This is the kind of match that it was today. Pulling, kicking, scratching and fouling by an opponent fighting for its very existence. Sometimes, we just don’t understand, and this was one of those days. We’re on top of the world, everybody says that we’re the best EVAH and people slide off their chairs in ecstasy when we play. But sometimes, we just don’t get it.
A side such as Sporting Gijon is fighting for its Liga life. It isn’t a game to them, a match of football in which you display your talent, kick out the jams, score a few goals, then go home and read about how amazing you are. It is a constant battle to stay up, to stay out of the relegation zone, to not go down to a place that features the likes of Betis, a place that you might not be able to get out of again.
For them, it’s war. And shame on us for bringing a pillow to a knife fight.
Gijon deserved to win this match. As their keeper said, we’re probably pretty happy with the draw, and we should be. It was only their fear that allowed us to salvage a point. Imagine if they had continued to play with the aggression and fearlessness that grabbed them an early goal. But they let us off the hook by scoring, then setting up shop in front of their keeper, determined to get at least a point. It won’t be the last time that a team gets an early goal on us, then immediately starts playing for a draw, even though it has the lead. So get used to it. And be thankful. Gijon could have won this match.
We rolled out with a lineup that was keeping upcoming big matches in mind: Valdes, Alves, Pique, Milito, Maxwell, Mascherano, Xavi, Iniesta, Afellay, Messi, Villa. It’s a lineup that on paper, should have been enough to beat Gijon, had the players decided that they were ready to play, but they weren’t and had to salvage a late draw off a delightful Villa lob, to snag points that were really undeserved. So what the hell happened?
There are lots of excuses:
–Big Champions League match looming
–A hummingbird flapping its wings in the Amazon
For me, there is only one excuse: The side didn’t come to play, and got surprised. For me, that is the most vexing thing about this match. When we drew against Copenhagen, that was one thing. That club played its heart out, and we sweated to earn the draw. This time, we kind of passed the ball around, walked a little bit and allowed Gijon to stymie an attack that has been (and still is) amazingly prolific.
So again, what happened?
First, the goal. It was the first time that we have really been damaged by what I call The Alves Complexity, aka Abidependencia. When Alves gets caught up the pitch, pace or positioning have to solve the problem. Messi slid a ball to Villa, who batted a too-soft return pass to Messi. The fight with the Gijon defender saw Messi, for some unfathomable reason, worried about a foul, so he threw up his hands and backed off rather than continuing to battle. Gijon sprung into action. Most teams have a right back over there, playing for precisely that kind of situation. But because ours functions mostly as an attacker, the three defenders and defensive midfielder are on their own.
Mascherano hesitated a bit, then loped over to cover the runner up the wing, instead of running as if a goal and points depended on it. The attacker got past him, which means that it’s now on the central defenders to quell the danger. The Gijon player did the perfect thing in running hard up the wing, then sliding a pass to an attacker who was already running at full tilt at Pique, who isn’t the fastest of players on his best day. Pique had one chance to stop the attack, and bollixed it up. He should have just fouled him. Instead he tried to make a play but the attacker shoved him aside, and kept right on running. Milito had one chance to stop the attack, but he tripped over his shoelaces or something. Valdes was screwed, because he had to make a choice. It was the correct one, in forcing the player to make a very difficult shot across the face of goal. If the shot is off by even a little bit, the keeper parries it away. But it wasn’t, because the Footy Gods deemed it so.
At the moment of the shot, Iniesta is the defender in the box, playing the extra Gijon attacker to prevent the pass. No other defenders are on the scene. To me, the goal typified the match. Who can remember the last time that a team got back on a break, and we had nobody in the picture to defend? Maxwell comes trotting (yes, trotting) in late, but the shot is already on the way. As usual when we concede, it was a team effort. Remember when Messi tracked back like a wild man to gangsta the ball from Aguero? Not today. No Lord Pedro of the Windmills, because he was on the bench, as were Busquets and Abidal.
It’s easy to support being beaten by brilliance. It’s a lot harder to support succumbing because of a lack of effort, and that’s how it was for most of the match, for most of the players, who didn’t seem to understand that if you’re in a fight with someone, you have to figure out what’s at stake, then match that effort. Yes, there are going to be matches like this again, which doesn’t mean that I am going to let them off lightly. That ain’t my job here.
Gijon adopted a defense that (funny how many Chicago Bulls analogies are apt for our beloved club) brought to mind The Jordan Rules, instigated by the Detroit Pistons. Essentially, the Rules were:
–Make the other players beat you.
–Foul when you have to.
–Disrupt the game whenever possible.
Preciado’s charges did precisely that, applying loose pressure that stiffened as we approached their box, whereupon they descended on the ball the way that we usually do when we actually care about a match. Messi was attended by at least three defenders at all times, and when in doubt, they fouled or made the maximum of our fouls. Or just booted the ball up the pitch, giving the defense a chance to reset.
Our attack played into their hands by evincing all the movement of Stonehenge. And when the midfield pressure was such that Messi dropped into the midfield to get the ball, Villa slid into the middle, where he stood. And Afellay was on the right wing, where he stood. So passes that usually find an attacker in stride, ready to play it to another attacker, found 2 or 3 Gijon defenders who understood that today was, if they worked hard enough, going to be their day. So they did, while we sashayed about, checking the watch and saying “Is it time to be brilliant yet?”
And then suddenly it was, which is the crime of it all. Leonine Messi fought off a Gijon defender and won the ball, making the run like a man determined. For a change, Villa anticipated this and actually moved to a pass that was perfectly placed. It all happened so quickly that the keeper was caught out of his box, playing Villa for a pass or hard, low shot. So Villa lobbed him, a delicate bit of perfection of sufficient velocity to preclude a charging defender clearing it off the line, yet high enough that all the keeper could do was watch it go in. It was a staggering goal, that demonstrated fire and the sheer quality that makes the laudatory prose constantly lavished upon us, deserved.
Why it took the 81st minute to finally show up, is beyond me. Some of it was the addition of Pedro!!, who brought movement and effort to the attack. Suddenly, a defender-dragging dervish was creating space and danger with movement, not standing around like a Dutch statue. The delightful result is that their defenders, instead of being able to watch us pass the ball around then converge on the player making a silly run, had to move and anticipate, and gaps were found.
After the goal, Messi came to roaring, vibrant life, but it was too late. His amazing play in the box in the 87th minute was, again, the Footy Gods showing their displeasure. He rumbled, stumbled, fought and flat-out outran a Gijon defender to the end line, smoking in a perfect cross that had the exact right pace to not be parried by the keeper, yet slide between the keeper and his defense. But alas, Villa decided “Hey, whoa, maybe I should move,” too late, leaving Pedro!! to make a last-second lunge at the ball that pushed it wide of the gaping goal.
That was the last real scoring opportunity, despite Pique’s best effort at gifting Gijon the match when a horrific ball back to Valdes turned into a gilt-edged chance for them, and earned Valdes a yellow card. But the threat was dealt with, and that was that.
Team: 2. Show up, and play the whole match. It’s as simple as that.
Guardiola: 6. I haven’t seen him this involved in a match in a long time, as he did all the right things. But he didn’t have them ready to play. The Pedro!! for Afellay substitution was perfect. Keita for Milito should have come a lot earlier, when it was clear they weren’t interested in attacking.
Valdes: 7. Hard to fault him for the goal, and he came up huge on a few occasions, and made some excellent decisions in covering leaked balls. His distribution was unusually mediocre today, which probably had something to do with not having defenders to carry the attack.
Alves: 6. The effort was there, the cohorts weren’t. You can’t really fault him for the Gijon attack getting busy on his side. He’s just doing what he always does. He was funky early like almost everyone else. Some good movement and work in the box, for crosses that deserved a better fate, and his setup for Messi on what should have been a goal was immense.
Pique: 3. Some good, mostly bad. Made a few good defensive plays, then sullied it with those ridiculous long diagonal balls that he keeps trying. And Gerard: When you aren’t the last defender, just foul the attacker and take your chances with the set piece. No shame in that.
Milito: 5. A very solid match after the early shakes. Very strong bringing the ball up the middle to start attacks, as well.
Maxwell: 5. Some good, some bad. But what is it about him that lets his passes always find the other team? He was lofting balls into the box without a lot of point, poking balls directly at the feet of Gijon defenders and making a general mess of himself. Messi being off song can still be pretty good. Not so with Maxwell. Some key defensive interventions in and out of the box, and even bailed Mascherano out.
Mascherano: 5. A stronger effort was required on the run that led to the goal. Strong challenges in his usual stout effort at DM. But his lack of attacking creativity showed here, at a time when Xavi and Iniesta were under siege.
Xavi: 7. He had a very good match, thwarted by the lack of effort on the part of our attackers. Kept the ball, rode out challenges and worked beautifully with Iniesta. Had moments of uncertainty, mostly because Gijon were clogging the passing lanes, making it difficult for him. So make a run, dude!
Iniesta: 7. Ghostface was wonderful today, the only player in the first half who actually came to play. Runs, passes, tracking back and effort galore. Forced a very good save from their keeper.
Afellay: 1. Welcome to reality. It’s easy to dazzle when you come in with a match done and dusted. It’s yet another thing to play against a determined, hard-working opponent. Movement helps that a lot. If they build a statue for you, it won’t actually be you. The awful pass that unleashed a Gijon break and earned Mascherano a yellow was typical of his match today.
Messi: 3. Playing only about 10 minutes of a 90-minute match isn’t going to work. And get on your teammates about their lack of movement, don’t just start making runs into the heart of a defense determined to stop you. Yes, it was the kind of day that a perfect setup gets spanked right at the keeper.
Villa: 2. Yes, loved the goal. But good lord, his movement was nonexistent, when you weren’t asking “Where’s Villa,” as he went to the left wing to disappear. And when he was leading the line, he was every bit as static as Afellay. He doesn’t play like he’s hungry.
Pedro!! (for Afellay): 7. What a difference a player makes to an offense. He was super aggressive, and how is he always where the ball is? It’s a magical gift that unsettles defenses and makes everyone’s life easier. Bummer about the late chance that he pushed wide, but in watching the sequence, it just looks like he never expected the ball to get that far, that Villa was going to move and tap it in.
Keita (for Milito): incomplete. His willingness to do everything at any time shows why he’s such a favorite of Guardiola. He worked like a dog for the time he was on the pitch.
Krkic (for Iniesta): incomplete. He entered the match, and vanished. He reappeared when it was time to somehow lose a ball to Gijon, then disappeared again. Guardiola was clearly trying to impress upon him the urgency of the situation. It didn’t work.
So as of right now, the lead is 5 points. If EE were playing any other team except Espanyol, I’d say we have a shot at the lead being 7 points again. But their hatred of us is such that even if they aren’t conscious of it, they will play in a manner that ensures full points for EE. But don’t forget. 5 points means that we can still dump El Clasic and be fine. Keep the faith.
P.S. Botia was “our” best defender today. He would have been a valuable asset to have in the side. Smart, physical and anticipated very well.