danger, there was incentive aplenty and they played like Barca. The passing wasn’t as precise, the tika-taka not as jaw-dropping. But make no mistake, Thiago’s through balls were every bit as incisive and thoughtful as Xavi’s, full of just as much danger. Milito charged forward like Piquenbauer, setting up attack after attack, and Almeria suffered. The three goals were all scored in very special ways, by people who all had reasons to be giddy with unalloyed delight. Let’s have a look.
Dude is getting some serious stick for not being Dani Alves, something that is profoundly unfair. He isn’t Dani Alves, he’s Adriano. Or more precisely, Here Adriano. He is his own player, a fast, physical jack of all trades who came up as a wing attacker, a skill set he demonstrated when he took the pass, dribbled and ran through four defenders, and smoked an angled shot past a charging keeper. This was his first goal for the club, and so fitting that the first one was also a memorable one. And in this case he wasn’t Dani Alves, he was in his own way better, while doing something that we all wish Dani Alves would do more often. And he exulted, as he should have.
Next season, Thiago Alcantara will be with the first team. But this season, because we’re so stacked at his position, he has been sent back down to the B team so that he can get the playing time that will enhance his development. And only a fool would say that the player likes it, so it’s easy to see this starting role as our midfield metronome as an opportunity for him to say “This is what you’re going to be getting next season, only better!” And here again, he’s being made out to be a player other than himself, The Next Xavi. Maybe we should think of him a a pretty darned good Thiago, because as Dani Alves lofted a lovely cross toward him, we were all thinking the same thing: a headed goal? No way. Way! And not just a headed goal, but a mid-air beauty of an angled header with power and placement, a stunner of a goal that sent Ray Ray into linguistic spasms of delight. And well it should have. It was a Barca goal, but a Barca goal of the future, less tika-taka and more swashbuckling. It was also a delight.
The new kid on the block started his second match for the side, in a role that takes advantage of his strengths as a direct player. In a way, he has the least pressure of anyone on the club, because he only cost 3 million. That means that even if he can’t take two steps without falling down, dude only cost 3 million, yo! Give him some time! Except he doesn’t need time. He has burst upon the field as if to the manor born, playing like a Masia graduate even though for the first part of this season, he plied his trade in the Eredivisie. His goal was also a thing of beauty, a dynamic, explosive run that showed what a direct player he is, and a bomb of a shot that smoked past the keeper. It was his first for the colors, and it won’t be his last. Not by a long shot, because this kid, who we have nicknamed 3M, is a keeper. And he scored a dream of a goal for his dream club, so why not be stunned and amazed.
Now for the rest:
Team: 7. It did what it had to do, and did it with style. The shutout was a matter of pride in a match where it would have been easy to relax and concede a goal or two because after all, we aren’t going to concede six, right? Instead the side rocked Almeria’s house, actually and figuratively.
Guardiola: 10. Yes, perfect. Who said he doesn’t rotate? Not only that, he rested his key players before a huge match, and probably said to Messi “I know you want to play all the time, but not today. You need a rest.” He rolled out a defensively offensive lineup that found a way to get Busquets, Keita and Mascherano on the pitch at the same time, in a side that he motivated to play well and hard in a tie that was a foregone conclusion.
Pinto: 5. Shaky distribution and positioning. He wasn’t tested that much, which was probably just as well.
Alves: 7. Despite his ignoring us when we said that he should never, ever take free kicks again, he had a very strong match on both ends of the pitch, setting up offense, including an assist to Thiago, and playing very strong defensively. Best right back in the world? Debatable. Best right back for us? No question.
Busquets: 9. Another sterling match from a player who is starting to get some of the credit that he deserves, but not all of it. He played center back alongside Milito today, as the roamer who has to account for an absent Alves. And he was amazing, stopping, stealing, harassing, defending and attacking, in a Man of the Match performance.
Milito: 7. This was the best match that I have seen him play in some time, as he showed off the ball skills and aggression that brand him as an Argentine defender.
Adriano: 6. A brilliantly taken goal, but he’s still showing some positional deficiencies that may never rectify themselves, as he continues to slot in wherever needed, so get used to it. His offense is stronger than his defense, it must be noted.
Mascherano: 8. The thug is in the house. Anything that came near him, he took, and not much came near him because Almeria’s attacking mostly came up the wings, or via long balls that tried to bypass the midfield. Nonetheless, from defending to passing, a wonderful match by a consummate professional.
Keita: 7. Speaking of professionals, Huh? What? again showed why Guardiola likes him so much. He was there in a thankless, glory-free role, as the guy who helps the guy who helps the guy — a human backboard, a simple linchpin in our possession game. Be physical, and hold the ball. “You got it, coach.”
Thiago: 7. A fine, fine match as he came out in a way that makes it clear that he isn’t the Next Xavi, but the First Thiago. His command and control weren’t as comprehensive as the Maestro, but his danger was every bit as acute. He has that same amazing eye for passing angles, to boot.
Afellay: 8. We see by now that the stiffness is just the way that he plays, a style that suits our club even as it adds something special: directness. 3M is like a shark toward goal, the midfield version of Pedro!!. He’s talented with the ball at his feet, and is fast learning a difficult, intricate system. He’s even tracking back and playing defense. Hard not to like.
Nolito: 5. A work in progress, and one who ultimately might not have the necessary skill set to stick with the club. He plays too fast, like Jeffren, and is guilty of trying to gild the lily, to get that perfect position instead of just making a play. Still adjusting to the speed of Liga defenders, too.
Krkic: 3. Started brightly, then faded into his usual ineffectual lack of even adequacy, leaving two goals begging, including one late in the match that he’s still probably wondering how he didn’t score. Whether it’s confidence that needs to be buttressed or a skill set that just isn’t going to cut in La Liga is for folks to debate. What I know is that for this match, it was the same, tentative Krkic who can’t hold his position, and goes to ground entirely too easily. And he disappears for long stretches of the match. He’s becoming the player that people don’t want to pass to, and that’s a fatal thing for a striker.
Pique (for Busquets): 6. He didn’t have a lot to do and he did it well, in a performance that would have been headed for a higher rating in a full match. He wasn’t as omnipresent as Busquets, but he didn’t have to be. He was playing a very different match than Busquets, as suits his role as pure defender. And we switched to command/control mode in the second half, content to keep Almeria from vexing us too much.
Now comes anxiety time, as EE took care of Sevilla, setting up a whole passel of Clasicos: Copa final, away leg in Liga and Super Copa. I don’t even want to deal with the possibility of a Champions League matchup as well. My brain can only take so much. And that’s what I know.