Get used to seeing this picture, folks. Because the best football club in the world, by sending a player and a significant pile of dosh to Inter Milan–a move that had everybody on the planet questioning the logic of our Powers that Be–is now significantly better.
Yes, we took care of Getafe, at about half-speed as guys worked out cobwebs from Internationals, etc. Yes, they could have been up 3-0 before halftime. But that isn’t how it’s supposed to go, and so it doesn’t. When Messi tries a bicycle, it’s with the conviction that the shot has a chance. When a Getafe player tries it, it’s a “Well, let’s have a go” kind of mentality that isn’t as sharp as it should be. So one player’s slides inside the post, the other player’s bounces off it.
It’s just that simple. Luck? I don’t buy it. Skill and conviction decide matches, and aside from their zeal in committing fouls, Getafe didn’t play with the confidence that matched their advance, “We can beat these guys, blah, blah, blah” nattering. And so they didn’t. Because they didn’t really believe it.
So we ponced about with that GPS kind of play that we sometimes pull out after breaks, that “Where is everyone” sort of goofiness that makes us look as crappy as we did in that first half. And frankly, the starting XI of Valdes, Puyol, Pique, Txigrinsky, Abidal, The Yaya, Keita, Xavi, Pedro!, Jeffren and Ibrahimovic, made me a little nervous.
And that nervousness had very solid reason for existence, and Puyol was flat outrun to a ball, then Valdes dropped what should have been a hassle-free save. Pique and Puyol acted like new teammates, bobbling the ball between them, leading to more danger for Getafe. Pique popped off some atrocious long passes and giveaways, including one in which he made the Defender Cardinal Sin of clearing into the center of the pitch. Then Pedro! gave one away. Then The Yaya was clunky, and so on.
By missing their chances, Getafe were whistling past the graveyard, because it was only a matter of time, really, before the lads learned to play with the luxury that they had, which is the ability to play at minimal effort and win matches. It isn’t a luxury that we’ve had before, so they could be forgiven for not quite knowing what to do with it. And once they got their hands around the possibilities, it was only going to be a matter of time.
And so it was.
The two goals were both exquisite examples of excellence, not as much because of the result as from the way that they happened, the ease with which they happened and yet, the astounding level of skill necessary to make them happen.
1) Messi takes a pass, brings it down with otherworldly control and plays his way out of a defender sandwich. Iniesta, who provided him the pass, kept running diagonally into the box, which did two things: It drew defenders with him, making them shade toward him while keeping their eye on Messi, and it created passing space for Messi.
So rather than trying the obvious, which would have been a play back to Xavi, or some little flick to Iniesta that would have just missed, Messi laid the ball out into the acres of space, for Abidal to cross. Our French Greyhound smacked a cross that he knew had to be hard enough to clear Getafe’s scrambling back line. Still, one defender got a stabbed foot to it.
Through all of this, Ibrahimovic did what strikers are supposed to do, and beelined for the back post, full of the faith strikers have that says, “The ball will come, the ball will come.” When Abidal’s cross was deflected, Ibrahimovic just made an adjustment, stuck a leg out and flicked the ball into the net, into the one space that was available. Yes, he cut it a little too fine, glancing it in off the post as he did. But the difficulty of that shot, and how easy he made it look, were amazing.
2) First, it must be said that I love counterattack goals from us. But this one was special, because it began with Messi getting hacked in the midfield, and the referee intelligently waving play on because he didn’t want to deprive anyone of what was about to happen. 😀 The ball pinged to Alves, who had all the room in the world to charge up the pitch with the ball at his feet, weighing the options.
Messi was controlling his run, staying just behind and in sight of Getafe’s defense, almost lulling them to sleep by not making a full-tilt dart into the box. Ibrahimovic headed for the far post, a move seen by Alves, who delivered a cross that should have had a bit more mustard on it. As the ball was arriving, Ibrahimovic already knew the deal: The keeper and two defenders were there, to make sure that his shot didn’t have a chance. A lot of strikers would have blasted the ball anyhow and taken the corner, or a chance that they could get it between the keeper’s legs.
Instead, Ibrahmovic took the cross, pillowed it with his chest so that it dropped at his feet and, almost in the same motion, laid up a perfect ball for Messi to head in.
The record will say that we scored our second goal off of a counterattack. But Messi was grinning like a Cheshire Cat, because he understood what I began this review with: Damn, we’re good, and we aren’t even firing on all cylinders. What happens when Iniesta reaches full fitness, when Henry is out there, when Ibrahimovic is fully fit?
Yes, we had a striker, one of the best in the world. He’s somewhere else now. We have something completely different: A big, strong striker who can play like a midfielder. Recall the moments:
–A killer move frees him up for a shot that he fluffs. No worries. They’ll go in.
–On the run, he flips a one-touch, backspinning lob pass for Pedro! that landed at his feet as if placed there by the footy gods.
–He lays off a long pass with a header for Keita, that landed in the exact right spot for him to take a shot from distance.
–Just outside the box, he controls a long pass and sweeps an elegant backheel for Iniesta.
I’m completely in love with the possibilities, as our offense has gained a completely new dimension. A whole bunch of them, actually.
And we had the World’s Biggest Debutante, Dimitro Txigrinski, roll out today. He was spectacular, our best defender in the first half, before Pique shook off whatever was ailing him. We didn’t see much of him in the second half because we had the ball all of the time. And that’s fine, too.
But already, he looks as if he had come up through La Masia, with the position defense, the amazing long passes that were mostly unerring and the skill that got me most excited, his ability to calmly clear the ball to an attacker, rather than just clearing the ball out of the box wildly, banging it somewhere up the pitch. A 25 million central defender? Okay. It was only one match, but the skill set that was on display wasn’t one of those “Well, he had a good match” kinds of things. He is the real deal, folks.
Should we not have needed to sub in Messi and Iniesta? Nope. But they needed the work. Iniesta, after his long injury break, needed to re-examine match pace. And Messi needed some positive reinforcement after the awful stint with his national side. It was so good to see him smiling.
So now what?
Team: 6. Integration issues dragged things down, but it all came right in the second half.
Guardiola: 8. The exact right substitutions at the right time, to great effect. Good call rolling out Txignasty, too.
Valdes: 7. After almost giving me a heart attack, settled very nicely into the match, with some excellent saves.
Puyol: 4. He looked angry coming off, and I’m betting it was at himself. He kept getting caught pinched toward the center, which provided tons of space for Getafe’s attackers to pass the ball into. Looked sluggish and not up to his usual standard.
Pique: 5. Played up from a worse rating. Terrible first half, excellent second half. Yes, Getafe was making a concerted effort to get in his grille, but not during his most heart-rending clunkers.
Txigrinski: 8. Got caught out of position once, and didn’t show the greatest burst foot speed. But what a performance, and what passing. He and Pique will be the starting central defensive tandem next season. You read it here first.
Abidal: 7. Very solid game from the French Greyhound, including some excellent timing steals, many a destroyed play and that great assist on the first goal.
The Yaya: 4. He was off today, with precious little influence on the match, and very little of his usual calm control and distribution.
Keita: 7. Another good one as he was all over the pitch, controlling, destroying and creating.
Xavi: 6. Quiet but very solid match from our midfield general. Is still feeling his way around BANGS. He’s also learning how to deal with the much closer marking that he will be getting all season long.
Pedro!: 5. Discipline is what he needs. He was running around too much, which makes it difficult to integrate him into the offense, because you have no idea where he’s going to be. He’s also too ambitious with the ball, and decides to pass when he has no other option, rather than keeping the ball moving as a matter of habit.
Jeffren: 4. Final Fantasy had the same discipline issues as Pedro! Those two hamstrung the possibilities of our offense in the first half. Movement is good, too much movement just means that passes find there way to that spot the player just left. Wait for the match to come to you, wee hopper.
Ibrahimovic: 7. Still not in full cry, but he will be. Needs to help more on the defensive end. Then it will make designating him as Man of the Match even easier than it was this time, when Messi and Valdes were also in strong contention.
Messi (for Jeffren): 9. A true match changer, an irresistible force with his runs and ball control.
Iniesta (for Pedro!): 6. Still feeling his way back after the injury, but definitely did some good work out there.
Alves (for Puyol): 8. Immediate effect on the match, defensively and offensively.
And so we sit, top of the table, in the hopes that we will never relinquish the position, possessed of a club so filled with possibilities that the mind boggles. In many ways, Henry doesn’t have to be as good this season out, with the mayhem-creating possibilities raised by Ibrahimovic. And Txigrinski just knocks me out with his calm, accurate playing and passing. It’s a 24-karat, stone-cold bummer that he’s Cup-tied.
The busy stretch continues, with Inter on Wednesday, and hitting up the ATM on Saturday. Until then….