Um. Wow. Who ever thought that a win could be so massively boring and at the same time, fraught with uncertainty? But, thanks to a Real Zaragoza side that came into our house looking for precious little more than pride and to nick a goal off the counter, so it was. The old adage is that there are lies, damned lies and statistics, but not in this case:
Shots on goal: 12-1
Possession %: 82-18
Yes, they had two very good chances, either of which could have resulted in goals, but again, the Footy Gods are rather humorless at times such as this. Because you have to play the match if you want a shot.
This, my good people, is going to be the shortest review EVAH! Because here’s what happened:
Zaragoza, came out, determined to play for a draw in our house, lining up at times in the horrific 5-5-0, stacked lines that said, simply enough, “We don’t want to concede.” So we kept the ball, like, forever or something. Then we scored, when Messi took matters into his own hand, with a Kxevin-approved run at the defense to create space for a cross that a Zaragoza defender tried to clear, but he only got it as far as Keita, who tapped home. 1-0, and that was that. Why?
Because even after we scored the goal, Zaragoza slid from “We don’t want to concede” to “We don’t want to concede a second.” So they stayed back, venturing forth only courtesy of long balls, one of which almost worked. But again, the Footy Gods are humorless when it comes to matches such as this one, in which one team decides to play turtle. 82% possession doesn’t even begin to describe it, because of their 12%, probably .002 of it was actually with the intention of endeavoring to score a goal. So we kept the ball, time ran out, and that was that.
Guardiola rolled out with a lineup that had rest in mind, sort of: Valdes, Alves, Pique, Milito, Maxwell, Mascherano, Keita, Xavi, Messi, Krkic, Pedro!. And was clear from the outset what Zaragoza’s plan was, a game plan that was foiled by our scrappy goal, the kind of goal you’re going to score against a defense such as they rolled out. But here’s the thing: If you cede possession to the other side, content to try to play for a break, that means that you have to actually try to get the ball from the other side. Instead, it was like a passing drill out there, with both sides content as things were. Their subs walked off, there was no real sense of urgency on their part, no real belief that they were going to get that goal back for an unlikely draw.
My Man of the Match is Keita, who would have had a brace, but wuz robbed by an incorrect offside call. And that’s that.
Oh, yeah …. Messi’s effort that led to the goal was “Kxevin-approved,” because he had space to run into. Rather than his usual Quixotic gambol at a gaggle of defenders, he had the corner, took it and turned it, giving himself undefended space to run into. That kind of a run is always going to produce panic, and so it did. Zaragoza had it all played properly, but like the Olympians steered Paris’ arrow toward the heel of Achilles, the Footy Gods said “No, this must be a goal. So we can go to bed and stuff.”
And so it was.
Team: 8. There were some runs not made, some sloppy moments, but overall, an excellent performance. We work harder in practice. The lines of support were excellent, and the tracking back was extraordinary, the few times that Zaragoza actually decided to attack. I do wish we would quit whining about calls that clearly aren’t going to come. Tex was calling that match in a way that let the players decide it, which meant that clear, play-altering fouls were called. The rest he just let go. Yes, that kind of a match call rarely benefits us, which doesn’t mean that we should stand there, arms akimbo like supplicants, while the other side runs at our goal.
Guardiola: 9. Almost perfect, but he should have rested Messi. I know, I know. Then where would the assist have come from, you big dummy? I know. I believe it would have come from somewhere, because we would have actually stepped on the gas, rather than swanning around in second gear. Right lineup, and it was time for a start for Krkic. This was the match for it, and so it happened. Dude had back surgery on Thursday, roused himself, got dressed and coached his club then went back to the hospital. That there is full-on man.
Valdes: 7. Key, key moments in his role as sweeper keeper, including bailing out Pique. Nice to have highpockets back between the sticks. His reflexes and pace in closing on the ball surely prevented a goal today. He didn’t have a whole lot to do, but did it beautifully.
Alves: 8. Another excellent match, as he was a demon on both ends of the pitch, as well as in the midfield. Yes, I screamed my usual “Shoot, Dani, shoot!” because he should. He dribbles too much at times, but is a constant danger on the attacking end, and less of a liability on the defensive end.
Pique: 5. He is soon going to get a reputation as one of those defenders susceptible to the long ball. Zaragoza kept trying, and it worked once when he was just moved off the ball by an attacker, and again when he was left for dead by Sinama-Pongolle. The former shot was wide, the latter parried away in an excellent 1-v-1 play by Valdes. Both plays came down to positioning, and in both instances he failed. Utterly. He had a very good match aside from those two moments, but in a match that was never going to have a lot of goals in it ….
Milito: 6. Very solid. Didn’t have a whole lot to do, but was more than capable in the center. I can’t see him getting real time against a club that will actually be trying hard to score, but he was very good against Zaragoza.
Maxwell: 7. Very good today, but I wanted to see him attack more and involve himself even more deeply in the offense. Seemed to be in limbo a lot of the time. Again, this was a perfect match for him, as Zaragoza weren’t really going to do much of anything to catch him out. The times that he attacked, good things happened, which is why I was wanting more of it.
Mascherano: 9. A truly brilliant match today. His closing speed is remarkable when in full flight, and he made it clear today why Valencia weren’t stupid in not playing the ball on the ground anywhere in the midfield. Every time Zaragoza did, he took it. His passing skills were also on full display. What a luxury it must be to have a player of that kind of talent, on the bench.
Keita: 9. As noted above, my MOTM. He was everywhere, snuffing out everything with pace, positioning and calmness on the ball. And when he wasn’t killing Zaragoza’s intentions in the midfield, he was raising hell in their box. A header went wide, a goal was disallowed, then he finally knocked one in. He’s a Guardiola favorite, and you can see why.
Xavi: 9. Absolutely magical today. A match such as this one is crucial to have him at his best, because if a pass goes awry, Zaragoza were looking to break quickly. Xavi just held everything under control with his usual calmness and just enough flair to make you understand how hard is is to play as he does, with every pass hit with the right amound of pace, exactly where it’s supposed to be.
Messi: 7. Very influential today, particularly when playing off Alves with those high-speed 1-2s they do. Delightful assist for Keita, made with pure quickness and ball control. There are matches such as this one, where he plays in a way that is aware of the midweek demands, yet cognizant that his side needs him. Contrast these with the full-on sleepwalkers.
Pedro!: 7. For me, a play that exemplifies Pedro!’s match was when he forced an error as Zaragoza tried to play the ball through midfield, by sheer effort. He ran at one player, then the other, in full-on windmill mode, forcing an errant pass regained possession for us. Defense and offense were very good in equal measure, and he even became the left winger, when Maxwell moved back to begin to consolidate the match.
Krkic: 4. Is this really the best that we’re going to get this season? Villa came in and was instantly about 1,000,000 times more dangerous than Krkic, who seems to somehow take himself out of the play. I’m not sure how he is always putting himself in positions that make it impossible for him to get the ball, but he does. He just isn’t playing naturally right now, and loses way too many balls through not being strong enough to hold his position, and position on the ball. Yes, this was his best match in a long, long time, but that isn’t saying much.
Villa (for Krkic): 6. This was an excellent substitution, and Villa was certainly playing his way to a higher rating. He was constant danger with his movements in and around the box, movements that made possession retention easier, and resulted in a number of excellent scoring chances for him.
Abidal (for Maxwell): incomplete. Again, an excellent substitution, as Abidal just proceeded to do his thing.
Iniesta (for Pedro!): incomplete. He got more of a match-pace warmup for next week’s huge match against Arsenal.
We have a important stretch of matches coming up, a stretch that doesn’t make me happy to hear that Puyol is still in pain, two days after practicing normally with the club. So much for green lights. Here’s hoping he’s back for Arsenal.