We were all supposed to die.
Women, children, squirrels and every barnyard critter in creation were all supposed to perish.
“I don’t have a good feeling about this,” said Guardiola, who has identified himself as a right proper cule with those words.
But the Shakhtar players knew, because they aren’t cules.
They’re big, strong and fast, with lightning-quick Brazilians on the wings, and an excellent midfielder in Dario Srna. We are all going to die.
Fear and trepidation stalked the land.
But a brave naysayer named Jim threw down a simple challenge: Name one Shakhtar player who you’d prefer over one of our starters.
Yet that didn’t dissuade the querrulous cules.
“It’s not the individuals, but a team. It’s like that Drago dude in the “Rocky” movies, only there are 20 of them. They divide like Transformers. We’re all going to die.”
And then the ball was dropped. And in less than 2 minutes one of the most wee of the Mighty Mites struck a blow for Lilliput. And that was that. 5-1. It wasn’t even close. Those foolish Champions League announcers, who clearly aren’t cules, had the temerity to suggest that we were going to beat Shakhtar like a rented mule because …. well …. we’re the best team on the planet right now.
“T’ain’t so,” saith the Quaking Cule. “It’s only one goal. We’re still going to die. Just wait.”
Then 1 became 2 became 3 became 4 became 5 and that was that. People are still saying the right things, such as the tie isn’t over, stranger things have happened. In 2007, remember, we rolled into Getafe’s house with a 5-2 first-leg lead, and lost 4-0 to crash out of the Copa. We’re going to die.
That was then, and this is now, the former a match that was almost the beginning of the end for the Rijkaard years. Guardiola teams don’t let that kind of stuff happen because you won’t have the ball long enough to score 5 goals. Truth to tell, this match was kind of boring. We were the superior team, far and away. But even as we gathered during the LiveBlog (yay for Kari!) to watch it, there was worry, worry, worry, until there wasn’t any more worry.
Because this was a thrashing. Guardiola rolled out with Valdes, Alves, Pique, Busquets, Adriano, Mascherano, Keita, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi and Villa, a lineup that was offense-minded, but took into account their midfield fluency, with the addition of Mascherano. But that first goal came so fast, that nobody had time to settle, and that was that. It’s bad enough that we are good, but when you add luck to that, forget about it.
The pass was meant for Villa, but a Shakhtar defender got a foot to it, deflecting to a charging Iniesta as if it were a pass. Iniesta knocked it home and just like that, they were on the back foot.
But oh, did they have chances, scoring opportunities that made us all say “See, I told you. See? SEE?!”
Yet unlike our Brazilian, their Brazilian saw the net and kept choking. Their Brazilian spanked a shot that beat Valdes dead to rights, caromed smack dead off the inside post, directly into the arms of a prone Valdes. The crazy luck was back.
Was it luck, or was it an amazing side, making its own luck? Because luck must still be capitalized on. When Valdes pushed a pass away, directly to Willian, his long shot sailed wide of the net. Our side proved Jim right beyond a reasonable doubt, particularly as we didn’t even play that well. Even at that, it was 5-1.
This match was so dull that there really isn’t a whole lot to say so let’s recap the goals, shall we?
1: There was not much on, really, as Adriano slid a ball to Messi in space, who passed to Villa as the deflection fell directly to Iniesta’s feet.
2: A spectacular pass over distance found Alves in stride. Our Brazilian controlled, rounded the hesitant keeper and slotted home (no way does that goal happen to Valdes, by the by.)
3. A practice pitch play in which, on the corner kick, Xavi passes the ball to Pique, who curls around the box to lose his marker before smacking the Xavi cross. It was covered by the keeper, but a deflection off a Shakhtar player means more luck, and a 3-0 lead.
4. Shakhtar got one back through a lazily marked free kick, but 57 seconds later, a Messi run that was trailed by an onrushing Keita, found the latter with the ball at his feet and the keeper at his mercy. He spanked it into the upper left corner, in a goal for which the Camp Nou groundskeepers should get an assist. Watch the slo-mo of that ball rolling toward Keita, who had to one-time it. No bobbles, no deviation, no nothing.
5. Alves made his one good pass into the box all day, a ball that almost had eyes as it found its way to Xavi, who slotted home.
After the third goal, Shakhtar started playing like a beaten side. Walking, slumped shoulders and sad faces. Their goal brought them some life for less than a minute, before the cruelty of Keita’s smash dropped them into the depths again.
Guess we aren’t going to die after all. Because ultimately, it was as simple as this: They were wearing white.
Team: 6. As I said, not one of our best efforts, but more than good enough. Man, we’re a good side. And once we shored up the looseness that allowed Shakhtar those first half chances, the issue was really never in doubt. The whole game about movement and support, as every player knows where to be. Pique works the practice pitch play even though it’s probably going to be covered, because you never know. Xavi sees the tunnel that Alves can pass through, and goes to the end of it. The system just works.
Guardiola: 10. Whether mind games or legitimate worry, he had his team ready to play, and play they did. Even if this wasn’t the side’s best football, it was extremely effective. Motivation is a curious thing. We had it and kept it. Shakhtar had it for a while, but you just get tired of chasing the ball. And the addition of Keita and Mascherano meant a closed midfield, reducing them to flank play and long balls, both of which were easily dealt with. It’s much easier to defend a player with the sideline at his back, right?
Valdes: 6. Mostly effective, even if he didn’t have a lot to do. Covered very well for his leaky defense early, though the diving “pass” to Willian for the long shot was probably ill-advised. And when super-sharp, he probably stops that shin ball for their away goal.
Alves: 4. A goal and an assist in a terrible match, really. Beaten repeatedly by Willian up the wing, giving balls away, a sloppy back pass that almost cost us, crosses into the stands and a joke of a free kick. You alternately want to choke him, then hug him. There aren’t a lot of players faster than Alves, but he had the misfortune to run into one today. He regained control of his side through our possession, when he wasn’t gifting the ball back to them.
Pique: 5. Is it his fault that he’s slow? No, that’s genetics. It is, however, his fault that he isn’t anticipating play and gets caught up the pitch by pacey attackers such as Shakhtar had. He and Busquets were left for dead by the Shakhtar striker, who was only betrayed by his gag reflex. He got back into the groove in the second half, looking much more like our Piquenbauer. Strong defensive plays and a goal that worked just like it was planned (ha!) were his calling cards.
Busquets: 7. Quietly effective match in which a lot of things that suddenly weren’t happening for Shakhtar, were happening because of him. As a pure defender, he wouldn’t cut it in a more static league. But as part of our attacking defense, his gangly limbs and constant nose for ball is perpetually disruptive.
Adriano: 7. Our best defender today. He lost balls as usual, but defensively and on the attack he was powerful, and retained the width necessary to make Shakhtar have to shift when he got the ball. It seems that sides view him as more of a threat than Maxwell, which works in our favor.
Mascherano: 6. Loose with possession too much for my tastes, but significantly altered the match by owning his area, his two weak moments coming during the pass for the first Shakhtar break, in which he didn’t work hard enough to shut the man down. And he was way too soft marking their main in the box on the free kick goal that they scored. Beyond that, he stopped getting work once Shakhtar realized that yes, he is as good as advertised.
Keita: 7. Where the ball is, there’s Keita, who worked with Mascherano and Xavi to keep the midfield closed. His goal was brilliant, and who knew that he had such dribbling skills, as when he held off a group of Shakhtar defenders with the slickness. It’s easy to see why Guardiola is so fond of him, and this was his kind of match, once it settled down.
Xavi: 6. Subdued match, in part because there just wasn’t a whole lot for him to do. He’d pass the ball to Messi, who’d do something amazing or not. He’d get the ball back and pass it to Iniesta, who’d do something amazing, or not. But much of the match was like a scrimmage for us, so Xavi could afford to keep the motor mostly in second gear. Beautifully taken goal.
Iniesta: 8. A remakable match in which he scored a crucial goal, assisted on another with an astounding pass over distance, and raised hell whenever he could, even fouling a couple of Shakhtar players. Picked up an ultimately smart 5th yellow, which keeps him out of the meaningless second leg in the Ukraine. He was a delight to watch today, as you think that surely he can’t get his body and the ball through that space, and up he pops.
Messi: 8. Yes, he was playing a controlled match, as he clearly isn’t 100 percent. But his work rate was madness today, as he set an example for his teammates. From working like crazy to create a steal and a shot on goal, to stopping a Shakhtar attack by tracking back and stealing the ball, he was remarkable today, and my Man of the Match. We should start calling him Puppeteer, the way he drags opponents around.
Villa: 6. He didn’t score, but he kept making the runs, working witin the offense and tracking back like a demon. I referenced Henry during the LiveBlog, because that’s what came to mind. Villa had one of those days where he did everything really well, except score. Slump vs dry patch is a matter of perspective.
Pedro!! (for Villa): 5. Still getting the match feel back, and you could tell as a number of his passes came up short, or were intercepted. This is unlike him. But if you watch P!! sometimes, you will find that he is always moving. Defenders must absolutely hate that.
Maxwell (for Adriano): incomplete. Adriano picked up a little knock, and was subbed as a precaution. Nice positional defense, as always.
Afellay (for Iniesta): incomplete. Just had time to run around a little bit.
So, if we lose 0-4 in their house, we’re out. That just isn’t going to happen. What this does mean, almost certainly, is the spectre of FOUR El Clasics in less than 30 days. My heart and soul will NOT be able to take that.
–The streak is over, as for the past 7 years, the team that knocked Arsenal out of Champions League went on to lose the next Champions League match. Not this time.