I’m a little irritated right now, so pardon me if a bit of it seeps into this review of a match in which only one team came to really play football. And that’s fine. We should expect that. Why, oh why would any side in its right mind come out to play against us? All that awaits is death. So Inter took the same route as Chelsea, and Deportivo, and every other inferior side.
Keep 9 or 10 behind the ball, and stick your legs out.
Inter fans will say “That’s the way we had to play, we got a point from the best club in the world, blah, blah, blah.” And frankly, I didn’t expect Mourinho to play any other way. Call me cynical. I’m okay with that. Champions League football in the group stages is, first and foremost, about not losing. And Inter played not to lose, assisted by our loafing strikers.
We paid cash-ass money for this big Swede, who was supposed to be the answer against precisely this sort of nonsense. And Dani Alves did his part, by dropping a ball in front of Ibrahimovic, who got the yips, rushed the shot and sent what should have been a goal, into the second balcony. And when he wasn’t missing chances, he was being shouldered off the ball by Lucio, who played one hell of a match, as if to say “See, it was Bayern’s fault last year. Not mine.”
Then our aging French striker sort of ponced about with those same moves, losing the ball time and again, or falling down whenever a player got near him. Which is a shame, because Messi was on, Alves was on, Xavi was on. But who in the hell are they going to feed? Yes, Henry played well for about 5 minutes, but so what? If we have an effective attack, with our strikers actually deigning to play inside the box instead of acting like big, giant midfielders, we might have grabbed a goal out of this one. Instead, we wallowed in the shit pit that Inter set up, as 9 men with shovels just shoved every real chance away from their keeper.
And so it went.
Guardiola rolled out our best available side, of Valdes, Alves, Pique, Puyol, Abidal, The Yaya, Keita, Messi, Henry and Ibrahimovic. And when Inter actually came out, trying to press the midfield and play possession football, I had hopes. Because if they’d kept playing like that, we were destined to win. But the Ibrahimovic chance as he got behind Lucio, seemed to scare them. So they went all turtle on us.
We’re clearly at half-speed right now, so we seem rather content to pass the ball around, knowing that the other club is afraid of us, trying for a goal if something comes up, but it’s okay if it doesn’t. Because as Guardiola has repeatedly said, we’re crap without the ball. So we keep the ball, even if we don’t have much intention of doing much of anything with it. Almost 64% possession doesn’t mean that you get any extra points in the standings, for a match that we should have won.
Do we have excuses? Sure. Iniesta’s just coming back, Henry got a late start, so did Ibrahimovic, etc, etc.
I don’t buy it. Champions League football is about taking your chances when they come. Ibrahimovic has to bury that first chance. He has to. Against Getafe, he chested the ball down to himself in space and laid off a perfect pass to Messi. If he evinces the same control, he has Julio Cesar at his mercy, and it’s 1-0 from a shot to the top corner. Inter then have to come out and play, and we destroy them. He had the match on his foot, and kicked it away. After that moment, it felt like a draw to me, and so it was.
If Messi charges the far post, he gets on an excellent Henry cross. If Messi and Alves talk, rather than both going for the same ball, we win. If, if, if, if.
Inter were very well organized, as we knew that they would be. And early on, they had us on the back foot as they possessed the ball and looked to make moves. Milito spent much of the match off side, and our defense did a great job of neutralizing the hard-working Samuel Eto’o. The one time that he got one-on-one against Puyol, you could see our Captain say “I’ve seen this move before,” and just knock the ball away. He and Milito worked like dogs today, to precious little real effect, because every time Milito sprung our way, the offside trap was rolled out and the flag came up, stopping yet another of their attacks.
Did I mention that my neck hurts, by the by, from trying to physically will the ball into the net, from trying to make our strikers charge the box and make a serious, concerted effort to score. Ibrahimovic should not be getting shouldered off the ball by anyone. He’s too big and strong for that, but Lucio was all man, all the time in this match. Very impressive. People will say that they defended well. Hell, any club can defend well with 8 behind the ball, in two stacks of 4. But you have to give them full credit for hard work and getting the result they were seeking.
Because again, Champions League group stages are played not to lose, and both coaches did masterful jobs of that, defending in their own way. We were more than happy to keep the ball for what seemed like hours at a time, as Inter would just knock it long, to be picked up by one of our back line and dumped into the possession cycle again.
With all of my ranting aside, this was as compelling a 0-0 draw as you will ever see, with two defensive systems on full display. We said, “You can’t beat us if you don’t have the ball.” They said, “We don’t care if you have the ball, let’s see you beat 8 men in the box.” So both defenses “won,” if the principal object of a match such as this is not to concede. And make no mistake, we didn’t want to concede, every bit as fervently as they didn’t.
That said, if Henry and Ibrahimovic show half of what they’re supposed to, if the Henry that played against Serbia (for Les Bleus) shows up, we win that match in a walk. But that didn’t happen. I’ll leave it to Hector to do something more than spew bile, and get to the ratings.
Team: 8. Excellent group effort, defending in our own “We have the ball, nyah, nyah” way. Help was abundant, and the switching was excellent, as was the motion off the ball to create available spots for passers to dump to.
Guardiola: 7. Coached well in exactly the kind of match he was expecting. He didn’t have us go all-out on the attack, because he’s aware of how dangerous Inter are on the counter, and how their strike force can punish you with the slightest mistake.
Valdes: 7. Didn’t have a lot to do, but what he did was excellent, including his role as sweeper/keeper to keep the possession game and attack moving along.
Alves: 7. He loses points for being such a weasel. I hate when he acts as if he’s been slashed with a samurai sword, only to pop up and resume his incessant running up and down the pitch. His passing and crosses have been exceptional of late, and his passes to Ibrahimovic deserved better.
Pique: 7. Piquenbauer in full effect. Even early, when the defense was looking a bit panicked, he was on form. If he was gimpy, he didn’t really show it.
Puyol: 6. Our Captain has been better. Was it the knock that caused him to be outrun by Inter attackers when they were pressing? Good question. But it happened. Time and again. He showed why we need the ball to defend.
Abidal: 7. Was a little funky early, but played it off and worked his way into a controlling match in which his side was locked down.
The Yaya: 7. Again, he was off early, with some uncharacteristic balls being pushed about. But then he came on like a freight train, winning balls, pressing Inter attackers and destroying anything that came near his super-extendo legs.
Keita: 5. Yes, he’s out there to facilitate possession and keep anything from leaking. But on two different occasions, he had good long shot opportunities, and didn’t even hit the target. And early on, his passes were all over the place.
Xavi: 9. Good God, he was spectacular today, pulling the strings that make our offense go. He was a little slow in the box in the first half, leaving what should have been a good chance, begging. But that’s being harsh.
Messi: 8. All over the place on the attack, and deserved better. If he calls Alves off that ball, it’s a 1-0 win for us. But it’s early days, yet.
Henry: 4. In the second half he started coming on, looking very dangerous, but for the most part he was terrible, playing pillow-soft football and spending more time on the pitch than in Inter’s box.
Ibrahimovic: 4. Man up. You aren’t there to make like a midfielder, you’re there to put the damned ball in the back of the net. Great players make it happen on great stages, and this was one of them. Bury either of the two great chances you have, and we’re off to the races. And too much standing around. Move!
Iniesta: 6. Did an excellent job in his role as midfielder defender, helping us retain possession, but doing little on the attack.
If I seem hard on Henry and Ibrahimovic, it’s because when we had Inter reeling, they stood around, letting Xavi run about with the ball, waiting for them to create space so that we could play attacking football. And both of them stood there, leaning on their defenders or ball watching. This shouldn’t have been.
I’m just saying.