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Um. Hmmm. Is anybody else’s heart still racing? Usually, a complex win seems less so after the second viewing, but not in this case. There were times that I almost couldn’t watch, and what the hell is it about Athletic Bilbao that makes them always such a difficult side for us?
I know. Some of it is their incessant fighting for every ball, every challenge, every inch of the pitch. Some of it is their remarkable keeper who, time and again, kept them around to have a shout in this tense, tense encounter. Some of it is our own waste. As Ray Hudson noted, we look a tired, tired club, one that will get no respite from the rest of the season, or from any club.
And one that is very, very happy to have Bilbao in the rear-view mirror for this year. Wow, what a match.
Words such as “indomitable,” or “unflinching” are often batted around in various arenas, but it’s rare that you see the definition of said terms on such vivid display. This was a match that we had to win. When EE dispatched Levante with ease yesterday, the pressure was on us to match them, and retain that 5-point lead in the standings, a lead that enables us to, frankly, get a little loose. And it was the wrong time for Bilbao, but at least we were at home, rather than their cauldron of a stadium. We had to win, and despite the tired legs, the passes that came up short, runs that weren’t made that boxes that weren’t filled, it took a remarkable bit of football in a match filled with such moments, to do the trick.
We were funky and clunky, helped as much by Bilbao’s lack of real pace compared to Arsenal, as anything else. But if the sign of a champion is winning when everything isn’t working the way that it’s supposed to, we sure as heck played a championship-caliber match today against an opponent that played its collective heart out. Much praise for Athletic Bilbao.
Guardiola came out with an interesting lineup, of Pinto, Alves, Pique, Busquets, Abidal, Mascherano, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Pedro and Villa. Bilbao came out with the standard way of playing us now, which is to press like crazy high up the pitch, play physically and not allow us unmolested time on the ball. It was a game plan that lasted about 3 minutes, the time that it took Xavi to lace a ball to Alves, who one-touched it to Villa, who one-touched it into the back of the net.
As with the Arsenal match, we scored first, again from Villa, who has now tallied in his last three matches. So it was football time, right? Well, not so fast. Bilbao had to rein in the pressing a little bit, so as to not concede a second, but they never gave an inch of quarter, realizing that all it would take was one play, one moment of indecision or brilliance on their part, to get back into the match. And we were obliging them with giveaway after giveaway, loose passes and erratic play that are the signs of a fatigued club.
We see it mistakes of positioning, as Pique got owned by Llorente, who threw in a cross for a header that was just wide. Or Abidal serving up a pillow-soft pass that hung Busquets out to dry, resulting in a Bilbao penalty equalizer. Messi’s control was off, when he wasn’t slotting passes to the Bilbao defenders, and the movement in and around the box that is necessary for our game to work, just wasn’t there, with the exception of Villa, whose well-timed emergence is a thing of beauty.
Some say that our club can’t stand prosperity, but I disagree. I think that the intricate latticework of our game needs sharp players to work at maximum effectiveness. If one run is a fraction late, if someone’s movement is just a bit off, the pass results in a blocked shot or keeper save, rather than a goal. This is the wrong thing against a side that defends like Bilbao, that clogs every passing lane, challenges for every ball and doesn’t give a sliver of daylight as a team (well, us, let’s go ahead and say) approaches their box.
Our lack of width is also the wrong thing against a club like Bilbao, who was feasting on the runs up the center by just waiting, and sticking a leg or foot out. It’s worth noting that our best chances came from wide play that moved in toward the middle, with the Xavi/Alves connection working at impressive effectiveness. But the lack of width and frankly, silly shots from the likes of Messi and Villa, allowed Bilbao to make the match a lot more complex than it should have been. But again, fatigue is a brutal thing, but it can also be a beautiful thing, in that it forces a tired club to say, in effect, “We can’t lose. Not today,” then muster up the effort necessary to make it so. When you talk about fortitude, those qualities are exemplified in our second goal, one that didn’t seem like it was ever going to come.
And yet, from a moment of exquisite beauty, it came as Xavi once again laced a ball to Alves, who slid a square ball for Messi to chip high, beating the keeper and effectively killing Bilbao’s chances of winning that match, because of the lateness of the goal and the way we were playing intelligent possession football, defense our way. Messi held his run until late, so as not to allow the Bilbao defenders time to camp out and wait for him, and the finish was immaculate. Return to form? We can hope, from the man who rescued his club today as he has so many times.
Guardiola, who was out-subbed in the Arsenal match, made precisely the right ones today, bringing in Maxwell, allowing Abidal to return to the center of defense. More importantly, it let Busquets move his brilliance (maybe not in tackling) up the pitch, an incessant, harassing, passing presence that freed up Iniesta to roam, and gave Xavi a lanky doppelganger And Keita does what he usually does, after joining in the collective funk of the Arsenal Champions League match.
It also showed that Guardiola isn’t as stubborn as many claim that he is, with his admission that Mascherano wasn’t working in this situation. It wasn’t the giveaways, but the fact that he isn’t of the system. Busquets’ fluency with the ball allows him to function as another Xavi, which isn’t a luxury that Mascherano allows. Making the subs and shifts was his admission that he got the starting XI a little bit wrong. Could you quibble about a still-off Pedro coming off instead of Villa? Non really, because Pedro tracks back like a demon and has a much higher work rate in all aspects of a match than Villa.
Villa’s absence also seemed to allow Messi to come to life, perhaps because Villa was playing much more in the center of the pitch than he usually does, and the alacrity of his movements in and around the box were forcing Messi to have to compensate for them. But when Villa left, Messi sprang into life, and that liveliness, coupled with the width that Alves provided (teams are always going to let Maxwell have the ball and play on the left), coupled with the spirit of a team that wants it all, sealed the win and the crucial points.
Team: 6. It did what it had to do, and showed immense poise. The February-itis is still there, however, as we saw it a side that just isn’t clicking the way that it was when manitas were falling from the heavens like rain. This club needs a rest, but one isn’t likely to come, so we’ll just have to shake it off.
Guardiola: 7. Big props for taking a chance on the starting XI, and recognizing that it wasn’t working the way it was supposed to. Between Busquets unfortunate challenge in the box and Mascherano’s charity offerings, it was time for changes, and he made the right ones.
Pinto: 7. An excellent match today from a keeper who is suddenly going to be getting a lot more reps, if the reports are true that Valdes will require knee surgery and could be out for up to six weeks. His save off the point-blank header by Llorente was awesome, and he covered his box and line with assurance and speed. Nice to have a keeper of that quality when needed.
Alves: 8. He was brilliant today, offensively and defensively. He was always around the ball, and his passes that led to both goals were spot-on, and had to be against a ball-hawking defense.
Pique: 6. He’s had better matches, and worse ones. Getting owned by Llorente could have been a significant problem, and he sometimes is undecided about what to do with the ball, which always makes me scream at the television.
Busquets: 7. Close to perfect, but that challenge in the box was pretty silly, and the only reason that he isn’t my hands-down Man of the Match. When he moved into midfield, we gained a lot in assurance and control, as we were able to possess the match away. He was everywhere, and what an amazing through ball to Villa for a missed chance in the first half.
Abidal: 7. Didn’t put a foot wrong all match, then put a pass wrong, an effort that resulted in the penalty every bit as directly as Busquets’ challenge on the player. He was guilty of a few soft passes on his side of the pitch.
Mascherano: 5. Too many dangerous giveaways in the center of the pitch, the precise place that those things canNOT occur. He won a couple of them back, but if a team is off to the races because of one of his giveaways, they have a clear path to our back line. Which ain’t cool. He was also all over the place, often not in a good way. He’s been a lot better in the colors.
Xavi: 6. A subdued match by his standards, including some lost balls and mishit passes. And yet, his passing and movement were wonderful when they had to be.
Iniesta: 8. What a match from the man who benefitted the most of Busquets moving up. He essentially owned that left side of the Bilbao defense, and lacked only willing teammates storming the box to have a couple of assists. If that Iniesta shows against Arsenal, it’s a very different result.
Messi: 4. Way off for too much of the match, with lost balls, bad passes and selfish runs, before taking control with the kinds of plays that put the Bilbao defense on the back foot. And what a lovely goal, that too many players stuff right into the keeper’s gut (as Pedro did against Arsenal).
Pedro: 4. A stat-stuffer of a match, as he was everywhere except scoring goals. Between making runs, tracking back and facilitating possession, he played a solid match that was, yet, below his very high standard. His sharpness is off.
Villa: 8. Really, really good today, with runs and movement that were a constant danger. He’s getting much better at keeping himself onside as well, as he’s coming to understand movement and passing tendencides of his teammates. Top-class, perfectly placed goal, too.
Maxwell (for Mascherano): 6. Much better today, and was playing his way to a higher rating. He still needs to be much more incisive around the box, and attack more. Bilbao’s lack of team pace helped him, as well.
Keita (for Villa): incomplete. Not enough time to really rate, but he came in to do his usual thing, excellent work on offense and defense.
Afellay (for Pedro): incomplete. Barely enough time to do anything except run onto the pitch.
We have another week or so to go in this month in which we have won a scant 53% of games during the Guardiola regime. Hmmmm …. who knows why, but hopefully March will bring about a return to form. More on Valdes as we learn it. And meanwhile ….