This is a rare one for me, in that it was a match that was fraught with complexity, that found us missing key parts of the engine that has driven our club to its status as one of the best extant — and yet it turned into a comfortable win that allowed us to punch the cruise control button, and ease into an important midweek encounter.
We rolled into Mallorca’s house as something of a mess (by our standards), and Mallorca were ready to pounce. They came at us with pressure, aggression and physical play, aided by a referee who decided (rightly) that the players would decide this match. So they were all over us, and we were struggling with plenty of nothing from something of a “best available” lineup from Guardiola, featuring Pinto, Adriano, Pique, Abidal, Maxwell, Busquets, Keita, Iniesta, Messi, Pedro!, Villa.
The problem was a decided lack of movement on and off the ball, which made us stationary targets for the Mallorca pressers, who clogged up the midfield and passing lanes, determined to not let us possess them to death. It was a side that played fast and slow, the former on the attack, the latter during stoppages in play, as they were cognizant of the fact that time was on their side, that we were less than we usually are. No Valdes, Puyol, Alves or Xavi, four crucial parts of our starting XI, and we were in their house.
There was no rhythm to the match or our possession, as risky passes, dwelling on possession too long and lack of movement conspired to yield 0 shots on goal for most of the first half. Mallorca charged at us as the home side should, applying pressure of the break and sparking last-minute interventions on the part of the defense. Villa was offside twice within 20 minutes, and this was getting the feel of a very, very long afternoon. A clean-shaven Guardiola looked worried, as he looked to be explaining those very things to whomever was willing to listen, since the players clearly weren’t.
We were even messy on the defensive end of the pitch, incapable of starting play from the back as is our style, in part because of the Mallorca pressure but also because we were just plain off, something easy to jugde by the number of long clearances from Pinto. Barca keepers don’t usually just boot the ball up the pitch, but it was happening far too often on this day from a club that was going nowhere slowly.
There were brief signs of life as Iniesta hit Messi with a remarkable pass in the box, only to have Messi somehow miss everything on what should have been a sure goal, but indicators were pointing up. We went from a side in which the setup men were having to hold the ball because our attackers were standing there looking at them to one full of danger as the players realized “Hey, I think we have to run toward that net-covered thing, and maybe something good will happen.”
And then, suddenly, it all came together. Having players such as we have is a luxury because when the team is off, sometimes individual talent allows something remarkable to happen. This season, our goals have usually been things of beauty, passes stitched together from a quilt of possession, inexorable assaults that leave teams with the knowledge, yet the inability to do anything about them. But Mallorca knew what to do, and they knew that we were off song, but the amazing gifts of individual talents are what would save the day.
Keita, Messi and Busquets just batted the ball back and forth in the midfield, and you could see Messi straining at the bit. As he broke for goal, my thought was certainly “Oh great, a Mallorca defender will get in the way of this one too.” But Keita’s pass was perfect, and perfectly timed. Messi pillowed the ball with his feet, then lofted it up so that he could head it over a stunned Aouate.
Just like that it was 1-0, and Mallorca were stunned and a bit frustrated. They had done everything absolutely right, and it was nothing more than individual brilliance that beat them and their keeper. What keeper alive would ever play an attacker for what Messi did? It was an absurd goal that had its roots in passing and off-the-ball movement, the very things that got us to our exalted position in world football. It was nice to have them back, but spare a moment for the Mallorca players, who were rocked by that goal as was I, frankly. I get used to seeing us, and I know how good we are, but to have a player who can score a goal such as that ….
If there is even a moment’s hesitation, a defender gets there, or the keeper does the right thing. The control has to be millimeter perfect, the lift has to be such that only Messi’s head can get to it. It’s a training ground play, really, something that you would never try in a match. But why not? Worse still, it’s the kind of goal that there is no psychological answer for. Yes, you can shrug and say “He’s the best player on the planet, so what do you expect?” But it never works like that, and you could see it in the faces and movements of their players, who were hoping to get to the half scoreless. Not to be.
And it really shouldn’t have been as Villa left at least two goals begging, including an astounding diagonal ball from Maxwell that found him all alone in space in the box, and somehow …. some way …. agggghhhh! But suddenly, we were in control of the match.
As the second half dawned, Mallorca were significantly more tentative. Tika-taka wasn’t in full effect, but excellence was, and it was high time for another display. Busquets took a pass, looked up and saw Villa making the run and smoked a long ball that found our striker in stride, right at his feet. Villa rounded the keeper, made it look far, far more dramatic than it should have, and tapped home. It was 2-0 and there again, it was the kind of goal that was just two players being remarkable. Villa ran offside, jumped back on and stopped. As the defense paused, he leapt and Busquets saw it all happening, with the kind of display that makes those who consider him as the next Xavi, seem not altogether crazy.
Mallorca was done for, but we had another sting in the tail ready for them, a goal that I will always think of as Kaboom, which was almost certainly the sound that was made when Pedro! struck the ball. He took a pass, ran toward goal, drifted a bit to create space and unloaded. Nobody expected the shot even as it was happening, and certainly not with that kind of power and placement. P! probably was, since he unleashed a similar shot against Copenhagen in the Champions League group stages, but hit the post. It wasn’t speculative, either. It was an attacker’s goal, that relied on every gift in the player’s arsenal, and even the ESPN Deportes match commentators were stunned into a moment of silence. “That went IN? Holy crap!”
And just like that, it was 0-3 in a match that was a lot tighter than the score indicated. If they had players of a little more quality, if we didn’t have Abidal in the back line, if, if, if. This one was balanced on a knife’s edge for too long, toppled by amazing talent. Three goals from four shots on target? That’s crazy talk!
Team: 6. Clunky and funky at times, achieving heft only when the match was decided and Mallorca had accepted its fate. The pace of play was too slow, with too much playing around with the ball. Lack of movement was stranding midfielders with the ball, and their quick counters found their way into our box all too easily.
Guardiola: 9. Right starting XI, right subs, and a great call on the start for Keita.
Pinto: 7. Never really had to make any serious saves, but played his role very well. Too many long clearances for my tastes, but some of that is on the defense. He’s getting better at reading play as he gets more time.
Adriano: 6. A much better display, though he still dwells on the ball too much. But his interplay with Messi continues to improve, and when the ball was played to him in a wide position, something good often happened. He’s also calmed down on the crazy-ass shot thing.
Pique: 7. Strong match, helped by the fact that Mallorca didn’t have big-time pace up the flanks. Won headers galore, and looked a lot more assured and leader-like on the back line.
Abidal: 9. Monster. The only thing keeping him from perfection were loose passes in the last few minutes that could have cost the club. It’s the second match in a row that he’s been too casual with these kinds of efforts. But what a match, otherwise, with key intervention after key intervention. He was even attacking up the right side!
Maxwell: 7. Excellent match from a player who improves with reps. He also showed more on the attack, which was good to see.
Busquets: 9. Wow. It’s worth watching the match just to watch him, as he was everywhere on defense, then facilitating offense in a valuable role, since Iniesta was rather withdrawn in his Xaviesque role. Yes, he still gets caught in possession, but once he learns control like Xavi, watch out.
Keita: 9. Hardly put a foot wrong the entire match, and was a bulwark during our messy period, almost single-handedly keeping control of the midfield as he challenged for everything, then made runs at their box to boot. It’s a Man of the Match performance.
Iniesta: 6. A curious match for him, with flashes of brilliance followed by donning of the cloak of invisibility. Late with a number of passes to players that were making the run. You can’t say “Xavi would have ….” because Iniesta isn’t Xavi. But our mids are supposed to make those passes. How he hosed off that pass from Afellay, I will never know.
Messi: 7. Strong and influential, and very competent at reading a match and knowing when he can turn the motor to idle. His runs and passes were always dangerous unlike recent matches, where he sallies into the teeth of 4 defenders. With more action from his front line mates, he almost certainly would have had an assist or two.
Pedro!: 6. He earned one of his exclamation points back with that golazo. His effort is endless, as is his aggression. Shooters try to shoot their way out of a slump. Pedro! tries to work his way out. You can see him returning to form, slowly but surely. And that blast from distance should change the way defenses play our front line.
Villa: 5. Solid, but too slow to react to passes, and decidedly unclinical in the box today. His passes are too risky, and resulted in lost possession far too often for my tastes today. Yes, he notched a crucial goal, the “Aaaahhhh,” goal. But that was 70% Busquets, with that amazing pass.
Krkic (for Villa): 2. I know he came on, but I forgot about him, so invisible was he. He just isn’t playing with freedom and flow. Everything he does seems tight, and forced.
Afellay (for Pedro!): 6. He looks comfortable wherever Guardiola puts him, on left wing today. Some excellent passes, including a sterling ball for Iniesta that really should have notched him an assist. Too fond of the dive for the end line/cross thing. Versatility in attack would help him.
Montoya (for Adriano): incomplete. Not enough time for a full rating, but our right back of the future showed flashes of the promise that marks him as the next Masia defensive wunderkind.
And hats off to Deportivo La Coruna, and the groundskeeper who painted their goalposts. Their holding of EE gives us a 7-point lead in the standings at a time when we are rolling into a very difficult stretch of matches. Valencia at home in midweek could be a very complex thing, so it’s very nice to have a cushion. Until then, I have to say that I don’t know what the hell is going on here: