It is rare that a game of football is exactly what it is predicted to be, but this was one of those matches.
We rolled into the Donbass, the indomitable fortress of Shakhtar, with a curious record of never having won an away Champions League match in the knockout stages under Pep Guardiola. We also boasted a 1-5 aggregate scoreline, thanks to getting some good work done in our house last week.
So this match was supposed to be us keeping Shakhtar in control, while resting for an immense match this weekend …. and that’s exactly what it was. To advance in this tie, Shakhtar had to win 4-0. The odds of that happening were as likely as me being able to go out into my backyard, flap my arms and fly to Barcelona.
Yes, people said, they had their chances in our house, chances that if turned, make this a much more interesting tie. But it’s safe to say that even with the gaudy scoreline, we weren’t really at our best in that home leg. Tonight, we showed signs of regaining the form that make us the most feared side in Europe, as we essentially held Shakhtar at arm’s length while rarely taking it out of second or third gear. The quality gap was immense, so much so that you started to wonder how in the heck Shakhtar got that far.
And you’d be a fool for wondering that, as they boast a quality side, one that on the night was decimated with injuries and suspensions. And Guardiola showed the appropriate respect, rolling out with Valdes, Alves, Mascherano, Pique, Adriano, Busquets, Keita, Xavi, Afellay, Messi and Villa. He had the seeming objective of playing the best possible side, believing that said side would have an easier time cruising while not stressing itself too much, which is again, exactly what happened.
The predictability even extended to Shakhtar’s pressing hard and playing out of their minds for about the first 15 minutes, buoyed by a roaring, jam-packed Donbass. But after about 14 minutes, we got control of the match, and that was that. There isn’t really a whole lot to say about this one, so I’ll save the purple prose for another time. Yes we scored, breaking our away Champions League duck in grand style, as Alves flicked a no-look pass to Messi, who controlled, rolled and smoked a low, hard shot past the keeper, on the dead run.
This goal came at the most brutal time to score in a match, right before halftime. It was also one of the rare times in this match that we stepped on the gas. We knew it, Shakhtar knew it, the world knew it. Both coaches said the right things, but there was only one way that this match was going to go, and so it went.
Team: 7. A few slack moment that allowed them slivers of daylight, to yield greater danger than was warranted, but ultimately the group did exactly what it was supposed to.
Guardiola: 10. The right side, the right moves and he had his charges ready to play. It’s hard to imagine what he could have done better.
Valdes: 10. What an absolute monster match, made even more so by the loooong stretches of possession that we had. For him to be able to find the presence to make the saves that he did after standing around watching us pass the ball around was just spectacular. Is he getting better?
Alves: 8. His defense is underrated, but he showed that off today, during the times that Shakhtar threatened our end of the pitch. Offensively and possession-wise, he was his usual self. We’ll just ignore that whole free kick business.
Mascherano: 9. A couple of positional glitches, but dare I say that we have found our new center back for the rest of this season. Pace and coverage, along with resolute defending and the ability to get into an attacker’s back before the ball comes, still with the presence and pace to get back. He took ball after ball, stopping attack after attack. It was almost Puyolesque.
Pique: 7. A very good match, but he loses a point for that ridiculous flop in the Shakhtar box, off the lightest of touches. Very strong in the air, and brought the ball forward on the attack with Piquenbauer style. Mascherano’s presence complemented him in a way not seen since Captain Caveman roamed the terra.
Adriano: 9. A brilliant match. In addtion to stopping goals, he almost scored one while contributing an aggressive, dynamic attack on both sides of the ball. He’d steal it on one end, then be down at the other end to cut in from the left wing. The more time he gets, the better he becomes.
Busquets: 7. Uncharacteristically loose with possession before settling down, facilitating our command and control style with no-nonsense efficiency. His understanding of where to put the ball and how hard, is a wonder, given his tender age.
Keita: 8. It’s as if Guardiola said to him, “Just go out there and get in the way.” He did more than that, with steals, passing control and all-around play, but his ability to make attackers take that one extra dribble and pause that one moment extra is invaluable.
Xavi: 7. Didn’t have to do much. Controlled his area with his usual calm aplomb. With the vivid Thiago display fresh in our minds, it’s easy to underestimate how amazing Xavi is as he feeds pass after perfect pass to our attackers.
Afellay: 8. If we sell this dude in the summer, we’re crazy. His attacking and defending (even a defensive header in our box) were extraordinary. If he sticks it out, I can see first-team football in his eventual future. This is as comfortable as I have seen him in the system, working high-speed overlaps, blasting shots from distance, controlling and passing. And he looked part of the offense, as there was zero hesitancy on the part of anyone to feed him balls.
Messi: 8. Loose possession and a number of giveaways in the first half, then he settled in and just dominated, able to turn it on and off when he wanted to. The goal was a thing of beauty, and he has broken the club scoring record, tallying 48 goals this season. Pretty absurd, that. Incredibly, he works just as hard on offense and defense.
Villa: 4. Pressing so hard, so much so that it’s making his job even more difficult. Tracked back more this match to play defense, understanding that scoring isn’t everything. As a matter of fact in a match such as this one, our scoring was one of the least important things that we could do. Control was crucial, and unfortunately he exhibited looseness on all parts of the pitch. It’s hard being a Barca forward. Did he come to us as fit as he needed to be? Good question. Another good question is would Krkic have displaced Villa this year, as he did Ibrahimovic last year, late in the season.
Pedro!! (for Xavi): 5. An average performance, capped off by another glaring miss. But you can see him coming back into form at the right time, news that is immense for us. His nose for the ball is unerring, which will lead to more goals for him, and soon.
Milito (for Pique): 6. Once he got putting the boot in out of his system, played a strong stretch. He made up for what he lacked in pace with positioning and all-around physicality.
Jeffren (for Villa): incomplete. But he didn’t get injured, which counts for a lot.
Now comes the stretch of the season that will decide our season, and its ultimate success. We have four Clasics looming, beginning Saturday. At the end of this stretch, we will know how we stand in the Liga, the value of the Copa and whether we will be visiting our second Champions League final in three years. Not sure my heart or psyche can take it, but there it is. At least Messi and Alves have the right attidude: