In Pep We Trust
It bears repeating, I think, because nobody knows a team like its coach. All of his dire predictions of gloom and doom were scoffed at, as results made us look lovelier than we should have. But Guardiola knows.
–Who knows how the tie would have gone against Shakhtar had they taken that early chance, or the three others, and we hadn’t gotten lucky setup deflections on two of our goals.
–We can’t lose this match against Almeria, he said, cognizant of the fact that right now, his charges are on a down slope.
So somehow (well, we know how), some way, we got it done today to maintain the 8-point lead going into El Clasic, a match that isn’t completely meaningless, but it’s a lot less meaningful than it would have been with a 5-point lead. And this is good, because the phrase of the day today was “Somebody else will do it.” My memory strains to find a sleepier, more half-assed display by our players. What, did playing keepe-uppe with Justin Bieber wear them out? Has the quality of our side jaded even us? A star always comes to make a great play. Surely the same will be true today, so I’m going to trot instead of run. Yes.
Did Almeria deserve better? Well, you rarely don’t get what you deserve, so no. But they played a much better match than the scoreline indicates, in an evening that wasn’t the stroll in the park that many predicted. Yes, we put 8 past this side in their house last time, but we were on form then and they weren’t playing for their Liga lives as they are now, with each player desperately trying to impress a new coach. They played harder than we did, ran harder, defended harder, came out and played football in a commendable effort that justice didn’t see fit to award with anything more than an on-paper lopsided scoreline.
But this match was so fraught because we were so bad. Guardiola rolled out with a lineup that should have been enough to get the job done, with style: Pinto, Alves, Pique, Milito, Maxwell, Mascherano, Thiago, Xavi, Messi, Krkic, Iniesta. That it was such a disjointed, lackluster mess had everything to do with the approach to the game. How often does Xavi find himself holding the ball with nobody to pass it to, as he was during too many moments of that first half? With no off-the-ball movement and real effort, it was a time that was screaming for a great individual effort, one that we got from Bojan Krkic.
For about 25 minutes, he was the player that all of his believers argued for: dynamic, aggressive, quick to every ball and always dangerous, far and away our best player on the pitch. His reward for that was to have his season ended by a lunging tackle that wasn’t even malicious, just the kind of tackle that you get from lesser players playing out of desperation, rather than skill.
This moment was typical of the day.
You could see it. Thiago was getting caught on the ball, or serving up a slow backheel that was just begging for an Almeria player to run onto it. Messi had a stupid giveaway that gifted Almeria a break, forcing Mascherano to have to take one for the team, picking up the yellow card that will rule him out for the next Clasic. That we ended the first half scoreless wasn’t at all surprising, really, because we weren’t playing as if we wanted to win the match. Off the ball movement? Why? This is Almeria! Width? Why? This is Almeria! It will happen, don’t you worry. That it did indeed happen doesn’t excuse this one, a match that Guardiola could see coming like a freight train.
So Messi did the Quixote thing and their defenders took the ball, or we shuffled and bobbled into their box, where their defenders took the ball. And when they put us on the back foot, with a bunch of possession and three corners in about 5 minutes, you could see the worry in the players’ faces. That worry wasn’t sufficient to make anyone actually do anything about it, and shortly after the start of the second half, we were suddenly down 0-1.
–Xavi knocked a pass to Iniesta that found him in acres of space, but on the wing, facing 4 defenders.
–Iniesta has control, but against two defenders on the wing and the end line as a third defender, the Ghostface Express is going nowhere fast.
–After Iniesta loses the ball, he kinda trots after it before deciding “Well, somebody else will do it.”
–Thiago steamed over as if to stop the ball, arriving at the same time as Mascherano. He didn’t do anything except put sMasch off, who took a futile lunge.
At this point, Almeria are off to the races and we are racing to the ball, forgetting that the ball moves faster than the man, so it might behoove us to mark someone. Like, oh, say that guy running off by himself, just waiting for the pass so that he could slot home. Milito was the last man back, stuck between the attacker and the free runner. As the pass came, he tried a desperate rearward lunge, knowing that if he didn’t pull it off, it was going to be a goal. He was right.
It was 0-1, and it was now crucial for Almeria to stabilize the match, to settle things down and get through the next 10 minutes without conceding. Problem with that approach is individual quality that can pop up at any time, even when the side is playing like crap. So Milito, as if to atone, bangs an amazing pass over distance for Villa that falls in the perfect spot for him to run onto. He does, getting there a fraction before the Almeria keeper, who takes him down. Penalty. Messi slots home, and it’s 1-1.
More crucially, the goal was a bucket of ice water in the face, sufficient to make us start playing as if we wanted the match, to stop playing like “Hey, it’s Almeria” and start playing like “Hey, it’s the league championship.” Big difference. From that moment on, we began to play, if not like our old selves at least like a side that wanted to win the match and complicate the math equations that argue against our winning the Liga.
We continued to pile on the pressure, grabbing a corner. Messi took it, and Thiago smoked it, making a run from the back that found him meeting the ball at full tilt, as he outfought and jumped the defender, glancing the ball past Diego Alves for the 2-1 lead. It was a brilliant goal, and one that should have found him texting Villa to say, “That’s how you head a ball past the keeper.” Because yes, the crowd was still buzzing after Villa wasted a brilliant Messi pass that dropped right onto the top of his head, to smash it directly into Alves’ midsection.
Still, it was 2-1 and we decided to take our foot off the gas, playing a possession game, looking for obvious openings if they came but most importantly, keeping them from scoring. That they almost did is a credit to how poor we were, and the stunning lack of pace present in our back line. Guardiola has repeatedly said that without the ball, we’re crap. These days, we seem bound and determined to prove him right at every opportunity, today in a match that was still balanced on a knife’s edge.
We had control, but Almeria were hopeful, bringing in quick and fast players such as Uche and Goitom, athletes capable of getting behind our back line and doing some damage with just the right pass as they pressed and hustled, seeking that equalizer. Then, suddenly, it happened, another of those moments of which there have been plenty this season, where a moment of astounding individual excellence makes things suddenly very different.
In this case, a pass toward the box was cleared off the volley by Keita, a full-legged swing that got some hip into it, a ball that was probably intended to do nothing more than let us reset by giving their defenders and keeper something to do. But who was figuring that, in the 90th minute of a hard-fought match, Messi would have the energy to chase the ball, running at the defender and causing him to just steal a look at the onrushing Messi. In that moment, suddenly what should have been an easy defensive header was misjudged and Messi fought off the defender and the foul attempt, controlling and quickly, before he could be fouled or stopped, lifted a delicate chip over the sliding Alves and into goal. 3-1, and we were done. And so was Almeria.
The 3-1 scoreline won’t reflect how difficult we made this match. Can a team be on form all the time? No. You pick and choose. We’re in a trough right now, and hopefully will come out at the right time. Nothing, nothing at all should be read into the hoops reversal of fortune that saw Regal Barca downed by EE in a close one, after the first hoops Clasic saw Regal Barca putting the wood to EE just like the footy side did. It’s been a brutal stretch for Regal, who were also eliminated from the EuroLeague by Panathinaikos. But …. nothing to see here, just move on.
Team: 4. At least try. Just because you’re talented, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t always try as hard as you can. It’s a long season, made longer by being alive for all three remaining cups, in addition to international duties. Yes, you’re tired. But the end is so close. Precious little support, precious little movement, precious little Messi, who bailed out the enterprise. Precious, indeed.
Guardiola: 7. Right lineup, right subs, but you have to have your side ready to play a match such as this one. They should have come out like rabid dogs, killed Almeria then cruised home. Would have saved more energy than having to fight almost the entire way.
Pinto: 5. Didn’t have a ton to do, except a few easy saves, long clearances and then picking the ball out of his own net. It’s hard to fault him for the goal. Any keeper would have been dead to rights on that one. I’m pleased that he’s renewed for next season. He’s a more than solid backup keeper, who deserves to get the start in the Copa final, Clasic though it is.
Alves: 5. His purple patch continues, as he sprayed balls all over the place. Solid defense, but the width that came with his attacking in quality positions and with quality efforts was sorely missed today. Did signing that new contract suck out his energy?
Pique: 5. Stop it with the long, diagonal passes. Just stop it. They never work, and just cede possession. And work on your pressure decision making. You had as good a chance as anyone to stop that goal, but chose the wrong angle to run at the attacker. Piatti got you a lot more than you got him, as well. A few excellent plays as well to balance out the accounts, sort of.
Milito: 6. I don’t think you’re washed up, just no longer able to fully cut it at our level. Solid match nonetheless, with flashes of quality that put the lie to the doubters. But it’s lack of pace that is the killer these days, as the only opportunities that sides are going to have against us is on the break. This requires pace. Love the long passes, and positionally, very solid as well.
Maxwell: 5. I miss Adriano. An okay match, but between overhitting passes and occasional uncertainty, it was a complex match for Maxwell. Then there was that 5-minute period where he just seemed to go crazy, running around everywhere and not getting anything done. And way to miss what should have been a relatively easy putaway.
Mascherano: 5. The usual command and control just weren’t there today, even against a team that did a lot of its damage through the midfield. Also loose with passes, and generally mediocre, like everyone else. Spent an uncharacteristic amount of time chasing play.
Thiago: 5. Sometimes, the hot dog doesn’t need mustard. What makes Xavi Xavi is that he makes the pass. No backheel, no flourish, just a tidy, simple delivery of the ball. Take notes. It must also be said that his was a man’s header, not quite Puyolesque in its quality, but certainly in its timing. Thiago will also learn to adjust his play to his teammates. When they’re off, he will learn to be more direct, and make it easier for them.
Xavi: 6. Positively brimming with adequacy. Some giveaways, and lacked much of his usual control of the situation, exacerbated by the fact that he was without his usual cohorts, Busquets and Iniesta, leading to a lot of “Now what?” moments.
Iniesta: 4. Don’t tell me that the late nights and changing poopy diapers are already catching up to him. Way off today, from his touch to his decision making. Not sure why malaise is always team-wide, but he seemed to be among the most affected. The ball at times seemed a foreign object for him.
Krkic: incomplete. The injury cut short his match, but he was playing his way to a high rating, for sure. He was our best player on the pitch, moving like a colt unbound. As usual, he was coming alive late in the season. His on-pitch stretch would be a solid 8, for sure.
Messi: 5. He wasn’t himself by any stretch of the imagination, and yet he is MOTM, and was involved in every one of our goals. That’s one hell of an accomplishment, and one hell of a personal standard. His individual runs played right into the hands of the Almeria defenders, every time. He really missed Alves, and the times that he tried to get anyone else involved, it was in a high-wire act in close quarters that didn’t have a chance of succeeding. And yet, two amazing plays provided the winning comfort margin. Impressive.
Villa (for Krkic): 4. Increasingly lost out there. He had a much better match against Shakhtar, and he looked exhausted today, bent over and panting. Runs not made, passes not completed as he slid into increasing invisibility as the match progressed.
Pedro (for Milito): 4. Still playing his way back, but starting to look like himself. Shame he missed that put-back chance, and when he’s on, he isn’t shooting directly at the keeper. Not as demonic on the defensive end, either.
Keita (for Thiago): incomplete. Keita came in and does what he does best: be there. He sometimes changes plays by just being in the way, paving the way for a teammate to make the play. Selfless, strong and still a quality, quality player. And we have to credit him with an assist, I guess on the Messi goal.
And now the lead sits at 8, functionally 9 points, since a tie won’t be sufficient unless they beat us 6-0 at their house. Insurmountable? Nope. Highly unlikely to be surmounted? You betcha. I’d throw out a B side in the Bernabeu and sit back, but that’s why I’m writing crap, instead of coaching the best club in the world.
–By the by, that club is leading La Liga over its fiercest historic rival by 8 points, and is all but in the semi-finals of the Champions League as well as in the Copa del NIT…. erm …. Reig finals. We have a starting XI that any club in the world would salivate over. Is there any real reason to be down on this group? Yes, they will play bad matches, but truth to tell if I’d been running that LiveBlog today, I would have shut it down. Ridiculous. We aren’t Almeria or Hercules, or even Atletico Madrid or Valencia. We are FC Barcelona. We gonna act like it, or what?