No whining. After two viewings of this match that many will call excellent, but not me, that’s the first thing that’s worth saying.
No whining. This was a match that we could easily have lost, even though we should have won it, a match that came down to moments, millimeters and men being men …. or not. It wasn’t a referee, so squash that talk. He let the players decide the match, which is as it should be. We are not Arsenal, or Chelsea. Guardiola said that he wasn’t going to harp on the refereeing, and neither should we, because the ref didn’t decide this match, wasteful finishing did, along with key players not showing up when they are supposed to.
But thankfully, Bojan Krkic did, donning his SuperBoy cape right about the same time as last season, when Zlatan Ibrahimovic was playing his way to the bench.
This picture fascinates me, because it’s an all-Barca tandem of Krkic and the on-loan Martin Caceres who had a whale of a match against his former club as did his team, that played a match of two halves.
In the first, our team of Valdes, Alves, Pique, Abidal, Adriano, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Villa, Messi and Pedro!! had their way with Sevilla, picking up right where they left off against Arsenal with passing, pressing, movement and the jaw-dropping elegance that makes us the favorite club of so many. Sevilla was content to sit back and play the passing lanes, pressing in the midfield just enough to not create the time and space necessary to find runners, but determined not to let us pass our way into the net.
We, on the other hand, came at them with a display of useless beauty — ocular gifts that ultimately, didn’t lead to the glories that they should have, mostly because Sevilla played their hearts out, but also because it was clear that we were lacking just a little bit of sharpness. On form, Xavi takes that ball and immediately dishes to a dashing Villa, instead of doing a curlicue that, at its terminus, found a closed door that was open a second earlier. The passes that were justmissing or finding an outstretched Sevilla foot, would have found players.
We also didn’t use our width as effectively and when we did, howlers masquerading as crosses were the net result, as Adriano came down to earth and Alves found himself the target of more attention than usual, as Sevilla determined to keep our attack in the center of pitch and if Adriano was going to be the one to beat them, so be it.
It was smart strategy that we foiled with a goal that should have led to more, one of those amazing moments. Krkic, who entered early for an ailing Pedro!!, laced a pretty cross-pitch ball to Xavi, who began a lovely series of give-and-gos with Villa, then Iniesta, who popped a ball over the top to an onrushing Alves who slid it to Krkic, who walked it into the net, escorted by the aforementioned Caceres. It was a team goal, one that was started and ended by Krkic, whose grin seemed to be of both exultation and relief. (BTW, I am going to show my stupidity here, and ask why Krkic wasn’t offside when that pass came from Alves. He was already behind the last defender when the pass was made, as the replay shows. I confess to not being familiar enough with the offside rule.)
Then we proceeded to wet the bed. Messi was waiting for an offside call that never came, so his concentration wasn’t there as he took a ball over the top that would have found him in on the keeper. Villa got greedy and stupid, spurning a wide-open Xavi to take an absurd shot that didn’t have a chance of going in. In what would have been one of the goals of the season, Xavi chipped a lustrous ball for Messi, who plonked his header off the crossbar.
Everything was working as we harassed and harried their defense, creating chances and danger seemingly at will, playing our usual wonderful football but going into the locker room with a 0-1 lead. And you can probably imagine that their coach said to his side, “They played a difficult, intense Champions League match in midweek, and will get tired. You have taken their best shot, now give them yours.”
Then Sevilla came out and got in our faces, physically and offensively as they inserted Kanoute and declared the right side of the pitch open for business. Pique is clearly a marked man, and Sevilla showed why with an attacking sequence that came up the left side of the pitch. Alves and Abidal had contain on the attacker, and Alves got impatient, lunging at the ball instead of just standing his ground. In that space created by his attempted slide tackle came the pass that Pique, on psychic walkabout, or maybe looking at everything at eye level, which allowed him to lose track of the diminutive Jesus Navas, who headed home past a diving Abidal, to knot the scoreline.
That sequence was really a comedy of errors, as Pique began the mess by making a steal attempt in the center of the pitch, then Alves tried the sliding tackle instead of just standing his ground. This forced Valdes to rush over to try and blot out the attack, which made Abidal do the right thing once the pass was made, which was to rush to cover the line. Pique was playing the pass, instead of turning to face the opposition to check for loose attackers, and that was that. It was a terrible goal to concede, because every part of the defense broke down.
Busquets had a chance to stop the initial pass, with a simple foul. Two other players had a chance to stop the play by sticking a leg out, making the kind of lunging stop that Sevilla’s defenders had been making all half. But it was Pique’s positional error that really screwed the pooch. As a central defender, do that. By trying to act as a defensive mid, it left the center of our defense wide open, and that was that.
Yet even after their goal, this was supposed to be the time that we stuck our chests out and showed Sevilla who was boss, saying to ourselves that the goal was a fluke, really, and getting on with the business of rolling out of their stadium with our 7-point Liga lead intact. Instead, Adriano blasted yet another absurd shot, Krkic got in behind the defense with a slashing run, but in trying to control the ball off his chest, just slid it to their keeper, and on it went.
Sevilla decided that physical play was the answer, knocking us off the ball in the second half, and sending Perotta up the right for slashing, dashing runs that time after time, found the center of our defense wanting. As Guardiola says, we’re crap without the ball, but we’re even crappier without a fully functioning Pique. Some would say that he wasn’t the same defender after the sac shot. Others will say that he was, but just wasn’t being tested until Sevilla decided that they were going to try to win that match. Whatever. They had the best chances of the second half, as Negredo and Kanoute missed shots that they normally bury, Valdes came up big and Abidal turned into a lion as Sevilla came at us in counter after counter, hard-charging efforts that bombed up the pitch.
And we gave it right back as we found our sea legs again, and began to threaten their nets. Iniesta blasted a shot from distance that smacked the crossbar, then he had a shot cleared off the line. Krkic was fouled in the box, and many referees would have given a penalty, but not this one, not in this situation. And really, it shouldn’t have come down to that, to Barca fans sounding like Arsenal fans in howls that “The ref done us wrong.”
Our attackers done us wrong, in their worldview that more chances will come. If Villa squares that ball to Xavi instead of going for personal glory, if Messi or Iniesta’s aim were slightly better, that match is very different. As it was, we were at sixes and sevens, put there by a fresh side that came at our Champions League-fatigued legs, and we didn’t know how to respond for a crucial few minutes, before coming right.
Neutrals will say that this was a remarkable match, as the teams went up and down the pitch at each other, asking and giving no quarter. Abidal was diving at headers, the Sevilla defenders were scrambling like so many Dutch boys, trying to plug holes in the dike that was their defense as we kept coming at them.
What I saw, rather than a remarkable match, were the errors that gave Sevilla life, key players disappearing and a hobbled Messi, who turned it on in fits and spurts, rather than the constant brilliance that wears down defenses, thus making it easier to contain him since Villa had donned his cloak of invisibility. I saw a lack of sharpness, and the same frustrating finishing. I saw runs not being made, and passes not finding runs that were made, or passes that came a fraction of time too late, and goal-threatening chances that came too easily for them as only one of our central defenders manned up in a significant way.
Great match? Not for me. What I saw was my club drop points that it should have grabbed with style. As Xavi said, “We should have finished this match in the first half.”
When we didn’t, it allowed a team that had something to play for, the opportunity to put it on the line. Sevilla played with quality, grit and determination. People who suggest that they were trying to kick us off the pitch, do them a disservice, as do people who will grouse about the officiating. As Xavi said, it should have been done in the first half. It wasn’t, and now we have to hear the stories about the EE’s championship aspirations being revived, blah, blah, blah, blah. But we have to screw up two more times in 10 remaining matches, and they have to be perfect. Anybody want to take odds on that happening?
Team: 6. Too many times we got away from what we do. The pressing was going to be impossible to maintain for the entire match, but there were too many instances of things we usually do, that weren’t done. Typical of them is the aforementioned Xavi moment, where if he’s on form, he spots Villa and cuts through with a dagger ball. Or Alves shows patience instead of anxiety-induced desperation.
Guardiola: 7. Pull Messi. Is a hobbled superstar better than a fresh-legged sub? No. This was the kind of match in which a direct, pace-y player such as Afellay could have made a difference, in both pressing and attacking. He would have been perfect with the Maxwell sub, taking over left wing and creating danger there.
Valdes: 7. Strong match, though he made a significant positional error in not trusting his defense to deal with that threat. When he left his line to lunge at that ball and go to ground, it was a play made without full tactical cognizance, a full-on fire drill.
Alves: 6. Off song for this match. Sevilla played him strongly and aggressively, but it’s his job to find a way through all of that, to give our attack the right-sided width that makes it go. The other problem was the absence of Pedro!!, and Krkic’s setting up on the left-hand side. Suddenly, Alves had no backboard to work give-and-gos with. He also should have been more defensively conservative for a bit, as it was clear that Pique needed help during Sevilla’s surge. Jailbreak runs at our defense are worrisome.
Pique: 4. It’s easy to play when there’s no pressure, but great players make the plays that they are supposed to when under pressure. The center pitch lunge was silly, as was playing with your back to goal, as the last man standing between any leakers and a goal. Not sure what he was thinking. Couple this with the positional errors of a defender who thinks he’s faster than he is, and stand back.
Abidal: 8. Far and away our best defender today. A diving header to clear danger? Staggering. He outran everybody who gave him a try, though he did make some positional errors that facilitated a couple of Sevilla attacks, in part because ….
Adriano: 5. What the hell was he doing? I like him for his offense, but if he’s going to blast dimwitted shots and sky-high crosses, sit down, and let Maxwel play. Guardiola thought the same thing. He was sharp early, then went steadily downhill. Fatigue? Maybe. Most importantly, he needs to calm down, figure out what the right thing is, and then do it.
Busquets: 7. More than solid, with positional play, defending and passing that gave the midfield some strength and fluency. I can’t help wondering, however, if this wouldn’t have been a match for Mascherano. Busquets was caught out of position when the attack that led to Sevilla’s goal was born in the midfield.
Xavi: 7. A beat off song. He made some amazing plays and incredible passes, but it’s the passes he didn’t make that stood out for me as signs that he was feeling the incredible effort of midweek.
Iniesta: 8. A glorious match in almost all phases of the game. His pressing in the midfield could have been better, but he was a constant danger with the ball at his feet, with the kind of very direct play that, coupled with Xavi’s usual quality, gave our attack teeth.
Messi: 6. Astonishing first half, then tailed off in the second, picking his spots, but what spots they were. But he couldn’t pressure the ball because he just wasn’t moving as fluently as he usually does. And ball pressure, particularly from the forwards, is what makes our attack go full speed ahead.
Pedro!!: incomplete. Showed signs, but was substituted early. We really missed his omnipresence, even as we benefitted from the presence of Krkic.
Villa: 4. He started with some excellent runs, tracking back on defense and playing well. As the match progressed and got more intense, he wilted to the point where you wondered if he was still on the pitch. It is matches such as these where he has to show why we paid 40m for him, instead of taking a powder. Of course things are physical and pressurized. Make the right runs, and make the right decisions. His shooting when he should square the ball hurts us again.
Krkic (for Pedro!!): 7. An excellent match. He still goes down too easily. Perhaps without that weighing on his reputation, he gets that penalty shout. His control is also erratic at the wrong times, including that ball that found him behind the defense. But he was making those cutting runs, pressuring the ball and beginning to play like the game comes naturally to him, rather than a stiff, uncertain attacker. The openness of the match helped his fluency in that regard. His strongest match of the season, by far.
Maxwell (for Adriano): incomplete. He came in for Adriano because of his positional skills as a defender, a sequence that, not coincidentally, began our coming back into the match.
Keita (for Villa): incomplete. Guardiola was clearly thinking that fresh legs late might make a difference, but it wasn’t to be, as Keita barely had sufficient time to get warmed up in this cauldron of a match.
And now, it’s a 5-point lead. Are we worried yet? No? Good. Because I’m not. Never worry about things that you can’t control. I have faith in this club, and will until the mathematical evidence proves otherwise to me. Right now, I see dropping 5 points in 10 matches as an impossibility, as big an impossibility as the EE running the table.
More importantly, we shouldn’t turn on the club or its players. They played their hearts out. And even as my evaluations are sometimes scathing, my faith and confidence are unwavering. Wins, draws and losses are all team efforts. Right now, we have the best team in the world. Let’s trust that team to take care of business. And lay off the referee, who didn’t choose not to pass to Xavi, or hit the crossbar twice. Players decide matches.
Next up is Getafe, a home match (whew!) that will run into the much-needed international break. Our players need quality rest of the kind that you can only get from significant time off. If we take care of business vs Getafe, Villarreal is our last remaining danger team, as I just don’t see Espanyol giving us a ton of stress at home. EE, on the other hand, still has to travel to Atletico (who will roll over for them as usual), Bilbao, Valencia, Sevilla and Villarreal.
I like our chances.
P.S. There’s actual news at the end of a review. Marca are claiming (via a broadcast on capitol city radio station COPE) that EE is going to petition the Liga for stricter doping controls, alleging that we have “disreputable” physios working for us, and that Valencia are also suspect. Sighhhhh…. As it turns out, this is all nonsense. Flo Flo contacted Rosell directly to call BS on the radio report, and we are taking legal action against the station.