This is what the world is going to remember of this, the tercera El Clasic, one that was on display in a significantly larger number of homes, thanks to the reach of Fox’s FX cable channel in the U.S., and other affiliates abroad.
This was an opportunity for two great sides to show what La Liga is made of, how the beautiful game should be played.
Instead, we got crap. Sorry, but it was crap. As a cule I am pleased that we won, and thrilled to death that we won on two immense goals. As a devotee of the game, one who cries with its downs and exults with its great moments, one who believes that there is no better sport in the world, as one who tries to be as neutral as possible in his evaluative template, this was a disgusting display by two teams that are so much better than what we got.
Don’t worry. If you didn’t like this part, you ain’t gonna like the rest of this review, either.
This is the rare match that I am reviewing after only one watching. For that, I blame the necessity of beauty sleep, as futile a task as it might be for me. Thankfully, there really isn’t much of a match to review. It goes like this: Neither team really wanted to play football, and both seemed comfortable taking a 0-0 to the Camp Nou. They defended, we played keep-away. Then two moments of individual brilliance, of astonishing football, shone through on a night of ugliness, like rainbows after a thunderstorm from hell.
The buildup was intense, and as calculated as everything about this tense encounter. Mourinho called out Guardiola. Guardiola responded with an astonishing display of cold-hearted putting the smack down that some say was a coach losing his cookies while others, who know the man and his actions better, rightly said that it was him drawing a line in the sand for his players, saying “Right here, right NOW, we are done taking crap from this club and its coach.”
It’s worth noting that Keita was the first player to get stuck in, bright and early, and it only went downhill from there. Guardiola rolled out with his best available lineup of Valdes, Alves, Mascherano, Pique, Puyol, Keita, Busquets, Xavi, Pedro, Messi, Villa, and right from the start it was clear how it was going to be. EE wasted a half of football. Flat-out wasted it in a defensive display that for this observer, is akin to buying a Ferrari and letting it idle in the driveway. As Thong Boy said (in a proper translation) “I don’t like to play this way but I do what I am asked.”
In other words, it was a tactic. Absorb pressure, play for the 0-0 and try to win it in the Camp Nou. This is a legitimate tactic in Champions League or any other tournament in which a two-legged tie decides who advances. And it would have been fine had the other club been some nobody side who were lucky to be there. But this was a team who spent hundreds of millions of Euros on the likes of TB, Di Maria, Ozil, Khedira, Pepe, Kaka, etc, etc, and let the Ferrari idle in the driveway.
They had a chance to go at us with our makeshift back line, on a team that was without ANY left backs. Why not gain possession and turn TB loose against Puyol, instead of letting us have the ball almost all the time, which minimized our weakness, which is defensive frailty? Good question. Both clubs had key players absent, Iniesta for us and Carvalho for them. Strangely enough, our absence might actually have worked out, as Keita was a wrecking ball in the center. It’s hard not to watch Ramos get owned by Messi, and wonder what Carvalho would have done differently.
Yes we tried to play football, when we weren’t playacting like schoolchildren on the playground. Pedro went down, clutching his face when he simply rubbed shoulders with Arbeloa. Busquets was particularly shameful as well with his antic and Alves might have been the worst of the lot, because his acting as though he’d been shot when he was barely touched by Pepe and earning this player a straight red card, has given the world even more ammunition against us and the Liga. Because it was a red-cardable foul even without the frosting on the cake.
Is this really the best that these two sides have to offer?
Yes, we know the subtext, the hatred, the Mourinho vs Guardiola face-off, the psychological wars that were being fought on and off the pitch. And you could legitimately be enthralled by them:
–Messi vs their entire defense
–Xavi vs their entire midfield
–Offense vs defense
–Passing vs a lightning counter-attack
This match was balanced on a bitter, brutal knife’s edge. I was actually trembling as I watched. And just when I would really start to get into it, somebody would dive, and roll around and act stupid. In the most telling episode Pepe was going for the ball, and went in at Alves with his studs up. And let me repeat that he was going for the ball. It would have been one thing had he come sliding in with studs flashing, sliding through after Alves had sent the ball away. But he didn’t. He went for the ball just like Alves did. Not the player, the ball. He missed, nicked Alves, who proceeded to act as if his leg would have to be amputated. Pepe received a straight red. Whether this was for an accumulation of offenses and the Alves nick was the last straw, or a justly earned decision will depend on what side of the aisle you sit. For me, the fact that Alves was stretchered off and trying to get off the stretcher so that he could get right back into the match, just didn’t sit well with me, just as Busquets’ game of peek-a-boo after his shameful playacting against Inter didn’t either. And such episodes never, ever will. We’re better than that.
Was the Pepe incident a red card? Yes, almost certainly. Hell, he should have gotten a red for being stupid enough to make that foul when Alves doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of doing anything with that ball except passing it to another defender. But. High leg, studs up at pace, that call is going to get made. Might it have been a yellow had the Copa not brought attention to their tactics in that match, had Pepe not been doing his bull in a china shop impersonation? Good question.
Do teams use incidents such as those to call attention to an opponent’s behavior? Sure. But they were actually playing straight up this match, defensive, physical football that was determined to keep us from scoring first, and if they could score, so much the better, but not really necessary. So there was nothing to call attention to.
For me, squarely on the cule side, I still have to admit that Pepe was hard done by, even as the foul was a red cardable offense. Make no mistake about it, this call changed the match. They went from having a fast, agile, physical defender in midfield who wasn’t going to allow Messi to have a moment of space, to having to figure out how to control us with 10 men. Yes, they did it in El Clasic No. 1, but we didn’t have to win that match, and we knew it. This time, with tensions ratcheted to the boiling point, things were going to get ugly, and did.
–Ramos laid a stupid, stupid foul on Messi to earn a yellow card and a suspension for the Camp Nou leg.
–There was a scuffle in the tunnel, for which Pinto earned a red card. Let’s hope Valdes doesn’t pick up a knock.
–Mourinho earned a seat in the stands for his bitter, apparently over-the-line commentary to the fourth official.
–Football suffered for it.
Instead it will be remembered by many for bickering, squabbling and two great teams acting, for too much of the time, like idiots.
No, the players aren’t supposed to play matches for posterity, it must be said. They play them to win. Mourinho chose the strategy that he chose, and it was ultimately a stupid one for so many reasons, not least of which that it let the club most likely to score have the ball for almost 80% of the time, attempting 788 passes and completing 713 of them. Think about that for a second. That’s an Almeria-like statistic, and a sign of a team that rolled out to play defense and to try to nick a goal off the counter, as it did in the Copa del Reig final. They attempted 263 passes, with 179 of them being successful.
Is Mourinho proud of that statistic? Good question. Perhaps his post-match rant was to get people talking about that, rather than a cynical, wrong-headed tactic that might have cost his expensively assembled team an opportunity to move into the Champions League final. They got physical with us, and for a change, we got physical with them. Di Maria came shimmying into our half, and Mascherano just put him on his butt. This was the kind of hard-edged, take-no-prisoners football that people were expecting from this tie, and referee Wolfgang Stark was right to not call anything on that one.
But he lost control of the match, as both sides surrounded him after almost every hard foul, waving hands in the “Give him a card” gesture, that was silly and unbecoming. Yes, I am naive in wanting the two sides to go at it like gladiators, and may the best one win. I don’t want any victory of ours, particularly one as sweet as this one, to be tainted in any way. But once again, people will say that they were cheated, that we were favored by the ref. History will forget that we had 22 fouls called on us, to their 18. It will come down to a wrong-headed red card, instead of what it should come down to, which is a great player deciding, like his coach, that enough was enough.
In a goal-mouth scramble created off a lovely passing sequence, Pedro twisting his knee may have been the best thing to happen to this match. When Guardiola substituted in Ibrahim Afellay, aka 3M, he knew exactly what he was doing. This was a fast, direct player who was good with the ball at his feet, could play on either side of the pitch, and liked to take the corner and throw in a cross. And it didn’t take long for him to have an effect, as he stood Marcelo up then dive-bombed for the end line, gaining just enough space to pop in a perfect cross for Messi, who took it and spanked it between the legs of a helpless Casillas.
It’s moments such as this one that tactics and pre-match discussions are seen for the irrelevancies that they are, because players do what they do, and great players do what they do at career-defining moments. “What’s the point of Afellay crossing, when our midgets can’t get to them,” many said during the pre-match buildup. But that was the point, an amazing player, the shortest one on the pitch, doing what he had to do to come up as the tallest. There isn’t a lot to even describe with the goal, as it was an interplay, two great plays, between two players.
At 1-0 with them down a man, the tie wasn’t over. A 1-0 result rolling into the Camp Nou is doable. A counter or two and voila, they’re right there. And then came a moment for the ages, when Messi took the ball in midfield, and proceeded to make a run that wounds its way around and through five of their players, before culminating in an oh, so delicate side-footed stab that winnowed its way into goal.
Casillas charged out to stop the direct shot, and his defenders seemed to have all of the angles covered except for the one, most unlikely one. Problem is that unlikely doesn’t mean impossible. Great players make a living out of doing the unlikely, and Messi’s astounding diagonal shot oozed into the goal for the 0-2 lead that might have killed this tie. One precious away goal against none for the opponent is a great result. Two away goals to none for the opponent is a soul-crusher.
Would that goal have happened with Pepe on the pitch? Hard to say, but probably not. Pepe would have just put Messi on his butt and let the chips fall where they may. Another example for people to call out the red card decision as one that unfairly influenced the match. Are they justified in doing so? Maybe yes, maybe no. Who knows? What I do know is this: That was an astounding goal, called by Sid Lowe one of the best that he’s ever seen in Champions League competition. I haven’t seen as many as he has, so I have to take his word for it.
But it was indeed a stunner.
And I don’t mean to sound as if I believe that Messi’s performance was tainted by this match. Whatever stupidity occurred on the pitch, and there was plenty of it to go around, those two remarkable goals from a remarkable player can stand on their own. But I do think that this match, this occasion deserved better.
Mourinho says that the tie is over. Guardiola says that it still has 90 minutes to go. In less than a week, we will see which coach is right. In the meantime, I will salve my disgust with watching those two glorious, gorgeous goals in replay, as examples of what this game should be, and so often is.
Here’s another example, courtesy of the brilliant, brilliant Allas, whose YouTube compilations do every cule and Barca devotee an immense service:
Team: 9. A few loose moments, but played as a unit and stood strong, with the movement and runs that opened up space, even before they went down a man, particularly for Villa.
Guardiola: 10. He had his side ready to play, and his outburst yesterday was perfectly timed. How often do we have more fouls than an opponent, a stat that might be overlooked in the post-match rancor. We wanted this one. Bad. His post-match comments after Mourinho’s rant were …. well …. none. Because he’d already done his damage with press conference comments. Time to go back to ignoring the other guy.
Valdes: 9. Immense. Ginormous. The back-to-back saves on TB then Ozil in first-half injury time might not have saved the tie, but they sure as heck made it possible for us to win that match. Aside from that, he didn’t have much to do but did it beautifully. His strength of positioning and decisiveness were exactly what his defense needed, as well as his calm with the ball at his feet.
Alves: 5. Played to a 6, but lost a point for playacting. Wasn’t the offensive influence that he should have been, given that they were only interested in playing defense.
Mascherano: 8. Beast. I reckon the days of people arguing against his signing, saying he’s a card magnet are over. Positionally he was excellent, and in straight-up situations he took the ball time and again. The announcer that called him the back line’s weak link must have been joking.
Pique: 7. An excellent match, as he won every header that came near him, and brought the ball up from the back with style. Had a silly moment with Puyol that could have been dangerous, when they got in the other’s way.
Puyol: 7. Power, positioning and presence. Is he a lockdown LB? Nope. They had a number of opportunities that all came to life on Puyol’s side of the pitch. But Captain Caveman got it done ultimately, thanks in part to a negative, negative display by them.
Keita: 8. Wrecking ball. In thinking of ways to describe what he did, those are what come to mind. He was our counter to their Pepe, a destroyer who was also graceful with the ball at his feet. He might also have been more effective in this match than Iniesta would have been, it must be said.
Busquets: 5. Any number of Bad Busi! moments, in addition to his ridiculous sham. He had any number of good plays, but also many “What the ….” moments that could have been dangerous. It’s unlike him to be so loose with possession.
Xavi: 8. Majestic is the best way to describe his calmness with the ball, his probing passes that so often found their mark. He understood that not all the passes should be made against a packed, ball-hawking defense.
Pedro: 4. Lots of running to very little effect, and didn’t provide the width that he should have, at a time when Alves was playing tighter than usual because of Di Maria and Marcelo. And once again, a point is deducted for a silly, silly dive after a harmless Arbeloa challenge.
Villa: 5. Powerful and very active early, but faded at the match went on. Had a great chance early, that wasn’t off by very much. His movement was a threat that forced their players to react to him, but again, this quality faded as the match progressed.
Messi: 7. Too many moments of invisibility for my Man of the Match, but what a stunning, stunning accomplishment that just adds to the legend that is becoming our absolute delight of a player. I reckon he says that he runs at 5 men because he can, right? Both goals were amazing in their own right. Don’t sell his first goal short.
Afellay (for Pedro): 6. Probably would have played his way to a higher rating, but what an impact sub. He turned Marcelo repeatedly, and provided the width that opened up space elsewhere on the pitch.
Sergi Roberto (for Villa): incomplete. He just got a little taste of the atmosphere, and what must it have been like? Indescribable, I rather imagine.
Ultimately, here’s the thing: The best side won. People can carp, whine and howl about the refereeing, but the best side, the best team won. The refereeing didn’t make them sit back and waste the entire first half, fear and wrongheaded tactics did. They won the Copa. So what. If we can do the trick next Tuesday, we will be able to giggle about the fact that they spent all that money to win the Copa.
The psychological war, such as it was, is rubbish. The players decided this match on the pitch. Could Stark have called a better match? You bet. But people calling us divers should note their incidents as well. Neither side emerges from this one covered in glory, but it must also be said that Premiership fans crowing about their “man’s game” should just shut up. It isn’t as if diving and simulation isn’t a problem in that league, as well. It’s a problem everywhere, and the only solution for it is straight reds for simulation. Period.
Now it’s 0-2, coming into our house, and the rules are simple: Don’t concede more than two goals without scoring at least one. They will be without Ramos and Pepe for the return leg, which is huge. But odds are that they weren’t going to be playing much Pepe anyhow, since they will have to attack like crazy in the hopes of overturning the deficit in the tie. Mourinho says they have no chance. More psychological stuff? You betcha.
In a post-match press conference Mourinho, who called Guardiola out for whining about referees, brought up the ghosts of Ovrebo, last year’s officiating (which he conveniently forgets helped his side advance) and Stark. The omnipresent question was “Why? Why?”
The simple answer is because you sold your side short by not playing football. At least not European football. You sold them short by playing defensive, ugly football because that is what you do to advance in knockout competitions. Because ultimately, you can’t make the kinds of fouls that your players make and not pick up cards. That is why. If you call that much attention to the officiating, some of that blowback is going to hit you. You ask why? That’s pretty much what I see.