Nope, I haven’t forgotten about this.
(Can I get a drumroll, please?)
The winner of the first BFB World Cup Predictions Game is…
Posted on July 2014.
Nope, I haven’t forgotten about this.
(Can I get a drumroll, please?)
The winner of the first BFB World Cup Predictions Game is…
Posted on July 2014.
So, I was thinking of what to do during the World Cup and settled on a kind of predictions game. It’ll be too complicated if it was done game by game so my twitter followers kindly narrowed it down to a couple of simple questions, or for those who find it easier and/or more familiar – a kind of March Madness style bracket. I’ll detail both ways below.
Posted on July 2014.
These are tough times. Poor babies that we are, we have to suffer through a team that finished second in the Liga, in it until the final match, made the Copa final and Champions League quarterfinals. In a sport in which a two-year cycle is extraordinary, our team has been at or near the top since 2008. Six years.
The club has been, and is under assault from every direction from media to its own supporters and people who have been lined up, waiting for Barça to fall as “I told you so” rings throughout the halls of the Camp Nou, shrieks from the fronts of newspapers and websites, a conga line of people who are lining up to kick dirt on the face of the prom king.
So this post is going to start and end saying what I think every last culer needs to say, right here and right now: Gracies, equip. Thank you for the fun, the joy and tears, taking kicks and various fouls, scoring goals and making the effort to do the colors that we love proud. Thank you for everything.
Posted on July 2014.
1. the regard that something is held to deserve; the importance, worth, or usefulness of something.
1. estimate the monetary worth of (something).
Value is a fun notion to contemplate. I like to think of it as two cars that passed through my possession. One was a big ol’ red sedan that looked really cool, but had … erm … mechanical complexities. It stranded me once, and I drove from the mechanic’s about a half-mile to the local Subaru dealer to trade that thing the hell in. Didn’t get max value, but part of that value was in having that thing GONE.
The other car, a hotted-up Subaru, I sold for something around 2k over its value, a price I could demand and hold out for because really, I didn’t want to sell it. It was one of those, “If you want to give me this much for it, okay.” And someone did.
Which brings us to players, transfers and in particular, Cesc Fabregas.
Posted on May 2014.
We all remember this match. Falcao scored first, then Adriano did what Adriano does. The final was 4-1. Still feeling like today is a 2-1 in the offing, as I can’t see this Atleti conceding 4 goals to us. But a win will be in the offing.
For those expecting a trophy ceremony at the Camp Nou today, forget it. Liga chairman is “traveling.”
Anyhow, here’s your match comments post. Have fun, and don’t hurt anyone.
Posted on May 2014.
It’s difficult to adequately explain to someone without a sense of humor and embrace of the absurd about this La Liga season. On Saturday, at the end of a logic-defying series of twists and turns, first and second place will battle. At the end of 90 minutes, a Liga champion will be crowned.
And in yet another season, Barça is being consumed by other stuff that shoves the Liga to the psychic back burner. “One trophy? Phfft! We should be winning the Treble!” Last season, the Bayern beating rendered the Liga anticlimactic, a status that took on a bit of extra disdain when common wisdom became that Thiago Alcantara was sacrificed on the altar of a 100-point season. There was a parade, and the celebratory feel of past victory fetes was displaced by a drunken edge.
This season, however, has been sufficiently crazy to make people wish for the days when the biggest problem was a young player not getting his due.
Posted on May 2014.
Before kick-off the Camp Nou paid a final homage to a man who, in all honesty, has simply been more culer than thou during his forty-five years on earth, Tito Vilanova. First we were shown a remembrance video in which several players bade him farewell, which was in my very personal opinion both moving and awkward. Then both teams observed a minute of silence, one that unfortunately was not respected by all attendees. Still, I think it’s safe to say that cancer has taken its (un)fair share of victims around the world, regardless of sex, skin color or supported football club, and no family has been completely spared. I can’t speak for all who were at the stadium, but I found it quite emotional and it gave me goose bumps. I even failed to notice they had kicked off already. In a classy move, Tito’s name was put on the match shirts and I for one would not mind if we did the same next season.
So, are we finished then?
About the match, let’s keep it short. Barça weren’t bad without being particularly good, which on most days means that the team were a lot better than their opponent without creating all that many scoring opportunities. The problem is that we gave up three as well, from which they scored two. Heck, if you watched the game you’d be forgiven for thinking that Getafe passed the halfway line less than a handful of times and came back with two goals, which is kind of like the chorus of this year’s song. We control the match for eighty-five minutes and draw or lose it in five. Now the season is all but over and we can only hope that Atletico prevent M*drid from winning the treble, whether they do so in la Liga, in Lisbon or in both.
The blame game
As has become all too familiar, certain people named Martino, Dani Alves and Song get scapegoated for the loss. Dani Alves shouldn’t have given up that foul, they say. Dani Alves should have covered his flank, they write. Yes, but he gave up the foul doing the very same thing we all say our team is missing, aggressively pressing his opponents.
Martino shouldn’t have moved Busi to the defense and taken off Xavi for Song. What an idiot, is being yelled in unison. Funny how nobody lauded him for taking off Mascherano to insert Cesc, a substitution that arguably led to our taking the lead. And are the same people who blast our coach for taking off Xavi the ones who say that Xavi doesn’t have the legs to defend?
When you look at the goals, you have to feel for Tata. For Getafe’s first, Mascherano made up for a mistake with a foul that led to a free kick at which his team got caught napping at a trick play. For the second Adriano and Pinto were left to defend by themselves. I don’t think any coach makes those decisions for their players. I am not saying Martino should stay, but it’s a damn shame nevertheless, because for those first six months of the season it sure looked like we had a Barça coach.
This season nobody is to blame, along with everybody. If you really want to point your finger, I’ll give you a hint. Something flows downhill and it’s brown and smelly. If the board supported anybody else but the board, like our players and our coach for example, things might turn out different next year. As it stands, however, we can fear the worst. Our problem, apart from socis that don’t want to do anything about it, is institutional.
Death of tiki taka
Let me get another thing straight. I am sick and tired of the term “tiki taka”. I never liked it to begin with – it sounds like a cheap Bangkok bar from which the rich and sleazy take under aged hookers with fake smiles and sad stories back to their hotel rooms. If this is the death of tiki taka, it can’t come too soon. What is it anyway, other than the evolution of a football system that uses fast and technical players that like to pass the ball a lot. Tiki taka by and of itself was never “revolutionary” to begin with. It was made so by legendary players and a very good coach. And just how it evolved from something that was already in place, the team needs to keep evolving to move forward.
There are calls for more strength and athleticism, which I agree with, especially in defense. For some reason fans want Reus, forgetting that we already have Pedro, Alexis and Neymar, don’t know what to do with Deulofeu and will hopefully find a way to develop Adama Traore into a first team player in the next couple of years. There is also a lot of noise about the need for an Arturo Vidal type player. Never mind the fact that we are stacked with some of the best midfielders in Europe, and we have Rafinha, Suarez and Samper waiting in the pipeline. As for that bite we lack, we got Mascherano being misused because we never bought adequate cover for Puyol and Abidal. If I were in charge I’d move Masche up a line, Messi back a line, and get a mobile striker who can both head the ball and make runs for through passes. But hey, I’m just another guy with an opinion.
Then there are those want the club to sell half the team and buy half the world. They draw comparisons with Pep booting out Ronaldinho and Deco. Let’s stop right there. Ronaldinho and Deco spent more time on the dance floor than on the training grounds. Today is not yesterday. Our guys, these extraordinary players, have always shown respect and dedication to our colors, up to and including this season in which we have finally stopped winning anything at all. The least we can do, as fans, is to give them the respect they deserve. Make no mistake, Barça has got to change and adapt. The team needs fresh blood and some players might have to go. However, the nucleus for another best team of the world is right there, in front of our eyes, losing the league in five minutes per game.
Posted on May 2014.
This has been the Champions League and week in which football has taken it on the chin.
– Chelsea beat Liverpool.
– RM stomped Bayern
It has also been a week in which the phrase “parking the bus” has acquired a heretofore unseen malleability as counterattacking football has become “parking the bus,” for reasons that are certainly valid in the heads of the folks who misuse it.
“Parking the bus” is when an inferior team stacks 10 behind the ball, with no real interest, barring some fluke, in scoring. You see it in league matches sometimes, when a team has an unlikely lead in a knockout tie. You might also see it when a cynical coach tactically misplays the first leg of a Champions League knockout tie (cough! Mourinho. cough!) A parked bus doesn’t want anything to happen as differentiated from counterattacking football, which wants something to happen but waits for an opportunity.
Posted on April 2014.
How often do we get to say the exact right thing, make the exact right gesture?
Many years ago, when my wife and I were urban pioneers, we lived in a neighborhood festooned with um … indigenous businessladies. One night while she was out walking the dog, a car rolled up alongside the curb and a man inside the vehicle asked my wife “How much,” presuming that the dog was a brilliant ruse, perhaps. Her response: “Just me, or me AND the dog?”
The would-be Lothario figured things out pretty quickly, and sped off. Perfect response to a ridiculous situation.
When Dani Alves strolled over to take a dead-ball situation during the Villarreal match on Sunday, it’s a safe bet that he had absolutely no aspirations to perfection, aside from a player’s usual striving for excellence. But when the banana came flying at him and he casually picked it up and ate it, attention and focus fully on the pitch and beating Villarreal, it was the perfect response to a ridiculous situation.
Neymar, not missing a beat, Instagrammed a photo of he and his son eating bananas, starting a “we are all monkeys” campaign that spread like wildfire. A Spanish TV newscaster ate a banana on the air. Players such as Kun Aguero have photographed themselves eating a banana, in the selfie as social revolt vein.
Villarreal issued a strong statement condemning the offending “supporter,” and FC Barcelona came out with a statement of its own, expressing full solidarity with Alves and condemning racism.
Once my jaw finished bouncing off the floor as a result of that last incident, something else remarkable happened. The match official, David Fernandez Borbalan, put the banana incident in his official match report so that it is there, for the record. It was as if to say “Your move, RFEF.”
After the match, Dani Alves handled everything with class and style, saying that such things have been part of the Spanish game, and you just can’t dignify them by freaking out. He added a backhanded thank you to the fruit hurler, saying that his father always told him to eat bananas to avoid cramps, so thanks to the person for providing the energy boost that helped him keep running, keep crossing the ball.
And this is how a football club properly deals with racism:
Villarreal CF wants to communicate that the club deeply regrets and condemns the incident that happened yesterday during the match against FC Barcelona in which a fan threw an object onto the field of El Madrigal. Thanks to the security forces and the invaluable assistance of the Yellow crowd, the club has already identified the (perpetrator) and has decided to withdraw his season tickets, permanently banning his access to El Madrigal stadium.
Once again our club would like to express its firm commitment to promoting respect, equality, sportsmanship and fair play both on and off the field and our absolute rejection of any act that is contrary to these principles, such as violence, discrimination, racism and xenophobia.
Racism is an unfortunate part of the modern game, and I really don’t foresee a point in my lifetime where it won’t be. Xenophobia is one of those irresistibly human things that takes us deeper than racism into those vile nether regions of all discrimination. Some might not be a racist, but a sexist. Might not be either, loving all races, creeds and colors, but is bothered by gay people. The omnipresence of the “other” is what makes discrimination so malleable and inescapable.
We hear of incident after incident. In the U.S., the news is filled with the alleged comments and views of NBA owner Donald Sterling. There as everywhere, strong words have come out. What makes that incident noteworthy is that “safe” players such as LeBron James and Michael Jordan, who usually shy away from unequivocal statements because of the potential image/sponsor damage, both came out forcefully against the alleged remarks, saying that there is no place in the NBA for that kind of an individual.
Boateng walked off the pitch during one match. Los Angeles Clippers players dumped their warm-ups in a pile, and loosened up with their warmup shirts turned inside out, as a form of protest. Two of the biggest sports in the world have had incidents that have drawn global attention to racism.
To what end?
Football has racism. Football will have racism. It isn’t cynical to say that, as much as it is reality. Because racism or any other form of discrimination (football has ‘em all) is the belief that your group is better, based on something that is (usually) unalterable. The object of discrimination can’t fix the thing that offends the assailant. They can’t not be black, not be female, not be gay. It’s easy, and it’s obvious to make someone the Other. And as long as humans have the trait that makes them want to be better than someone else, there will be the attendant xenophobia and its byproduct, discrimination.
Clubs can make statements, football can have campaigns, players can be banned for x or y number of matches, stadiums can be empty. These gestures make some feel like “See? They are doing something,” even as we acknowledge that a big part of such gestures for many is palliative. It’s like an apology, which too frequently serves to make the person making the apology feel better. “There. Glad that’s over.”
Then the game returns to “normal.” Everyone wants things to be back to normal. When you fight with a friend or loved one you regret the fight, but what you most regret is the upset to normalcy. Strife is nasty. So is being confronted by the tangible evidence of man’s inhumanity toward man. It makes us uncomfortable. So let’s don t-shirts and armbands, make a statement and return to normal.
This doesn’t mean that the efforts, the campaigns, the gestures aren’t sincere. They often are. But all of them put together don’t change a single, solitary thing about racism. We know it sucks. We know that people don’t approve. We know it’s a black eye on the game that we all love. Duh. Sadly, the gestures and campaigns also serve to remind us of something we don’t really want to admit: that maybe, just maybe, racism isn’t solvable by any of those kinds of things. That like charity, the end of racism begins at home.
Longtime readers here will recall my Camp Nou incident, where during halftime of a match I was attending a young kid from the posh seats saw me and made a clearly racist, monkey-like gesture to his father. The dad smiled, “Oh, you little card,” not at all uncomfortably until they noticed that I was watching them. Then it got VERY uncomfortable. I shook my head, predominantly because that’s kinda all that you can do in a situation like that. Show clear disapproval and the belief that while someone might think they are superior for the simple biological marker of skin color, that ain’t always the case.
That kid learned what he knew from the parent who tacitly approved it by not kneeling down and sternly explaining to that kid why what he did was wrong, laying out how absurd it was to for the kid to return to his seat and cheer for a team that included Lillian Thuram, Toure Yaya, Eric Abidal and Samuel Eto’o with a clear conscience. That is the time to stop racism. What in the hell is a FIFA campaign going to do when the people who the kid looks up to says “It’s okay to discriminate.”
That kid probably continues to go to Barça matches. Maybe an incident happens in his life that makes him understand everyone can be lumped in asshats and non-asshats. And that ain’t color, gender or sexual orientation specific. But more often nothing happens because just as we segregate ourselves into groups of Barça supporters, we tend to gather among friends who share the same views. It’s uncomfortable not to. It’s a safe bet that the Villarreal banana thrower was at the match with like-minded souls. So where is the disapproval? To that group, racism is fine. It’s what you’re supposed to do.
We scoff and snark, call them silly or worse, but they don’t care, because beliefs supersede all. Racists have kids, and those kids have kids. Allegiance to a football club is deep and usually lifelong, so the racists potentially keep raising generations of racists. You fix that not with campaigns, but in homes and seats around the perpetrators. Today, word came down that the Villarreal member has been identified and expelled. The identification came with the help of those seated nearby. And that’s how you do it. If a racist speaks up, people around him say “Hey, that is enough of that crap. It isn’t right.” And the racists learn they aren’t wanted, even if they don’t change their views.
This doesn’t augur well for a football future in which black players won’t suffer monkey chants, hurled bananas and the like. English football fans feel better about themselves because their FA has cracked down on racism in a way that makes racists much less likely to act on their views, even as that reluctance to act doesn’t make them any less racist. It doesn’t remove racism from the game, it just removes the overt gesture from the game. Dependent upon how much discrimination you have had to deal with in your life, you might or might not prefer to know who dislikes you because of how you are. The devil you know, right?
But the absence of a gesture doesn’t mean you don’t have racism. It just means that you can’t see it. Whether that is any better is up to you. For most of us, it’s better. We can’t see it, so it isn’t there. Personally, I want racists out in the open. I want to have the hope that kids will see how ugly it is. I want to have the hope that the kid who has a shirt with Alves/22 on the back of it will ask his father why those people over there are being mean to his favorite player. I want to have the hope that the kid will resolve to not be like that, and then raise his children not to be like that.
That is when racism begins to be erased from our game, which is what has to happen for the game to be truly better, rather than beautiful and “normal” until yet another incident turns it ugly again.
Posted on April 2014.
So. Barça ended a 3-match losing skid with something that wasn’t as much a comeback as a bit of common sense rearing its head.
“Hey, what say we stop hitting the ball directly AT the keeper.”
Messi scored a goal so all is right in the culer world again, but for me something more interesting happened — not for the first time, but for the first time a confluence of happy events conspired — two players who are objects of scorn had the temerity to have very good matches. Song and Mascherano.
For me yesterday’s match was different because I didn’t watch it live, instead choosing to take advantage of a picture-postcard Chicago day to log 60 miles on the bicycle. This gave me the rather extreme pleasure of being able to watch the match, and scroll through my social mad-ia timeline as things transpired and quite frankly, laugh.
Posted on March 2014.
So Barça played today, and won 3-0. Atleti played today, and won 1-0. RM played today, and lost 2-1. The Liga is ours for the taking, if we just win the final 8 matches of the season.
But I can’t say that I feel like doing much except echoing what Javier Macherano Tweeted, which is “Nothing to celebrate. Get well soon.”
This game is, too often, a kick in the face for those who don’t deserve it.
Posted on March 2014.
Wow. Just … wow.
It is rare that a Classic lives up to the billing. At the nexus of all the hype, all the reams of verbiage and speculation have in the past, resulted in high-volume bits of drollery. Even the first Classic this season was, truth to tell, kinda boring unless you were culer. It was 2-1, and Barça pretty much put the match on lockdown.
But Bale was knocked, RM was still finding its way, pundits said. They are playing great right now, and know what is at stake. Bale is fit and productive, Ronaldo is in rare form. Barça on the other hand, is beleagured, set upon even by people who were presumed to be friends. It’s easy to see why pretty much everyone said that RM was going to win today.
I Tweeted before the match that we were going to win 1-2, and would walk it if Alba brought his defensive game today. Why? Because this club has not, this season, lost a big match. And there is absolutely no reason to think that they were going to lose this one, because Barça still has the best players in the world. Is Barça the best team in the world right now? No. But it is a team that is made up of players who are the best or among the best at their position.
Valdes, Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Alba, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, Neymar, Messi. That is a fantasy football side that you buy if you have an unlimited budget in Football Manager, rather than one that a manager can routinely call upon. People bet against that team, call it inadequate, say that it can’t defend, can’t attack, can’t do this or that. And when it confounds its critics, the cries of “Yeah, but …” begin, nitpicks at this or that player.
I have said it before and will say it again: you go all in with love. There shouldn’t be half measures to cushion the blow should a bad outcome happen. It diminishes the potential joy. Go all in. I believed this team would win because I believe this team can win every match that it plays. Just look at the roster.
As we know, it doesn’t win every match that it plays, because those great players are also human beings. Can’t say that such knowledge will ever affect the belief I have in this team. And it showed why today in a glorious moment, made more so by a very simple fact: win or go home. The Liga is either 1 point, or insurmountable at 4 or 7 with 9 matches left.
So those little geniuses won. But they didn’t just win by outplaying their more physical, bigger, stronger opponents. They won by controlling space more effectively than their opponent. Every key play in the match today was the result of space — taken or created — being used to positive effect. RM ran and slashed, while Barça picked and plucked.
31 games without defeat. The last time RM was beaten was the last time that they played us. There are now 9 matches left in the season. The big winner today was Atletico, who are now top and have the head-to-head tiebreaker against RM, but they play us in the last match of the season.
“We weren’t always in the right shape on the pitch, and we paid the price,” said Ancelotti. Spot on.
The consequence of being in that wrong shape was opportunity and difficulty.
Space: The contested frontier
In just one example, look at the astonishing pass (14:35) that Xavi puts right on Messi’s boot. When Xavi looks up, he sees that Messi is in between two RM players, with nobody covering the inside. The run is just begging, and when Messi makes it, the ball is already on the way. It lands directly on his boot, and you would have bet your house on Messi making the score 0-2 instead of bending the ball wide. And yet, there it was, space being used and ceded, as only the Gods know what possessed them to let Messi get behind the back line, unmarked.
Truth be told it was a pass that few players in the world can make, a pass that maybe you just don’t account for in your Probability Factors. But it happened, and was another symbolic moment in a match absolutely filled with them.
Look at earlier in the match, when the first goal came. At the moment when Messi is about to receive the ball that he is going to spank to Iniesta for the first goal, if you pause the image (at 6:08), Iniesta is all alone on the left side, trotting with purpose like a sleeper. The RM players are ball focused, with four players around Messi. Bale just let Iniesta sashay past him to begin the run, and when Messi gets the ball he already knows what is going to happen, and so does Iniesta.
Iniesta takes the pass in acres of space, and detonates past Diego Lopez to give Barça a 0-1 lead. Just like that, in the 7th minute. Can RM be forgiven for thinking that Iniesta doesn’t score goals, or did someone not do their job on that run? Either way, space was crucial.
Even before that it was clear the kind of match it was going to be, as Messi (again) laid out a pass for Neymar to run onto, a ball into space created by player movement. In the past, in more violent times, a tighter back line probably cuts out both those passes, or Arebeloa just knocks Iniesta over. In this match, today, a goal was the result, a goal that defined the proceedings.
Carvajal pointed at Bale as Ray Hudson screamed, “The mad magic of Barcelona comes out, with beautiful football!” And so it did as more than 20 passes were strung together, up and back, passes that made a pressing, ball-hawking RM defense move and pay attention, waiting for the sleeper. Neymar on the right was an interesting decision from Tata Martino, almost one that optimists could suggest shifted attention to that side of the pitch, with just a mere creator on the left in Iniesta, while hell raisers in Neymar and Alves were on the right.
When RM equalized, again space was used and ceded. But rather than making space with passing and control, Di Maria did a slash-and-burn run, facilitated by an exquisite flip pass from Bale. At the moment Di Maria crosses the ball, there are players looking at him. Neymar was trotting back, while Alves was laying off. Space. So Di Maria put the ball directly onto Benzema’s head, whereupon he made space by outleaping Mascherano. 1-1.
Shockingly, the same thing happens again, and Benzema tags us for a brace in less than 10 minutes, all because of space, poorly controlled.
Whenever a goal is conceded, goats are looked for. Mascherano was the whipping post on this goal but if you look at the situation when Di Maria lays in his cross, Benzema is on the dead run, already to the inside of Mascherano, who didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of outjumping the bigger, stronger Benzema. Pressure on the passer from Neymar (trotting) or Alves (watching) might have prevented such an accurate cross but there again, space conceded, and taken advantage of.
“You cannot give Benzema that amount of space,” said Ray Hudson after their go-ahead goal and he was absolutely right. But the space creation started with quality. This pitch was filled with great players. How can anyone really, truly expect this match to NOT have goals, NOT have great plays? Spectacular players make things happen, things that create an advantage for their team.
Pundits mutter that Barça relies upon great individual players doing their thing rather than team excellence. That isn’t a valid argument for me, because why the hell do you have those kinds of players if you aren’t going to let them do what they do? The first Barça goal was team and system. The second was individual wonder, as Neymar and Messi did the kind of craziness that they do, in phone booth-like spaces. The final, go-ahead goal was Iniesta being his own absurd self, forcing an error from yet another world-class player.
Look at that second goal. Messi did a high-speed give and go, bounced off an RM defender, stumbled, regained control of the ball and slammed it to Neymar who somehow controlled it while surrounded by 3 defenders, then did a crazy sort of side-foot pass to Messi, who slammed it home. You can take every X and O in the world, diagram stuff and whiteboard plays in practice. But the goal came down to two top-class players deciding to make some magic.
Rather than seeing those moments of solo magic as some sort of failing, I see it as a broadened success window. If that whole team thing doesn’t work, give it to a genius and let him do his thing. Our geniuses were slightly better than their geniuses, with one in particular standing above all: Messi.
For me the worst use of space by RM was in how much they ceded to Messi. Maybe they read Marca, who said before the match that Messi was in crap form. But pass after pass, when he got the ball he had space to move, space to pick passes and make runs without fear of a rugby tackle or cleat to the Achilles. In one absurd moment (18:32) Messi AND Neymar have gobs of space to play with, as Fabregas runs into his own bubble on the left side. Messi plays it to Neymar, who is stopped by a last-ditch tackle in the box.
Complicating matters is that Barça continued to play as a team that includes the best player alive. And that best player decided that he didn’t care how he hurt an opponent. He scored goals in the run of play. He scored a hat trick, two from penalties. But most impressive for me is the stupefying passes that he laid on, one for Iniesta on his goal, the other for Neymar in the red card incident.
“You don’t need to love these players, people, but you should marvel at them,” says Hudson.
Tactics and selection headaches
Knowledgeable people say that Ancelotti got the tactics wrong. Culers screamed that Martino got the starting XI wrong. Maybe they are all right. The space was odd, to be sure. But was that because of a system that worked? People always think that teams play in a vacuum. “So and so can’t defend.” Ronaldo makes his living making defenders seem inadequate. Messi makes them seem invisible. These top-class players will wreak havoc with any coach’s game plan.
But boy, were people out for Martino. “Should have started Sanchez,” “Going for name players instead of relying on form.” But Martino knew what he was doing. In a match in which teams can play to a standoff, talented 1v1 players can make a difference. Neymar set up Messi for the tying goal, then drew the penalty that put RM down to 10. Yes, he was laggardly in tracking back in the first half, but clearly got a talking to before the second half. Neymar was decisive even as he wasn’t brilliant, because of potential that was respected by an opponent, potential that created space.
When Pedro was brought on for Neymar, the difference was clear. Pedro got the ball, did a feint or two and passed it back to midfield. That is what he was supposed to do at that point in the match, in a substitution that was as much defensive as offensive.
Was Mourinho right?
Classics under Mourinho were nasty, violent, contentious affairs. And finally, he beat us by playing a different kind of football. It distracted, bowled over and turned talented sprites into unfocused whiners. And it worked.
Ancelotti came into this match riding a 31-match unbeaten streak. The last team that beat them was us. They were, by all accounts in brilliant form, and many people whose opinions I trust had us losing this match. Ancelotti came out to play a football match, because he had football players. He pressed, played a high line, attacked and lost.
There were fouls, but things didn’t really acquire an edge until late in the match, when the outcome was beginning to feel like a done deal. But 95% of the match was two teams, each with their own style of play, running at each other like gladiators.
And Mourinho had to be watching and thinking, “See, told you they can’t be beaten by playing football.”
There were three penalties and one red card in this match, a match that was nonetheless well officiated. Culers usually mutter about an official who keeps his whistle in his pocket because it benefits the opponent. But in a more cleanly played, balanced match, that same ref can benefit us as much as the opponent. So it was today.
The penalties are most contentious, of course. When Ronaldo got his penalty, dragging the leg and being clipped by Alves, my first reaction was to suggest that Messi or Neymar get into the RM box at the first opportunity, to force the official to make that same call on the other end. Neymar did, and got the call. Supporters of each club will say that no, theirs was justified. But the Neymar and Ronaldo penalties were pretty much the same, a dragged leg and player looking for contact in the box. Yes, Ronaldo was fouled outside the box, but between continuation and the pace of the play, you try making that judgment call.
The Iniesta penalty was a flat-out mugging. So. Was the controversy that the visiting team got not one, but TWO penalties in RM’s house? That is the only rational contention that anyone could have. All three were penalties, correctly adjudged. Play was allowed to flow, niggling calls weren’t being made and a great match of football was the result. Controversy? There will always be controversy in a Classic. But today’s, for me, didn’t come from the officiating.
Quality in abundance
Individual performances in such a dynamic match are easy and difficult to evaluate. Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets were delights. For a player who is past it and doesn’t make forward passes, I wonder who that was playing today.
Alba continues to be the defender many hoped he would be, holding down that side of the pitch and roaming, a la Abidal.
Pique was excellent today, even keeping Benzema from a first-half hat trick with an off the line clearance.
Mascherano was strong, even having the audacity to take a poke at goal from distance.
Neymar wasn’t great, even as he was decisive, and Valdes, truth be told, didn’t have much to do but did make a couple of fine saves.
Yes, those players all made errors. Of course they did. When you square off against excellent players, they will make you create some errors, but don’t be mistaken: this team rose to the occasion with quality and style.
Now it’s a Liga horse race in which Atletico has the upper hand. Win out and they win the Liga. It’s simple for them. But they play us the last match of the season, a match that could well, if we win, result in the RM winning the championship. And wouldn’t THAT just be a kettle of crap?
But for now, there are 9 matches left. The top two teams are level on points and the third-place team, Barça, is but a single point off the top. Every match is a final is usually a cliche, but not in this case. 9 matches to decide the league, and we can delight in being fully in love with a team that has found its form.