What a match. At the time I didn’t think so, mostly because I was sweating and kneeling on the floor at my office, physically willing our players to develop the necessary sharpness in the final third to put away one of the 914 chances they developed during this match, one in which a worthy opponent said “We are not amused, or impressed. Take that.”
And gave as good as they got. Championships are won …. villarato …. better lucky thanblahblahblah. Fact of the matter is that Valencia played one hell of a match today in a rare set of circumstances that found us slightly off song, facing a determined team at home, a team with talent that could put on one of our shirts and hold their own, no problem. It was a track meet almost from beginning to end, a match that saw us squandering chances, sometimes through excellent defense, other times through knuckleheaded selfishness, or just bad decision making.
But at the end of it all, we won in the Mestalla, a bogey joint for our lumbagoed leader Pep Guardiola. We won because as when Valencia came to the Camp Nou and rolled into the half with a lead, they gave us their best as we alternated between hanging on for dear life, and strutting proudly. And it’s now a 10-point lead, pending the outcome of tomorrow’s EE outing against Maulaga.
To beat our club it takes luck, lucky bounces, talent galore, passing excellence and physical strength. Valencia displayed all of those traits in abudance, as they rolled out of their locker room and got right in our faces. Expecting this, Guardiola came out with what was ultimately a pretty smart lineup, of Pinto, Alves, Pique, Busquets, Abidal, Mascherano, Xavi, Iniesta, Adriano, Messi, Villa.
Valencia came out and said, in effect, “We don’t care who you have out there,” and proceeded to make our weaknesses (fondness for dwelling on the ball, passes over medium distance and running at the defense) their strengths, with constant pressure that left no space for anything at all. A man got the ball and was facing two or three Valencia defenders, runs were met by a flotilla of white shirts in a flooded midfield that left no room or time for tika-taka. As command and control go, we didn’t have any, and they had 4 corners in the first 6 minutes, an astonishing display that turned out to be unrelenting. Messi was giving balls away, Abidal was giving balls away as four attackers faced off against our (usually) three defenders, forcing long or uncertain plays from the back that led to trouble.
And then, just like that, just over 8 minutes in, a hyperactive Alves lunged at a ball that bounded off the leg of a Valencia defender, and found Messi racing in, alone, on the keeper. He was behind the defense with the ball at his feet on the keeper on his knees. Surely, this was to be the early goal that we were all craving, that would send us off to the races. But his first effort was weak and easily parried. By that time there were defenders on the scene, and the two subsequent shots were also blocked, and what should have been a 0-1 lead, gave Valencia new life and courage in the face of the juggernaut.
We had to make runs, because the passing lanes were all jammed up, and on attack, Valencia went over the top on us, bypassing our traditionally hungry midfield in favor of an opportunity to get right at our scrambling back line and second-choice keeper. Back and forth it went as our forays at their defense were turned away, and they would lob a long ball over the top and come running after it, like a hockey team playing dump-and-chase. They created chances. Not truly dangerous ones, though those would come later, but they were creating opportunities and courage, stiffening their spines with every forced intervention by a defender.
Then it happened again: Messi caught one of their mids with his bloomers down, took the ball from him and went charging in, again, alone with the ball at his feet. Villa, like a jackrabbit, knew what was going to happen and broke alongside Messi, keeping himself onside, waiting for the pass that would come, that would allow him to score a goal in the Mestalla as he had for so many years, only this time stunning the packed house into silence, as he would score while wearing the wrong color shirt.
But the pass never came, as Messi selfishly opted to attempt to chip the keeper, his shot plopping harmlessly onto the top of the net, rather than nestling into the back of it. What could have been a 0-2 lead and an invitation to cruise, was instead still 0-0 and balanced on a knife’s edge.
Villa got a run at goal, and chose the blast for the far post, ignoring a wide-open Alves. This choice earned him a stern lecture from Messi about the joys of unselfish football, a lecture that probably saw Villa responding with “Physician, heal thyself!” And we were squabbling on the pitch, a situation brought about by pressure, uncertainty and an opponent that spent about as much time kicking our butts as we spent kicking theirs.
They scored but didn’t, thanks to a (correct) offside decision that found their attacker off by the lean of his body. Interpreters of the offside rule will make their allegiances known as they dissect the play, one that for a few seconds had Valencia up 1-0, just as at the Camp Nou. We will say he was leaning. Villarato! accusers will say that his feet and legs were level, and that’s what counts. Either way, the goal didn’t count, and the track meet continued as two keepers, both sporting the “unlucky” No. 13, were pretty decidedly lucky as shots were blasted directly at them, or finished poorly. And so it went into a second half that finally, finally saw us rocking some the passing and movement that make us the best team anyone has ever seen.
Still, Valencia didn’t back down, and what it finally took was Guardiola’s bold move, paying off in Adriano. All season, I have been noting that what we lack was an attacker to get up the pitch quickly, with the ball at his feet. And all the time, we had a Brazilian winger with pace, sitting on the bench, waiting to be the answer to that question. And Villa suddenly had a partner in crime, Abidal had someone running alongside him to lay the ball off to, during one of his charges up the pitch. And we had an Alves on the left side, a player who could create danger by bursting the seams of a defense designed to not die from being stabbed in the center.
So Xavi slid a ball to Iniesta who batted it to Adriano, who slashed into the box in a way that Maxwell never can. It’s the difference between a full back and a wing back who can play full back, but is ultimately an attacker. He paused, lined up his sights and spanked a ball to Messi that he thwacked near post. Their wonderful keeper got a hand to it, but not one that was strong enough to keep it from rolling it. It was 0-1, and our celebration was one of relief as much as joy, a massive “Whew!” at the fact that we didn’t have to chase a match against a side that was driving us nuts.
Then it was time for our Random Chaos Generator to enter the match, and Pedro! didn’t disappoint, being the fresh legs that unsettled Valencia’s back line enough to keep them honest, and ultimately to keep them from being too dangerous. Yes, they had some excellent chances, all of which found their life in quick breaks off of turnovers. Two shots were wide, and one directly at Pinto. We finished off the match by regaining some (but not all) of our passing grace and style, a game of keepaway that forced Valencia into fouls, rushed efforts and aggression, all things that play right into our hands.
And after the longest 3 minutes of extra time anyone has ever witnessed, we had an amazing win, made even more so by the fact that we weren’t on form, had an excellent opponent get right in our faces, threw away chances and still won. Team of destiny? Perhaps. Championship side? Maybe. But we certainly paved the way toward being able to lift that trophy in our house, with a brave, fruitful effort. Well done!
Team: 5. Yes, some of the mistakes were from Valencia’s excellence, but not nearly all of them. We were a mess at crucial times, and they got at our back line way, way too easily, even as we pulled it together enough to make the difference. All it takes is one play, and we usually have it. The breaks that we gave up today were absurd, and will kill us against a higher level of competitition like, say, Arsenal?
Guardiola: 8. The starting XI was right, including the use of Mascherano and Adriano, and his substitutions were well-timed. And hats off for taking one for the team. For those who have never had back pain, let’s just say that the pale, hunched-over coach we saw was bull-strong. He had the right personnel, they just didn’t do the right things.
Pinto: 7. Good match with a few moments of bad distribution. He seems to talk more than Valdes does, leading to clearer paths to contested balls, and no uncertainty from defenders. The few saves that he had to make weren’t that stressful.
Alves: 9. Our Brazilian Hummingbird was brilliant today, full of energy and omnipresence. He was stealing balls in midfield, making defensive plays on our end and attacking like a demon on their end. Yes, I would still say “Shoot Dani, shoot!” But what a match, even with the few positional issues that found him in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Pique: 6. A very good match that saw his focus back and in full effect. Any header that came near him, he won. But he needs to do a better job of marshalling the back line, and when a player has you dead to rights, play to the whistle. Don’t just stand there and throw up your arm, begging for the offside call.
Busquets: 8. Excellent today, with style, ball control and aggression that found him doing everything from playing midfield to defending set pieces to being a target man on our set pieces. Sometimes you don’t even realize it’s him, you just know that some player came out of nowhere to make a great play.
Abidal: 4. Charity isn’t a good thing for a center back to have, as he spanked away ball after ball after ball, either via too-soft passes or efforts that went directly to Valencia defenders. He calmed down some and made some of his usual brilliant interventions, but he potentially could have killed us today.
Mascherano: 7. You can see why he was in there, for defensive purposes. Note how Valencia started playing the ball on the ground once he went out of the match. Coincidence? I think not. Far and away the best tackler of the ball on the team, a player who can change the way we are attacked during matches.
Xavi: 4. Partly not his fault, as his usual working area was swarming with bats. But between errant passes and too-long periods of being marked out of the match, our maestro played like someone just back from an injury. He missed Iniesta today …. oh, wait …. he was playing.
Iniesta: 4. Very low-key today, with a lot of poor and lost balls. His risky passing doesn’t work that well against ball-hawking sides such as Valencia. Had some stretches of marvelous play, just not enough of them in an off outing for him.
Messi: 3. Yes, he scored the winning goal. He was also unspeakably selfish and/or poor by his standards. That first “finishing” attempt was awful, and you simply have to make that pass to Villa, instead of going for the much more difficult chip. He had two chances to do it, and ignored both of them. Made some strong efforts on defense, particularly in midfield, and some first-rate passes. He also spent too much time playing into Valencia’s hands by making run after run, and disappeared for stretches.
Adriano: 7. I really, really liked his match today. It’s been a while since we had an attacker who could bomb up the flank like that, and still have the pace to get back and help on defense. His crosses are rapidly improving, as he set Villa up right on the doorstep, only for Villa to screw the pooch. I expect we’ll see him on the wing in more matches.
Villa: 3. Played defense, ran around and did some good things, but his match was marred by passes that are consistently too soft. He’s also thoughtless with the ball. Why try a backheel, when the other team is just waiting to break on us? Didn’t make his usual runs, and just seemed kinda flummoxed by playing in the Mestalla.
Pedro! (for Mascherano): 6. Certainly would have played to a higher rating with more time. His effort and energy, as well as the committment to the cause is admirable. He just runs, and runs, and runs, and runs. His nose for where the ball is going to be, is back.
Maxwell (for Adriano): 6. Again, the right substitution, as a position-minded defender. We didn’t need attacking, we just needed people to see out the match, and not give up any real chances to them.
Keita (for Iniesta): incomplete. Not enough time to get rated, but was a physical demon out there.
We will know tomorrow afternoon, what the prospects of another Liga victory are. If Malaga does its thing, EE could come out of that match with a 10-point deficit in the standings, and only Champions League to look forward to. So now, we wait.