Dammit, I can’t make this picture any bigger! So it will just have to do. We all know the moment, just after one of the most sublime goals I have seen was struck, by one Zlatan “That was way too much money, we’re stupid for having done it” Ibrahimovic. His price seems like more of a bargain with every bit of magic, doesn’t it?
And I will tell you right now, that I am calling nonsense on the Phil Schoen nattering about that being a goal that Eto’o could never have scored, because they are very different strikers. Eto’o also scores goals that Ibrahimovic could never score.
Now that that is out of the way, great galloping Jesus, what a golazo!
Last year at home, we destroyed this side by a 6-1 scoreline. I think that this year might have been every bit as dominant, despite the different scoreline, and in a different way. It was a team hammering last year. This year was all about individual greatness, because we weren’t all that hot as a unit, and still we won. Not so sure we could have done that last year. Recall that we tried at their place, and lost 4-3. Last year’s home thrashing of them was also the match that really kick-started our Liga title run, as we seemed to gel right before the eyes of the world. We’ll see about this year, but two things are very important to note:
1) We couldn’t beat a good club with individual brilliance. Now, we can, in part because of the presence of our big Swede.
2) Now, we have three attackers who can turn passes into instant goals. Ibrahimovic, as we watched Henry do last season and Messi do with regularity, turned a pass into a shot, using talent to alter time.
In the case of our first goal, the defense was thinking “Here comes the pass, now he’ll control it, so I’ll set up right about here.” The keeper is thinking “Okay, got the angle squared away, with my defenders being there, he should shoot for right about this here spot, once he controls it.” They were all left thinking “Holycraphejustshothedidn’tcontrolitwe’rescrewed!” Because it wasn’t until you saw the goal from the off angle that you realize that he controlled and shot in the same motion, because that was what he had to do. The first goal was in, and as usual for us, that meant we were off to the races, because the other side had to chase the match. This leaves openings that we can exploit, which means more goals. Lots more goals.
And what Ibrahimovic does for us, is give us three players who all require double-teams. If you single-cover Henry, he will burn you at some point during the match. Bet on it. It happened at Inter, for a few good chances, and it happened today. But you have to double (or even triple) Messi and Ibrahimovic, but what about Henry? Or Iniesta? Or Keita?
And you can’t even say that Athletico played that poorly. They pressed us high and in the midfield, forcing us to make more negative passes than I have seen from us in the Liga, in a while. They played with three forwards, making it very clear what they were about, and their back line, particularly Luis Perea, was on form and strong.
But the goals were just pieces of individual brilliance, tricks turned in an absurd fashion that were, essentially, indefensible. What made this match more impressive for me was unlike last season, Aguero was whole, and they didn’t give up like they did last year, when it was like taking candy from a baby. And still, we put the boot in. Had we played the whole match, it could have been worse, and it boggles my mind to think that this year’s club might be better than last year’s, thanks to a mature Messi and a Swede with his trick bag of possibilities.
Guardiola rolled out a lineup that showed his awareness of the run of matches coming up: Valdes, Alves, Pique, Txigrinski, Maxwell, Keita, Busquets, Xavi, Messi, Henry, Ibrahimovic, by resting three key cogs of our machine, Puyol, Abidal and The Yaya. And I would say that it was offense-minded, but it isn’t really possible for us to roll out a lineup that isn’t offense minded.
And right away we showed our intent, as Henry did that snakecharmer thing with the ball that he does, then lashed a shot that their keeper is still asking about, high, hard and goal bound. It caromed off the underside of the crossbar, but had the keeper beaten like the kick drum at a speed metal concert. And then, Maxwell played a soft pass to Busquets, who hit a perfect pass to an in-stride Ibrahmovic, who lofted in the first goal.
We began piling up the off side calls as Henry and Ibrahimovic strained at the leads, and then came the second piece of brilliance. Busquets fed Xavi and Messi already knew what could happen, and he made it so, keeping himself on side by a whisker before running under a perfect Xavi pass. He chested the ball down to his feet, knocked it past the keeper, and suddenly it was 2-0. Atletico were having the same Camp Nou nightmare that they had last year, only the striker harrying their keeper and tracking back to play defense was big and Swedish.
Our third goal probably made me the happiest, because it came about as a consequence of a foul on Messi, in the danger area. Teams have always hacked away with impunity, because since the departure of Ronaldinho, we haven’t really been able to make them pay with real free kick danger. But when Alves smoked that shot into the far side of the goal, a laser that was past the keeper before he could react, it was 3 goals in 5 shots, and the other side was reeling. Yes, Alves’ shot pinged off the post and in but really, that one had to be a goal, because it was one hell of a free kick from a rejuvenated attacking right back.
Hats off to Atletico, who kept playing their game, pressing harder and harder mostly because they had to, right? Who wants to “settle” for a 3-0 hammering, right? It’s why scoring first is so important for us, and had Ibrahimovic turned the trick on that first great chance against Inter, we would have won that match 2 or 3-0. Because when you come out to play, as I am fond of saying, you die. Your best shot is two stacks of four, playing the counter. We got our best chances when Inter were out and playing offensively, which is the value of an early goal. The other side has to come out and play. And then we have them.
Not that any of that really mattered with the fourth goal, as Ibrahmovic took the pass and, covered, popped a delicate little lob to Messi. Argy Bargy then takes, fakes, shakes and dances, all with the ball seemingly glued to his shoetops. Everybody, even the officials, seemed to be ballwatching and really, who can blame them. The only guy not ballwatching was Keita, who sees that stuff in practice every day. So he made a beeline for the front of goal where, after a little run to make a sliver of space, Messi found him with a smoked cross for a tap-in goal. Keita will get credit for the goal, but really….come on. Did you people see what that little hooligan did with the ball and to the defense? You can’t defend that.
After that we turned down the wick, because clearly, we weren’t going to concede 5 goals. Not at home, not on any pitch on God’s green earth. And then Busquets had to go and do it, deciding to use that thick skull of his to knock off a defensive header that fell to the Atleti attacker as if the pass was for him. Off it went to Aguero, and it was 4-1 just at the stroke of halftime. Worse still, Busquets had the time and space to play the ball to his feet, make a smart decision and finish off the half. Because 4-0 feels a lot different than 4-1, because they aren’t thinking “Hey, we just scored off a jackass play.” They’re thinking “Just three more and we can get a result.”
So out they came to start the second half, full of intent and raring to go as we sashayed about, controlling the ball for long stretches and content to watch time tick away for a fairly uneventful period, until Xavi was substituted for Iniesta. It was a glimpse of the future….or well, it should have been, as we replaced one midfield maestro with another. But Iniesta isn’t match fit yet, so we immediately started playing looser, with significantly less midfield control and command, as the ball started pinging all over the pitch. Suddenly our defenders were feeling more pressure, and even though it wasn’t feeling anything remotely like a comeback, you knew there were more goals in the air.
Then Valdes had to go and sully a perfect game, by committing the cardinal sin of clearing to the center of the pitch. Now, every side has a plan for balls cleared by the keeper. The reason that when keepers clear it’s usually a boomer, high and long, is so that you don’t send a laser to midfield that they can intercept and go off to the races. Which might make you wonder what possessed Valdes to violate said sin. Dunno. But he did. Yes, Iniesta should have moved to the ball that he very clearly saw coming. In a few weeks, he will. Today, he stood there as the Atleti player headed it away over him and sent Forlan in on Valdes, with only Txigrinski making a mad dash to cover the angle.
Ray Hudson said that they’re going to be looking at Txignasty in the locker room for that one, but he was pretty much screwed, because he had to make a choice: Play for the long shot and get in the way of it, or play Forlan for the cut in toward goal. He paused to play the cut, because Forlan had been shooting high all night. It was a calculated gamble in a doom-filled situation. Forlan banged it home and it was 4-2, with both of their goals being gifts from us.
And still, we were content to knock the ball around and run out the clock, and then they had to do it. Messi took a pass, and was hammered by the Atleti defense. And you could see his face change. And you knew we were going to score number 5. Admit it, were any of you surprised when we did? I wasn’t. I wasn’t even surprised by the beauty of the goal.
Iniesta knocked a pass to Alves and, with the same motion, lit the rockets for the box. Alves bangs a slick little back heel to Iniesta in space, who passes back to Alves. Seeing no clear shot, Alves laid it off for Messi, who immediately had what looked like the entire Atleti side running at him, which made the diagonal laser that he used to sear the back of the net seem all the more sweet.
But there were worrisome signs, which I will deal with in the points portion of these proceedings.
Team: 5. I know. Seems like a low club score for such a drubbing, but individual brilliance turned this trick. Atletico benefitted from too many stupid decisions with the ball, and casual play. You can’t give a side life, and we did. If any of those chances created from sloppy play, or if they are better on set pieces (Maxwell!), it’s a different match.
Guardiola: 7. He had to try the Maxwell/Busquets formula, and thankfully, we had the match pretty well salted away. But they both sucked, and probably would have been subbed off in a closer match. But big, giant props for having the club so ready to play.
Valdes: 8. Dude, you were perfect, including that charge out of the net to stymie Aguero, and so astutely cutting off the angle available for the Maxi shot, making the jobs of you and the defender a lot easier. Then you had to make that stupid clearance. Oh, congrats on setting the record for scoreless minutes.
Alves: 8. Exceptional match, and his crosses and free kicks are getting better and better, as is his defense without fouling. But he got caught pinched in toward a middle a few times, and you lose points for the acting. Sorry, but you just do.
Pique: 10. Yes, he missed on a couple of long passes. But he was our best back line player, by about a million percent. Tell me again how United let him get away? And why haven’t we thrown a bushel basket of money at him yet? Just asking. The better he plays, the more he will cost.
Txigrinski: 6. This wasn’t his kind of match, but he did pretty good. He won the two one-on-ones with Aguero, with positioning and sheer size. But it seemed like Gulliver against the Lilliputians with him out there. Too many players were allowed to go running toward our back line with a full head of steam, thanks to midfield errors.
Maxwell: 4. That’s one point for every corner that you gave up. He concedes corners far too easily, which will damage us against Champions League sides. And people were able to just run right past him, which created a defensive scramble. So make up for it with offense, but he didn’t do that. Which was why Abidal was so frisky and playful on the bench. Because his starting role is secure.
Keita: 7. Strong match, and good instincts to keep running toward the front of the net, for the goal. Had another one of those very effective, invisible man matches.
Busquets: 3. Between dwelling too long on the ball, serving up hospital specials and wayward clearances that led, or almost led to goals, he just wasn’t thinking out there. He started out very good, but good play seems to make him silly, and then he starts cocking up everything that he sees. Sometimes, the best play is the simplest one. It’s what makes The Yaya so effective. Yes, he has the tricks. But during regular play, when you don’t need to, is not the time to take risks. The more I watch Busquets play, the more nervous I get about January, because the position in which he plays means that when he screws up, it will result in a goal, or an excellent chance at goal for the other side.
Xavi: 9. He tried to get fancy once, and lost the ball. It was weird to see. Command and control, and always the right decision with the ball. When Iniesta came in, you could see the difference. The latter shows too much of the ball, and thinks about making a run rather than controlling and directing the offense. It’s a crucial difference, and the big reason that right now, Iniesta isn’t valid cover for Xavi. He thinks like an attacker, instead of a midfielder.
Messi: 9. Yes. 9. But he’s still Man of the Match. Yes, we’ll put up the poll so that everyone can affirm his excellence today. Why not a 10? Because of that run he made which was lovely, and thrilling, but it should have resulted in a pass to a wide-open Ibrahimovic or Henry. You could see the frustration, and if you do that too often, your strikers stop making the runs, because they think you’re going to showboat it into the box, so they might as well save the effort.
Henry: 6. He was getting hacked, which is no excuse to lay on the pitch when your side is on the attack. You didn’t get the call, now get up and run. Yes, he made some great runs, really deserved a goal, and made excellent pass after excellent pass. He’s beginning to show signs of clicking with Ibrahimovic as well, which warms my evil little soul. He clearly still has some fitness to gain. But if today’s Henry shows up, we win that Inter match. Ditto for….
Ibrahimovic: 7. He would have gotten a higher rating had he played a more complete match. But he is harassing the keeper now, pressuring defenders, even contesting possession in the midfield and helping to defend on corners. We needed this Ibrahimovic against Inter. And I don’t want to hear about big-match chokes. This was a crucial match, as an early test of our Liga aspirations. And he was brilliant, just not in a sustained fashion. And I think he goes down too easily for one so strong. Play through those slings and arrows hurled by puny men.
Iniesta (for Xavi): 4. The midfield kinda fell apart when he came on, and he really should have contested that awful Valdes clearance. His only shining moment, really, came with the goal. Yes, it pains my heart to rate Ghostface that low.
Marquez (for Pique): 5. A middling effort by the Kaiser, who had a couple of good moments. But dude, try a sliding tackle or two, stick a leg in the way, do something when you think that you can’t run to a ball. Really. Give it a shot.
Pedro (for Ibrahimovic): Incomplete. He came on and had precious little effect, but with hardly any time, it’s difficult to blame him. We’re just having a pass-around at that moment.
Our brutal stretch continues, with matches on Tuesday (Racing), Saturday (Malaga) and Tuesday (Dynamo Kyiv, who put Rubin to the sword). When this stretch of 7 matches in 22 days kicked off, I wondered if we would be able to turn the trick of going undefeated throughout. Racing will be a stern test, and they will be flying today, coming off of a victory. Both that and the Malaga tie are away, then we’re home to Dynamo. If we win out, I’ll be feeling very good about our chances for this season.
And finally, I leave you with an enduring image that sums up the match for me.