Valencia 0, Barca 1, aka “Taking it on the chin and coming out swinging”

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.

Wowl

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.

Substitutes

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.


Dude …. I’m begging you …. stop doing that with the ball!

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In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.

143 Comments

  1. hammeronmessi
    March 3, 2011

    Now as I noted during the match, Messi has always been selfish. My concern is when it starts to affect the play of others, when Villa decides not to bother making a run. I think that Messi, in his improvement as a player (it’s easy to forget that he is still growing, still improving), will learn exactly when to cut and draw the defense for the killer through ball, and when to make the run. Right now, he loves scoring goals as opposed to someone like Xavi, who you sense would almost rather have an assist than score himself.

    cant believe u said this,kxevin.this little guy is the highest assist maker in barca team,that too i think by a large margin.he is also possibly the no. 3 in 2ndary assists(u know what i mean by 2ndary assist).and from that u said he has always been selfish.come on.yes he is selfish but not in the way u describing him ala CR.

    as a fan i loved those runs by messi as noted above by lev.the opponents double mark,triple mark him for that.sometimes he should choose a better positioned barca mate instead of those runs.but thats the unpredictability of messi and thats why he is the best in the world.u want me to believe that u didnt enjoy the three croquteas against bilbao?i dont think so,i didnt think so.

    ny of Barça’s players who stop making those runs because supposedly Messi is selfish are shooting themselves in the foot. As we all know, it is hard to score from one of his assists with a bullet in your foot.100% spot on ,lev

    • March 3, 2011

      Messi is yelling at Villa for ignoring a wide-open Alves and taking a shot. But it’s okay for him? How is that okay? When Xavi has the ball, players move very differently. Watch them. They’re like dogs at feeding time.

      You should believe that I said it, because I did. Because it’s true. I’ll probably get struck by a lightning bolt for blaspheming against God’s own footballer.

      You should also read more carefully the comments above yours, so that you will note that I took pains NOT to describe as a selfish player in the same way as Thong Boy. Read the comment thoroughly, then check your outrage to see if it’s still intact.

      I understand that nobody is ever supposed to utter a discouraging word against Messi. Whenever I don’t rate him a 10, I’m an evil man. But he has bad matches, just like any other player. But watch him all the time, not just when he has the ball. It will help you understand my ratings.

      • blitzen
        March 3, 2011

        So now Kxevin hates Messi too?!? 😛

      • Miguel
        March 3, 2011

        he’s always hated messi. 🙂

      • blitzen
        March 3, 2011

        That biased idiot. 😀

      • mei
        March 3, 2011

        kxevin hates messi hahaha :P.
        Was messi selfish yesterday? Yeap , for sure.
        However , at the particular time he did yell at villa , he had more right to do so than villa to messi for him completely ignoring him in that previous “similar” situation.
        It wasnt so similar , thats why.
        Messi was closer to goal , had the keeper on his knees , and was more centrally positioned while the ball was in control between his legs.
        Villa was wider and had to make a much more difficult shot that the keeper had well covered anyway.
        Not that he had the right to yell , or that his actions were unselfish , but thats that.

      • hammeronmessi
        March 3, 2011

        You should also read more carefully the comments .

        i said this in a previous comment.
        instead of criticizing him for the poor executions,we should criticize him for his behavior with villa.

        he has bad matches.i know. i can give u examples.asenal,hercules(both matches),valencia(home match)and many others.and i m ready to accept that.but not this one.apart from poor finishing he was fantastic.that was my point of argument.

        as i have said i have no interest in KR.have interest what u said about the player performance in the game

  2. Miguel
    March 3, 2011

    *i forgot about the two link moderation thingy. esqueeze my double comment.
    “Partly not his fault, as his usual working area was swarming with bats.”
    -loved that.

    a tim stannard article on mou mou v pellegrino:
    http://www.football365.com/spanish_thing/0,17033,9405_6790809,00.html

    & a brian phillips article on “parity:”
    *http://www.slate.com/id/2285073/

  3. Jim
    March 3, 2011

    Strange game. It really seems to have split opinion on all sorts of issues. first things forst. This was a potential loss – no question. The fact that we came out with three points is awesome ! That could turn out to be the moment the league was decided.

    And we only won the match because of one gloriously timed run by messi. He could have headed towards their 6 yeard box at speeed but he holds back and times it so that when Adriano cuts back and looks up ( well done on both counts) the pass is actually really easy. Goal was 90% Messi 10% Adriano imo.

    For the rest I for one didn’t like the set up of the team. We just weren’t comfortable. I don’t like Busi at CB – it’s a waste and I don’t share the thoughts that Masch had a great game. We needed Bus at DM and that would’ve given Xavi and Iniesta a better chance of establishing their dominance. Although I praised Adriano for the goal I really didn’t think he had a particularly good game. however, it may be that a few appearances there will change that. he certainly added a bit of pace which Maxwell hasn’t shown.

    Kxevin, I’m stunned – we agree on Abidal 🙂 Seriously when he makes a mistake it’s usually a serious one and there have been a few recently. . He needs to get his thinking head on for Arsenal. He’s going to cost us one day if he doesn’t. I thought Pique actually played well but maybe that’s me. Still like to see him assume more responsibility for the defense as someone said.

    Finally well done to Pep. I was more worried about his potential absence than about the line up. That speaks volumes about his influence on this side.

    • March 3, 2011

      But we shouldn’t only agree on Abidal when he’s bad, right? 😀 And I’d say the same of all of our back line players. Pique did one of the “I head a ball into the air, where it will fall I know not where,” bits. Someone has to be the screamer, and it seems like nobody is.

      • Jim
        March 3, 2011

        Yeah, I keep waiting for Pique to assume the mantle but it doesn’t really happen. We need any kind of half fit Puyol back for Arsenal.

        Btw, I think we do agree on at least Abidal’s good bits. I’ve often praised him for good games this season and I think it has been one of his best. He has also forced me to rethink his abilities as a CB. he has come in and done a great job in covering for Puyol so fair dos to him for proving me wrong. There are two reasons I find myself posting about Abidal. Firstly, to me he has weaknesses which I consider important in a defender . I don’t rate his positional sense, especially as he has to readjust as a move develops, he often turns his back on the ball ( more crosses than shots usually) and he isn’t good if a winger gets a run at him. The second is I can’t help but react to the over the top comments, often on the Liveblog such as Abiiidddaalllll ! and when I rewind the TV in confusion I see its referring to a simple picking up of a ball that an attacker has over run.

        However, I would have given him a 5. I think you were a bit harsh 🙂

  4. hammeronmessi
    March 3, 2011

    btw i m not outraged.just having a civilized debate.

    after all that what is this blog for

    • March 3, 2011

      Cool. That’s how it should be.

  5. Tom Johnson
    March 3, 2011

    As someone who has been supportive of Adriano, I am satisfied with the developments yesterday. The way Valencia chose to defend played a big part, still Adriano deserves the credit for making the most out of it.

    While his performance leaves plenty to improve on it is a step in the right direction.

    A player with that body frame (if he was only couple of inches taller), pace and comfortable with using both feet to pass, dribble, and shoot is a tremendous asset to have. Considering the price ‘we’ paid (and are paying) for it, a true bargain.

    If Pep is to place confidence in him (more minutes) it would bring necessary calmness to his game. He still does look a little bit anxious. Like he is trying to do too much. The shots that are going wide and high would be closer to the target if he is just more used to the ‘game speed’ and is not as eager to ‘prove’ himself.

    More used to the ‘game speed’ would ensure he doesn’t get caught out of position too often.

    Either developing Adriano or making an addition at LB (the one that would take time to sync), if the said player can give us about 80-85% of what Alves’ overall contribution is at the right side this team will become dangerously close to be ‘unplayable’.

    Coupled with a proper adjustment(s) up front, there would be simply too many holes for the opposing defenders and not enough plugs.

    On a side note, I always thought Banega would be a great addition for us in terms of defensive presence in midfield.

  6. hammeronmessi
    March 3, 2011

    @jim.

    this is the end of maxwell i think.so better make the compilation.

    LOL

    • Jim
      March 3, 2011

      I’ll remember you said that 🙂

  7. hammeronmessi
    March 3, 2011

    banega is more needed to real madrid.great player though.

  8. poipoi
    March 3, 2011

    Partidazo! Tactical heaven. How did we start? 3-5-2?? Emery knows us well & Valencia are such a good team. Banega is class, if they had two banegas like we have xaviniesta they could have won. He is very canchero, very good, and stronger than the two added up. AND Alba’s goal is a fair goal, in case of doubt the lineman should stay still. Valencia could and to me should have won. Or at least a draw, we got sooo lucky. We can do better! The team looks tired, like they have had too much of each other. Xavi Iniesta and Messi look wasted.

    Busi is a beast no matter where he plays, genius. Adriano was great, he has a much bigger repertoire than Alves IMO and can use both legs. I wanna see him play a lot and see his improvement with us next season! Masche ok. All three of messi xavi iniesta were bad, and it has been some games in a row…but we still won. ( Kxevin, I believe messi stole the ball from dealbert, a defender and it was a clear foul iturralde didn’t call) villa should have spanked messi’s ass, respect the elder messi! And freakin pass dude! Dribble in the box if you don’t know how to look up and can’t think what else to do but pass it to the game creators while you’re in midfield. He looses so many balls not even trying to pass everyone starts to see it now. Hope the mighty 3 wake up someday before the arsenal game. I have tickets!!! Please do 🙁

    BTW…. did you guys realize that valencia didn’t water the grass for like days and also they let it grow so high that barça could not move it fast and the bats reached soon enough to make pressure? First passes from the payers all were too short, until they got used to it. Unai Emery, the antibarça oh yes

    • justsayin
      March 4, 2011

      Yes, I noticed a lot of the passes seemed too short at the start of the game and then realized that the grass seemed very tall. I guess you try to do anything and everything in your power to gain an advantage. But, the boys caught on and simply started to adjust how hard they struck the ball.

  9. justsayin
    March 4, 2011

    Just because we don’t criticize Messi’s game playing doesn’t necessarily mean it’s because he is the “golden child” that can do no wrong. Not for me at least, everyone is fair game. I always find it interesting to read people’s comments about Messi being selfish or not when he doesn’t score, but we don’t debate if he is taking too many defenders on and a keeper that is too prepared for a shot, and Messi takes his chances and scores an unbelievable goal. I suppose you can debate if Messi is being selfish on a play by play basis, but to say that he is an overall selfish player would be much more difficult to argue. As of Dec. Messi was scoring 25% of the times he strikes the ball. Amazing! Of those strikes 46% were shots on goal. Plus .64 assists per game.

    I can’t compare him to Pedro or his rate of play. If Messi did half the running around Pedro did, he wouldn’t have the energy left to deal with 4 defenders that are consistently trying to man handle him off the ball. If Messi is walking around the field, it’s because he plays to his strength which among other things trekking back to midfield to start plays, passing the ball quickly, tearing down the field with defenders in tow, maneuvering around them and taking a shot. I’m sure I don’t have to explain the way Messi plays to any one of you, and I wouldn’t really want to tweak anything Messi is doing right now. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it is my motto in this situation.

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