Leave to the irrepressible Ray Hudson to sum up this match far better than I, when he said, simply enough, “Defenders broken, goalkeeper ravaged,” because that was the kind of day that it was, a record-breaking, magical day at the Camp Nou, in the house of an amazing, amazing team.
–Messi scored a hat trick and took over the undisputed pichichi lead
–Our beloved club broke the Liga record for consecutive victories, with 16
It was also a crazy, crazy day that gave Guardiola plenty of ammunition for his pre-match talk. Presumably, all that he had to do was post a quartet of scores: Newcastle 4/Arsenal 4; Wolverhampton 2/United 1; Levante 1/Villarreal 0; Almeria 3/Espanyol 2. This a crazy, upset-rich day in world football that was, fittingly, made right by the best club in the world. We didn’t just beat Atletico, we owned them as yet another club concedes an early goal, but continues to play not to get hammered, as if victory is completely out of the question. No, we can’t just show up and win. But once we get that first goal, the psychological weight wreaks havoc with game plans and psyches.
And then there’s Messi.
You people with a sense of history will remember Michael Jordan. For those of you who don’t, he was the best player on the six-time champion Chicago Bulls. He was also the hardest worker, in practice and in games, a man who set an unassailable example for competitive drive. He wanted to win everything, everytime, everywhere. He has an analog in Leo Messi. People wonder why Messi always has extraordinary matches against Atletico, but you need look no further than Kun Aguero. As with Michael Jordan and his torching the Portland Trail Blazers with a blizzard of three-pointers, to show that Clyde Drexler wasn’t in his league, Messi wants to show everyone that while Aguero might be an excellent player, Messi is in his own league.
So he not only scored a goal, he then ran Aguero down to gangster the ball from him, the best player on the team working the hardest to make sure that his team won, doing whatever it took. And his goals were scored in all ways: things of beauty, moment of anticipation and ugly, hard-working tallies as he tumbled into the goal with the ball and a defender. Whatever it took.
This is also a cruel game in that Eric Abidal had an astounding match, though his personal standard is such that it wasn’t astounding as much as typical these days. It was a match that on any other day, would earn him Man of the Match, but not today. But when you watch this match again, spare some time to marvel at his performance. He was everywhere, on a day when Maxwell was a lazy spectator and Busquets off song, Abidal was Puyol with sideline to sideline pace, putting out fires everywhere on the pitch, always the impossible-to-beat last man. And even when he wasn’t Pique was.
Guardiola rolled out with his best available lineup: Valdes, Alves, Pique, Abidal, Maxwell, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Villa, Pedro!!. It was also a lineup that had Atletico cowed, as they chose to turn turtle, keeping 10 behind the ball and daring us to find a way to beat them. When people ask how good we are, it’s worth noting that this is a team battling for a European spot, with a coach in serious danger of being axed like Lizzie Borden, who decided to batten down the hatches and play turtle, with Aguero as the head that would poke out from time to time.
And Guardiola seemed to sense that this was going to be something of a challenge as he was off the bench early, cajoling, guiding, exhorting and making his charges understand that this was no ordinary team, despite its position in the standings. This was a chameleon of a side that could be as brilliant as it could be dimwittedly wasteful, a side that would require our full attention.
Or at least Messi’s attention. That first goal was so many things. Yes, it was brilliant, spectacular, whatever superlative you want to throw at it. It was also a goal that we’ve seen before, Messi running with the ball across the face of goal, leaving defenders in his wake, only to blast a shot past the keeper off the dead run.
But what I love is that is was also a goal made possible by his recent passing displays. In the past, it was simple: When Messi got the ball, you played him for the run and blocked all his shooting angles. Now, with Villa running free, Pedro!! as a threat and Alves loose in the box, there is just as much danger of Messi making the pass that kills you, because he doesn’t care how the goals are scored, only that his club wins. It’s that moment of hesitation that allows him the space to get that shot off. And to continue with the Michael Jordan analogies, when Jordan developed a fadeaway jump shot, people said that was when he officially became unplayable. Play him for the drive, he drops in the jumper. Play him tight to prevent the shot, and he does the baseline drive. So it is with Messi, who has become unplayable by a defense.
Worse still, because of the shooting ability, the keeper doesn’t know what to do as Messi crosses his T like a man-o-war. Play him for the against-the-grain shot and he goes near post. Play him for that, and he slingshots you. Hampering the decision making process is the fact that he shoots off the dead run, with minimal backswing for maximum velocity.
Give Alves credit for kick-starting that goal when he saw there was a space for Messi to run into, and just played the ball into that space. When this happens, it requires incredible defensive discipline not to chase the ball, to have one of those “Holycraphehastheballrightfreakingherenowwhat” moments, that make you chase the ball. When that happens, it’s all over. There were six defenders in the frame, and he destroyed them all, causing two to run into each other as he went across the grain to beat an exceptional keeper in David De Gea.
At 1-0, the match was effectively over, because our possession game was working in a way that accounted for the off days of Xavi and Busquets. Guardiola was right in that play such as that turned in today will get us beaten by better sides in the league, such as EE. There were wayward passes, loose possession and defensive glitches that allowed Atletico opportunities. But as usual, there was Abidal.
But even without an omnipresent defender, there is the mental defense that teams play against themselves, the voice that says “We aren’t going to get this ball very much today, so we have to do something with it right now, like.” And they rush. Shots aren’t placed as they should be, finishing isn’t as clinical as it would be against a lesser side, because the psychological pressure is intense. So you get a half chance that is parried away, and we resume the possession game, passing the ball around in simple-but-intricate little triangles of elegance, shapes that slide the ball toward the opposing goal until suddenly, a wolf is baying at the door.
So Messi runs, slips a deft, safe pass to Pedro!! who understands exactly what to do when he pauses to allow the defense a bit of time to panic, then feeds Villa who, almost in the same breath gives the ball to Messi. Now it’s here that things get a little complicated because Villa’s pass wasn’t the best, and the Atleti defender knew exactly what was going on, and was able to get in the way of the pass. But Messi seemingly accounted for the fact that because nobody in the world has a touch like a Barca player except another Barca player, the ball was going to come off of the defender. So he kept working and running, and that’s exactly what happened as Messi pounced on the loose touch and banged in his second goal of the match.
Fun Fact (thanks Phil Schoen for the call-out): Only 3 teams in European football have scored more goals than Messi/P!!/Villa.
Pursuant to that fact, because we’re scoring 3 or more goals per match these days, you knew there would be more to come, and you were right. And the goals became increasingly gritty as the match progressed, this third goal coming off a slightly too-hard Messi feed for Villa, whose first touch was a bit akimbo, resulting in a sliding effort that not only took out De Gea, but set up a battle between Messi and a defender and his touch, that was again, won by Messi, who bundled the ball into the net for his hat trick.
And that was that. Curiously, in a dominant display I found myself thinking of Fran Merida and Filipe Luis, and what they must be thinking. The former left our Masia for Arsenal, a la Cesc Fabregas, and the latter was thisclose to signing with us, only to be undone by a greedy club president, who was stunned when we in fact moved on to another player. Merida’s decision to leave La Masia was a sound one. He has yet to evince the world-class talent that would have assured him a spot with the club. Then again, who knows what a nurturing in the system would have accomplished? Filipe Luis would have certainly been our backup left back behind Abidal.
As it is, both were on the receiving end of a shellacking from a team that has played better matches, yet was still able to win at a canter. After the second goal today, I threw up my hands, slammed my pen down on the table and walked away from the television. I just found that goal profoundly absurd, because while some would say that it was luck that found the ball in Messi’s path, I think it was luck, anticipation and effort. When you combine those three things with immense talent, sometimes you just have to say “Lordy!” and walk away, shaking your head.
Team: 7. Been better, been worse. More than good enough today, but you could see the incidents that had Guardiola hurling admonitions like Zeusian thunderbolts, post-match. The acres of space on the right side for Atletico to play into was particularly worrisome.
Guardiola: 8. Strong, motivated lineup that took care of business. It’s easy to say that it’s a no-brainer to pencil Messi’s name onto the starters sheet, right? But he does an exceptional job at having the side ready to play almost every match, as it continues its march into history.
Valdes: 6. Didn’t have a lot to do. A couple of saves, a few wayward clearances and a huge thank you for Abidal and Pique, who helped him take another step toward another Zamora for stingiest keeper.
Alves: 7. Exceptional and frustrating, as I marveled at his passing, work rate, aggression and interplay with Messi, even as I wondered at times if we had a right back playing defense at all. His comments about staying with the club were encouraging. So do the deal and let’s continue the magic.
Pique: 6. The play on the line was immense, amazing and heartbreaking for Atletico, who did everything right (or so they thought) in a play that would be a goal against any other team on the planet. More defensive than offensive today, as he understood the Aguero danger, even as he got skinned on more than one occasion.
Abidal: 9. A couple moments of uncertainty kept him from perfection, but what a match, from a man who still makes me wonder why anyone had doubts about him as a central defender. I dare say that if we had an Abidal clone for the left back slot rather than Maxwell, Puyol might have to look in the rear-view mirror.
Maxwell: 4. Some good, mostly mediocre today. He seemed either tired or lazy at various points, trotting rather than running, or not busting his hump to cover for an error of his. He should be worshiping the ground that Abidal walks on. His side of the pitch was marked “Open for business,” and Atletico took full advantage of him getting caught up the pitch, time and again.
Busquets: 6. Too many Bad Busi moments for me to be entirely comfortable with. Yes, he either bailed himself out or was bailed out. Still can’t figure out why he doesn’t realize that he’s best as a one-touch player. Just keep the ball moving, please.
Xavi: 6. Off song today, for whatever reason. You could see him berating himself as he missed passes that are usually automatic with him. One characteristic of his off days is a tendency to play with the ball too much, as if touching it would bring back his touch. Interesting.
Iniesta: 7. Not at his absolute best, in part thanks to the Atletico defense and a hearty round of Iniestabuse, but a more than solid match with moments of great beauty and control. He really is a sensational player, who I still say gets fouled because defenders just say “That’s enough of that!”
Messi: 8. Not at his absolute best, but the most influential player on the pitch by a wide margin. A true game-changer with goals, passing and defense.
Pedro!!: 6. A stat-stuffer day. His sixth sense for where the ball is going to end up was off today, and his consecutive match scoring streak is broken, but just barely. Even when his offense isn’t on, P!! is a constant thorn in the side of opposing clubs with his incessant motion and harassing play at both ends.
Villa: 4. The off-song patch continues, even as he involves himself in the offense in ways that are sufficient to make it better, usually by being a threat. Defenses never say “Yeah, but Villa’s playing like crap. Watch the little guy.” You can’t, or he will convert some of those passes. Today, he looked like a player still learning to fit into our intricate attack.
Keita (for Iniesta): 6. Headed toward a higher score for sure as increasingly, he is the first sub because of his work rate, willingness to absorb contact to keep the offense moving and sheer physicality. Nothing like he and Busquets to shut a midfield down.
Afellay (for Xavi): incomplete. Not enough time, but note two moments of sheer delight: he poked the ball up the wing, and left an Atletico defender for dead, before laying in a cross that deserved better; he made a run at the defense, didn’t see anything and fed the ball backward, to reset. How many young players will go ahead and just blast a shot at goal?
Krkic: (for Pedro!!): incomplete. Entered the match, and vanished without a trace.
Hats off to new voice Linda Hui, who was at today’s match. We’ll be expecting a full match report, upon her return. Meanwhile,