Racing 1, Barca 4, a.k.a. “Almost there. Almost.”

Did we kill them, or what? Who's next?
Did we kill them, or what? Who's next?

It was a perfect match, played perfectly with a full team effort, and everybody doing what they were supposed to, then Rafa Marquez had to go and screw it up.

So, imagine this: Both clubs wind up tied at the end of the season, in the league and head-to-head, and it comes down to goal differential. We’ve given up 3 goals in two matches, none of which were supposed to be. Pardon my sounding like Guardiola after the 5-2 win vs Atletico Madrid, but this can’t happen.

“Oh, we’re still up by 3” is not a viable consideration, to my worldview.

And more importantly, we saw something of the high-wire act that every top-level club faces, of a wrong foot plant derailing the season. Ibrahimovic, our brilliant Swede, has a sprained ankle. More will be known over the next couple of days. But he is needed, with Henry having a case of the shits, and Iniesta not back to full match fitness or pace yet.

Wow, quite the Gloomy Gus opening in the aftermath of as thorough a dismantling of an opponent as we are likely to see this season, eh? The possession stats were absurd, as Guardiola made it abundantly clear how he viewed this match and our struggles at Racing, by rolling out the Best Possible Lineup of Valdes, Alves, Pique, Puyol, Abidal, Keita, Busquets (hence the “best possible” qualifier), Xavi, Messi, Henry, Ibrahimovic. The idea was to put the boot in, get the match over early then have a nice little kickaround.

Which is precisely what happened, though truth be told this one started a little clunky, with bad shots from both Henry and Ibrahimovic, and Xavi being slow on the draw in jumping on a pass in the box. Racing were defending resolutely, determined to keep us in front of them, with 10 behind the ball, their two attackers playing high …. not really pressuring, just kind of hanging in case anything shook loose.

Problem with that is that you don’t put any pressure on Xavi, allowing him to control and command, as we inch closer and closer to your goal. Keita was pushing up with impunity, aware of how Racing were playing, a club that would have been perfect content with a draw. We conceded some possession in our own end, playing with 10 men thanks to Pique being off with a head gash for a bit, leading to the hilarious line “Welcome back to the game, Mr. Fawlty.”

You could see us getting closer and closer, and then it happened, a foul on Messi that led to a set piece. The passing was as calm as could be, as Messi drops a perfect ball onto Ibrahimovic’s head, and he victimized our own Adriano at the far post. It was 1-0, and really, the way that Racing were playing, that was that. But then, Ibra broke loose into the box for a second, forced wide only by some excellent goaltending.

And let’s take a moment to say, without fear of offending any fans of any recently employed Barcelona strikers, that we don’t score that goal last season. Because it was height, positioning and strength that scored that header. He got on the defender and stayed there, making sure that the ball found the net. As goals go, it was a pretty simple header over a shorter, weaker defender (sorry, Adriano). But as possibilities go, our color palette just got a little more vivid.

But we had the ball and kept the ball, for minute after minute, as the Racing fans whistled at their side but really, what could they do? What fascinated me was that they seemed to keep playing the same game plan, as if they said “Well, we won’t give up two, that’s for sure.

And yet, they did, thanks to Messi, who was out of his mind. It was an innocent play, really, us just kicking the ball around until a one-touch from Messi to Xavi, followed by Messi charging toward the box, led to a perfect return ball from Xavi. Messi was able to weasel his way in, and snapped off a shot with precision, placement and pace, that he hit while he was running. I’m sorry, but that’s just crazy. It was like he was striding to continue his run, only it was a snap shot.

Suddenly it was 2-0 and we were off to the races, because at this point, Racing had to come out and play, right?

Well, sort of. They were still tight at the back, and on a set piece, there was a scramble. A Racing defender heads the ball away but Alves is already tracking it, and darts in to toss it back in to Ibrahimovic who, surrounded by 5 defenders, not only controls the ball but notices that Pique is charging in. He knocks off the only pass he had the option for, a backheel into space, which Pique buries.

Whatever you do, don't mention the war.
Whatever you do, don't mention the war.

At this point it’s 3-0 and if you’re Racing you are wondering what the hell just happened, and what can you do. Your game plan is out the window, and the better team still has the ball, chipping away at your resolve, frustration and fitness, wearing you out with ticka-tacka passing in the midfield. You can’t really pressure Xavi, because Messi, Henry and Ibrahimovic are there, not to mention a very active Keita and a calm Busquets. So you chase and chase, hoping for a lucky break or something, just a little ray of hope to let you back around.

Or at least a goal that would salve a bit of your club pride. Pedro! came on for Ibrahimovic, and the difference was very obvious, not only in the type of player that Pedro! is, but also in what his possibilities are.

We were playing at about 60% throttle, just content to knock the ball around and play keep away, then Racing started lunging, fouling and evincing the frustration that comes with being a professional, and having your ass handed to you. On a silver platter, sure, but still …. it’s your ass, and there’s some guy in red and blue stripes saying “For you, sir.” And the ref was letting things get a little chippy, which must have vexed Argy Bargy. Because he took a pass, cut on a run across their box and, when everyone was thinking he had run himself out of the angle, he bent a shot back into the upper 90, that ripped the heart out of Racing. It was yet another amazing Messi moment, because he was somehow running laterally with his body facing the goal, ready to bang off a shot as his first available opportunity. It came, and he buried it.

Messi is better than last season. There, I said it. As someone pointed out, last season he just made runs to make them, with this improvised sense of “Let’s see what happens when I get there.” This season, he is all purpose. When he runs, it’s because he’s seen something. When he doesn’t have options, he usually dumps off to Xavi or Alves, and waits. He has 5 goals for us this season in 4 matches. We’re paying him how much? Sure. Whatever.

And then it happened, a bit of sloppiness that really started with a loose Puyol header. But still, we recovered and were looking to clear the ball, when Marquez chested the ball down, directly to a Racing attacker. He took the ball, and Marquez compounded his error by sashaying after the dude in the most casual of ways, just kind of trying to get in the way. He snapped off a hell of a shot that no keeper on the planet would have stopped, and we’d conceded another stupid, stupid goal. As with Busquets’ header against Atletico, Marquez had time to play the ball to his feet and deal with it.

Recall that Cruijff said that our defenders need to be more ruthless, and just clear the damned ball out. Take possession, and boot it up the pitch. There. Done. Instead, silliness happens, raising the aforementioned spectre of losing the championship on goal differential.

Could this happen? Almost certainly not, but is anything really outside the realm of possibility in this crazy game of ours?

Team: 8. Lost points for getting sloppy for a stretch there, but this is the kind of overall team play that Guardiola was howling about. Midfield pressure was there, as was the constant possession battle when the other side had the ball. And the help defense and set piece defending was nonpareil.

Guardiola: 7. Points off for making the Marquez substitution instead of Txigrinski. Why? Because Marquez was fine, as long as he wasn’t needed. But he came up short twice on the goal. Yes, his calling out of the players had them ready to go, but given that Racing were going for balls over the top, height should have been the prescription.

Valdes: 8. Excellent match, with lots of movement that epitomized the sweeper keeper aspect of our defensive approach to the game.

Alves: 9. Only wallowed once today, and knee-on-knee contact was probably a legitimate cause for wallowing. But from defensive play to cross and pass after excellent pass, he was on form today, as he has been this Liga season.

Pique: 9. Excellent play, though he got a little out of sorts on a couple of occasions. And he scored a goal. How ’bout that?

Puyol: 10. Monster. He was everywhere that the ball was, proving that he’s still a killer in the center of defense.

Abidal: 8. Got a little loose with the ball on a couple of occasions, but overall, brilliant. His sense of positioning, coupled with his pace, make him one of the best defensive left backs in the world.

Keita: 9. Keiteee! Excellent match on the offensive and possession control end. You can see what Guardiola means about him getting it working right this season, and understanding what we all know, which is that the box-to-box attacker is impossible to account for.

Busquets: 6. Laid in a strong start, with calm play and no mucking about, then returned to his old habits in the second half, holding the ball too long and wallowing on the pitch. Had a terrible giveaway that gifted Racing an attack. Thankfully, the defense was on the spot.

Xavi: 8. Generally excellent, but had some uncharacteristic lapses in control, and a few passes that were short and slow, putting teammates in harm’s way. They’re called hospital balls for a reason.

Messi: 10. Man of the Match, going away, from scoring goals to demonstrating an understanding of his teammates and tracking back on defense. He’s about due for a raise, right? 😀

Henry: 4. Just didn’t impress today. Should have shown more committment on that perfect pass from Alves, and not much beyond that except some nice work in the midfield and on defense. But we didn’t buy him for that.

Ibrahimovic: 8. Another excellent match, but he has a tendency to be stationary at times. And dude, we’re up 4-0. Get the hell off the pitch if you sprain your ankle. Sometimes, that extra running can make a Grade 1 into a Grade 2.

Subsitutes

Pedro (for Ibrahimovic): 6. Nice movement, but holds the ball too long. Way to stay up, when he could have flopped and gone for the penalty try.

Marquez (for Pique): 4. Quite the downgrade for the position. His sins have already been chronicled. That goal was all his.

Iniesta (for Messi). 5. He’s still playing his way back into the side and match fitness (and pace, more importantly). His passes were off, and you could see him getting on himself. He’ll be there, for sure.

And now we wait for word on Ibrahimovic’s ankle sprain. But know that in 4 Liga games, he has 4 goals and 2 assists. Very impressive. The busy period continues, with 3 matches in the next 7 days. Luckily, Almeria and Malaga shouldn’t be that difficult even without BANGS, who I think we need for the Champions League match in midweek.

Forca Barca!

p.s. Wasn’t the HD purty?

p.p.s. Here’s a little souvenir for Adriano.

Good thing you're out on loan, dude. Man up next time.
Good thing you're out on loan, dude. Man up next time.
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Written by:

In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.

151 Comments

  1. Miguel
    September 23, 2009

    david villa w/another goal for valencia. beautiful build up.

    oh.

    and getafe answers right back

    • SC
      September 23, 2009

      I still haven’t seen the offical BK celebration.

  2. Kxevin
    September 23, 2009

    The battle for 2-6 is going to be interesting. I’ll be curious to see if Bilbao has the juice to keep rolling. But places 1 and 2 are decided. Bilbao is playing very well in the league right now, and are undefeated right now. Recall that we swatted them aside in the Spanish SuperCup.

    I just think that the big two are too good for anyone else to even mess with. That’s why I worry about stuff like goal diffrential. Because it could come to that.

    As far as people who could have come, but didn’t, can anyone see Forlan or Villa doing what Ibrahimovic does? This isn’t to say that they aren’t good strikers, but I think that it’s clear why Guardiola wanted Ibrahimovic, in the context of our attack.

    • Miguel
      September 23, 2009

      valencia held the #1 spot for a while last year and we all know how that turned out. don’t see bilbao being any different.

      ibra w/a club foot > villa…i think. or atleast for barca.

  3. JeffP
    September 23, 2009

    Well, I have to admit it. CRonaldo is a beast. I hate him, you hate him, we all hate him. But in all fairness, dude’s a monster.

    • jordi
      September 23, 2009

      No problem saying hes a great player, just when they start calling him the best player in the world I have issues.

      • Kari
        September 23, 2009

        Yep, same here

        For all the stick Messi seems to be getting from the press and fans for not replicating his Barca form, well, I haven’t seen Thong Boy do much for Portugal and he’s (soon-to-be ex) World Player of the Year.

        Ha! Actually when you think about it, the only one who consistently plays the same for both club and country is Xavi ! Maybe he should get it 😛 …And maybe some guy named Iniesta too 😛

        Seriously though, I think because they (Thong Boy and Messi) play the forward/wing position, fans expect them to do the outrageous and beat 2-3 defenders while bicycle kicking the ball into the net (which , as seen yesterday, Messi can do minus the bicycle kicking part :P).

        Players like Xavi are central mids, so they don’t have those TYPES of expectation. The expectation is there (seriously, you notice when Xavi isn’t having a good game, which is almost never. Everything is all funky and there’s no rhythm), but just not the same…

  4. Helge
    September 23, 2009

    Mmh… German sites hail Madrid and CR9 for their best performance so far. Am I blind or is it the media? As far as I can tell, Villarreal had a lot of chances to score but didn’t seize them. As long as it was only 0-1, I still hoped for a 1-1.

    • Corrine
      September 23, 2009

      well if they’re calling it the best performance “so far” i wouldn’t disagree. ronaldo had a good game and their defense didn’t collapse. i’m glad they gave the penalty to kaka lol, don’t want him to get the pichichi with freebies!

      • Corrine
        September 23, 2009

        him as in ronaldo***

    • Eduard
      September 23, 2009

      they looked better since they got an early goal and where only playing against 10 yellow jackets

  5. September 23, 2009

    Well, looks like they may be a wire to wire title race this year, as opposed to last season when it was on for about 6 weeks.

  6. Eduard
    September 23, 2009

    is Bojan going to be available this weekend?

    • Alexinho
      September 23, 2009

      No, last I heard he’s still one or two weeks away-

  7. lovelymofo
    September 23, 2009

    What I want to know is when Hector is gonna anatomize some of these goals! It’s probably difficult to chose just one. My vote is for Keita’s goal, since there was all that pretty passing right before it.

    So Valencia lost to Getafe? Methinks everything below the top two is gonna be topsy turvy for a while.

    Barça FTW!

    • Kxevin
      September 23, 2009

      What’s interesting about that is that, if we will all recall, we took care of business against Getafe, at about half-speed, with a bit of magic from BANGS, then off we go.

      And Getafe beat Valencia. It’s why I say, and why pre-season pundits said, that it’s really two-horse race. It’s pretty hard to argue with gobs of money, and talent galore. Everybody is up to beating everyone else, until one of the big two roll into town.

      I think that the race is going to be close all season, and the first real chance to separate the clubs will not really come until November, mostly because even the best of the rest clubs in the league, barring something freakish or a collective off day, just aren’t going to beat the top two.

      I was trying to recall a match from last season, in which a member of the attacking front had as off a match as Henry had, and we still stomped our opponent.

      And frankly, I sort of don’t like it thus. One part of me wants thrills, and spills, and rolling into an away match with worries. It made the drama all the more rich, and the rewards all the more sweet.

      Now, we just roll in, whip some ass and go home. It’s boring in a good way, but it means that every match contains a different kind of anxiety, that wrong foot plant, that aggressive tackle that could irrevocably change our season.

      Just rambling, but you all get what I mean.

      • Soto
        September 23, 2009

        I think you’ll need to look to the Champions League for your thrills and spills.

        As long as all of our opponents don’t merely park buses, that is.

      • Helge
        September 24, 2009

        So, you’re really confident about us this season. I am already thrilled for the match against Malaga, because:
        -Malaga was THE surprise last season
        -We cannot afford to lose because unlike many hopes, Real Madrid is clicking (or at least winning) from the very beginning of the season
        -Ibra might be out of the match
        -Even though we’ve won 4 matches so far, saying “we just roll in, whip some ass and go home” seems a bit arrogant to me…

        I still think smaller teams can beat us on a lucky day of their own or a bad day of ours; I still think Villarreal could have done better against RM if in shape and not one man down; I still think clubs like Sevilla and Valenica got what it takes to steal points from the big two.

        So I am actually more thrilled than last season, maybe because RM is keeping the pressure upon us. For instance, if I look at the next playday, I see Real Madrid face Tenerife at home, and even though I know about history, I associate this match with “damn! CR94 is gonna score again and RM will win, no doubt about that” whereas Malaga – Barca makes me think “We should win this on a normal day… but without Ibra, and what if…”

  8. Criminally Bulgur
    September 23, 2009

    One thing to keep in mind about Iniesta: even when he is at his best, he is prone to making strange decisions–e.g., getting caught in possession while trying to take on three men in the midfield, or letting fly errant passes and shots. What makes up for it are the crazy genius things he does to unbalance a defense and create spaces where you don’t think they exist. That’s why I’ve always said, “Xavi = Apollo; Iniesta = Dionysus.”

    I think Dionysus just needs more minutes, and we’ll start to see more of the good side of his crazy genius come out.

    • Kxevin
      September 23, 2009

      Agreed. Once he regains match fitness and more importantly match pace, he’ll be fine. This next match, against Malaga, is perfect for that. Give him a nice long run out, and let’s go.

    • inNYC
      September 23, 2009

      Nice analogy!

  9. Jose20
    September 23, 2009

    Anyone catch the Villareal match today? I missed it, but it sucks that they lost. Somehow, I felt like Villareal’s performance today would somehow, in the long-term, affect our Liga chances… anyone else get that same feeling? I know it’s crazy 😛

    Ok, in all seriousness now, it is incredible to see how inconsistent Valencia, Atletico, and Sevilla can be year in, year out. Personally, I think it sucks that La Liga can’t have consistently good representatives in the Champions League (at least since Valencia’s deep runs some years back).

    • jnelson
      September 23, 2009

      Bad for La Liga, good for Barca. Since there is no ranking system or BCS of sorts for soccer, all we have to do is simply win. With the inconsistency of those clubs we have less to worry about in La Liga. If only Valencia, Atletico, and Sevilla can take down EE, then they’d be useful.

  10. jnelson
    September 23, 2009

    Amazing game…up until we slowed the game down. What the hell Marquez!? Those stupid goals annoy the hell out of me. And Busi? Yes, you suck. Stop holding the ball too long! I remember him commenting about how his style is different than Masch’s in that he (Busi) is a one touch mid, but so far this year he has been the opposite. After watching the second half of the last 2 games, I must say that when we play serious competition (EE, Champions League) we cannot take our foot off the throttle when we are leading; I don’t care how much we’re winning buy. We always screw up when we are leading big. I liked the slow first halfs from the first few games better, when we dominated the second half. Ghostface is wayy off his level right now. Henry? WTF. He isn’t gelling well with Ibra and was NOT playing even decent Defense (half the time). I kept seeing him standing on the pitch watching the ball go by. He’s an amazing athlete. I hope he gets out of this funk.

    • jordi
      September 23, 2009

      Henry is also 32, to be fair, you can see what a toll this type of high pressing system we have will have on older forwardsrs.Theres no way henry will play here at 33 next year unless we use him as a center foward super sub.

    • OhYes
      September 23, 2009

      This is a special situation that requires a period of relative dormancy near the end of the match.

      Keep in mind that there are many games to be played this month, and some of the guys are playing a large portion of those games (Xavi, Msssi, Ibra, Pique).

      So it makes absolute sense to relax after a good lead has been established. Otherwise the guys would be too fatigued to play at all.

    • Eduard
      September 24, 2009

      to me, Henry’s problem is 1.that he becomes an Island to easily, he needs to find more space 2. he falls to easily and 3. has lost his phenominal speed.

      • poipoi
        September 25, 2009

        he CANNOT play this whole year as our starting winger playing this current level. He is a right-footed plays in the left wing and hardly makes any dangerous shot, I’m not talking about dribbling anyone which I know won’t happen… the play to look for space and make a shot when playing “pie cambiado” (changed foot) is sooo easy! Messi makes it look even easier, he does it all the time 😉
        The guy is 32 already but he looks even older 😛

  11. Maximus
    September 23, 2009

    Hang on a tick, I just visited the facebook page is that really Iniesta that is a fan?

  12. Jnice
    September 23, 2009

    AS is pissing me off with their “Ronaldo has a strong argument for the Golden Ball” bullshit.

    Why? Because he scored 5 goals in the league? Same number as Messi who played one less game, who has more assists. How do you overlook Barça’s treble last year and Messi’s 38 goals and 16 assists or whatever?

    Last year at this time, Messi was balling outrageous and Ronaldo wasn’t, yet he wasn’t able to win any of the awards. Every always pointed to Ronaldo’s 42 goals and the fact that his team won, but now it’s different for AS and Marca. A bunch of fucktards, they are.

    • jordi
      September 23, 2009

      Lol well its Roncero, a turd on the field of the bernabeu will smell of roses to him. I cant believe he said Messi showed hes human with argentina while ronaldo is shining for madrid.Doesnt Thongboy have a struggling national team too? Hasnt messi scored the same as him in less games ? If he doesnt sweep the awards this year they clearly are a farce, and Ronaldo cant be runner up either.Just wait till they start saying Kaka is better than Iniesta 😀

      • Eduard
        September 24, 2009

        Spain is a small country but it’s like the treble never happened, if one day(hopefully never) E.E. wins the treble they’ll say they are the first spanish team to do so.

        When Messi win’s the ballon d’or Marca will say “Ronaldo comes close to retaining his trophy” or “Ronaldo aims to recapture trophy” and in all headlines fail to mension Messi.

        and as bias as this sounds, just like Mundodeportivo, their market niche is the fans of their respective clubs(in Marca’s case E.E.) and that’s how they sell papers. Just sense and dollars, thats why those newspapers are useless to read unless you want to find out injury news or interviews.

      • BA
        September 24, 2009

        “Mad Madridista” Thomas Roncero. a joy.

        incidentally on the subject of Henry maybe getting a bit old… Bayern are currently mired in 3rd place in the Bundesliga and not playing spectacularly well. might we start sidling up to a certain ugly, mercurial Frenchman to perhaps replace our handsome, mercurial Frenchman while he still has a great deal of value?

      • Jnice
        September 24, 2009

        Yeah, I really can’t believe that line about Messi with Argentina and Ronaldo for Madrid. Think about that for a moment. How the fuck is that equal? Messi for Argentina, Ronaldo for Madrid. How about Messi for Argentina, Ronaldo for Portugual. He is the worst.

      • September 24, 2009

        It’s ridiculous that the media even tries to compare the two!

      • poipoi
        September 25, 2009

        messi won the olimpics not much long ago right? ronaldo is a constant failure with portugal

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