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.
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.
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.
p.s. Wasn’t the HD purty?
p.p.s. Here’s a little souvenir for Adriano.