So here it was, our first match after the meaningless loss in a worthless Plat del Reig final, in which we saw the lineup that we should have seen in that match, with the exception of the keeper. Osasuna came into town, with shirts that are the same color as our hated rivals, but precious little of the talent. So we knew what kind of match this was going to be, really, one in which they would defend for a while until a moment or two of class broke open the lock and that would be that.
This was, yet, a dangerous match not only because of the opponent quality, but an (also expected) lack of focus. The Liga is won, and there’s a big midweek match coming up and your opponent is playing for its Liga life. This means lunges, dives and efforts that, while not made with malice aforethought, are made with the desperation of a battling side featuring players of lesser quality. Simply put, that’s how folks get hurt.
So the objective was to move 3 points closer to the Liga crown, and not get anybody hurt. In this case, 1 of 2 is pretty bad.
Guardiola stepped out with Valdes, Alves, Mascherano, Milito, Maxwell, Keita, Busquets, Thiago, Afellay, Villa and Jeffren. Clearly his objective was to get Villa a goal, and not concede. We were 2-for-2 in that regard, as Villa took advantage of something that we haven’t seen in a very, very long time, a goal scored from open-field pace and creativity. We used to see them all the time in the days of Henry and Eto’o, two gazelles who could race from end to end at a moment’s notice. But of late, our more deliberate style has robbed us of the fast breaks that a player like Villa thrives on.
But not today. The passes at pace strung together beautifully, as it went Valdes to Alves to Thiago to Busquets to Afellay to Jeffren to Villa to the back of the net. And spare a moment for the exquisite final ball for Villa from Jeffren, that curled around the onrushing Osasuna defenders to find Villa, who slotted home with style. Was it a duck-breaker? We can only hope. Villa sure is happy about it, with the relief that comes from an interminable, agonizing drought.
There were other bits of news from a desultory match that couldn’t end quickly enough for me:
–Maxwell has a groin strain, the extent of which will be discovered on Sunday.
–Milito has a muscle injury of some sort, the extent of which will be discovered on Sunday.
–Messi (note the M theme here?) scored his 50th goal of the season, a fact that I want you to take a moment to wrap your minds around.
50 goals! Are you freakin’ kidding me? He breaks the Spanish record set by EE legend Ferenc Puskas, after having tied it against that very club. And the way that he broke it was typically Messi, as he started the play with a perfect ball and ended it by taking a pass from Alves and slotting home nice as you like, through the legs of the keeper and strolling to the corner to celebrate as nonchalantly as you like. You wonder if he even knew of his mark, so casual was the finish and stroll away. He didn’t want the ball, just wanted to keep playing, the quality that will ultimately come to define a player who with each mark broken and milestone reached, silences debate about who the best player in the world is by any rational person.
This was also a match that left us with more problems than solutions, as we lost two defenders and the illusion of any remaining depth as we limp to a Liga crown. We have an 8-point lead with 5 matches left. It’s over. Even as clubs like Valencia belly up, taking a 3-6 trouncing, it doesn’t matter because time and numbers are on our side. We haven’t officially won La Liga yet, but we’ve won La Liga.
Which brings us to Champions League, a looming specter that explains the cobbled-together lineup that faced Osasuna today, a side that tried its best and actually had a few solid chances, including one that I still don’t know how Valdes parried away. A last-ditch challenge by Maxwell helped put the attacker off, but it was still a remarkable save from a remarkable keeper. One reckons at some point, Phil Schoen will stop riding him like a rented mule, but who knows? Until then, he will be our keeper, one who even if he isn’t the best in the world, is best in the world for us.
Valdes, and Mascherano’s Man of the Match performance were about the only highlights for some time, as we couldn’t seem to string passes together. Yes, lack of focus and familiarity had much to do with it but don’t discount Osasuna’s intensity and energy. Afellay looked good, Thiago looked lost and Villa looked hungry, but the sharpness wasn’t there, seen in the play of Alves and Busquets, who were, respectively, mishitting passes and giving the ball away whenever he could. It was a team with no real center, no home base that allowed it to pause and reload. This meant quite a few negative balls to gain that pause, as Osasuna pressed up to challenge in the midfield, while keeping their defenders back and tight. We’ve seen that one before, right? It will become the Way to Defend Us until we prove that we can beat it when it is implemented by a quality team.
What Jeffren taught us is that pace and precision can beat that kind of approach. It’s direct play that can defeat a defensive system, as our first goal demonstrated. Yes, player quality has a lot to do with it, but the principles are the same: Direct running at a defense will destabilize it. It’s worth noting that the best chances were created by the most direct players on the pitch, Jeffren and Afellay. We won’t see Afellay against EE, except as a sub for one reason or another — time-killing or desperation, and I think that’s too bad. His directness might be just the ticket, particularly with the hell-raising midgets running around.
This also seems like an appropriate time to ask whether Mascherano can play at left back? This would have been a valid question even before the Maxwell injury, as a certain coach and his star player must have been watching Maxwell’s badness today and thinking “He’s ours!” We need a solution at that position, and Mascherano has answered every question asked of him this season. Is “Can you play left back” another one? We’ll see. Meanwhile, we have some points to deal with.
Team: 5. Disjointed, messy and uninspired, knitting together at key moments to make good things happen. Both goals were products of excellent team interplay, even as individual brilliance carried the day.
Guardiola: 8. Right lineup, right subs, excellent decision to start Villa in the hopes that he would find the back of the net with a quality goal, rather than some cobbled-together bit of garbage. Getting key players legs loose before midweek CL also tip-top. But man, were they not ready to play from the start today.
Valdes: 9. A bad pass or two, but what an extraordinary match. Yes, some will say that had he been in nets during the Copa finale, they might not have scored. Whatever. That was then, and this is now, a day in which Valdes made all the right moves, showing increased growth in how he reads play. The best keepers have these math brains that tell them “If this, then that,” which they then plan for. Valdes’ last-ditch parry of Osasuna’s best scoring chance demonstrated that quality.
Alves: 5. His heart and mind weren’t in it today. He got badly snookered on the play that led to their great scoring chance, threw passes hither and yon and smacked a joke of a free kick. But typically Alves, he also had some beautiful interplay and provided Messi with a brilliant pass for his goal. That’s Alves.
Mascherano: 10. I don’t think it’s an understatement to say that without Mascherano, I don’t know if we win this match today. He won, stole or gangstered every ball that came near him. He wasn’t just a physical presence on the back line, he was also a fast one, with sideline-to-sideline range. It’s worth repeating his most amazing quality for me: He just stops the ball, and doesn’t care what a player does. We saw it so much today, and I do hope that we see it on Wednesday. MOTM, and nobody else was even in shouting distance.
Milito: 7. A very good match today. His passing (short and long) and positional defense were in full display. He still plays like an older player who doesn’t realize it, so he makes errors that a few years ago he could solve with pace and physicality.
Maxwell: 3. Giveaways, positional errors and bollixed-up attacks were his calling card today. I can’t think of a poorer match for him. His goal-line challenge helped Valdes get enough time to save the day on Osasuna’s attack that looked dead certain to result in a goal. At his core, Maxwell is always a solid player. Never great never bad, just solid. Today he was bad.
Busquets: 3. On Sant Jordi day, you aren’t supposed to give people footballs. Nobody told Busquets this, apparently. When he dwells on the ball, he always gets in trouble, even against Osasuna. He’s an excellent one-touch player, but caught in possession, he’s a counter-attack waiting to happen. Worse still, he falls down to wait for the call. He was awful today.
Keita: 7. This is the kind of team that he thrives against, and he did so today. His positional play was excellent as he does that “in the way” thing that he does so well. He also served as a link between back and front, when he wasn’t destroying Osasuna attacking efforts.
Thiago: 5. Young’uns will be this way: brilliant one day, mediocre the next. He still has the tendency to play quickly and dangerously, in an almost self-centered way that can cost his team. Witness his little run and backheel flip to Iniesta, whose on-pitch reaction was “What the …. ?” as he recovered the ball and continued the attack. Thiago isn’t Xavi and never will be, but when performing a Xaviesque role, he has to be better. There is a precise moment to make a pass. Thiago is too often early or late, trying to compensate for that chronological complexity with trickery.
Afellay: 6. A good match in which he showed off his directness of play, touch and shot from distance, including a first-half effort that was a hair from going in. Then he turns around and misplaces passes, or hits them too softly. It’s sometimes hard to remember that he’s still a young player who is learning the game at the highest level, such is his quality.
Jeffren: 4. Some sparkling moments dragged down by all the signs of a player who has essentially spent the season on the injured list. His first touch wasn’t there, and he only has one move, the dive toward the end line. But against a defender every bit as fast as he was, it rarely worked. He’s gone this summer, and he certainly should be. Still a driverless Ferrari.
Villa: 6. As lively as he’s been in a while, even as he’s had better overall matches. And here’s hoping that beautifully taken goal will be the kick-starter for him, at just the right time. He’s making the right runs, it must be said. He just hasn’t been doing the right things with the ball. Jeffren’s pass was such that Villa had to rely on instinct, and his instincts are good. It’s when he has time to think that the scoreless streak became a burden, leading him to almost always do the wrong thing with the ball. Today was a very good sign.
Iniesta (for Jeffren): 6. Very solid in doing exactly what he was supposed to do: not let the side screw up. He became that ground, and suddenly midfield play was a lot more tidy.
Messi (for Villa): 6. He was playing his way to a higher rating. When Messi plays directly as he did today, he goes from danger to menace. Teams love when he gets the ball around midfield and makes a run. It’s easy to deal with. When he moves, takes a ball, dishes and moves again, forget about it.
Xavi (for Milito): 6. When the Maestro entered, things calmed down even further. Hopefully Thiago was taking notes on how to play quickly, without hurrying. There is a precise moment to make a pass, and Xavi knows it.
And now, we wait for Wednesday’s immense Champions League encounter at their house. And whatever back line we have will involve something makeshift somewhere. It’s difficult right now to guess at the extent of Maxwell’s injury, but Milito looked a lot more comfortable with his than Maxwell did. Granted, Maxwell’s knock probably had chagrin as an exacerbating factor. I said it above and will say it again: I love the idea of Mascherano at left back. Let’s see what Guardiola does.
–Note: I hate that Shakira nonsense. You get the feeling that she’s constantly looking to make sure the cameras are on her. And Pique looked embarrassed as she planted one on him after the goal. Our players are footballers, not celebrities.
Finally, some Sant Jordi joy ….