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The malleability of absolution, aka “If one is responsible, then everyone is”

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"D-oh!"

“D-oh!”

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.
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Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts163 Comments

Anims, VV!

valdes

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.
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Posted in Injuries, La Liga, Team News, Thoughts169 Comments

Real Madrid 3, Barça 4, aka “The space race”

clascrest

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.

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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.

clasney

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.

Genius+space=goals

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.

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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.”

Controversy

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.

What now?

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.

Posted in El Clasico, La Liga, Messi, Review130 Comments

Close to Away (as a matter of Clasico, pt III)

This is not a preview, it’s a meview. If you want to read something that makes sense, I suggest you click here for Kxevin’s thoughts on the game.

camp-nou-3

(TRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRING!)

Zzzzzzzz

(TRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRING!)

Zzzzzzzz

(TRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRING!)

Huh!?! What?!? Huhyaaaaaawn…

Yo man, you up?

Wh-wh-wh-huh? What? Who is this?

It’s me man, me, that’s who!

Maaaan what the… (yawn) It’s three in the fu… (yawn) You know what time it is, you f—–g prick?

It’s CLASICO TIME!

(a loud crashing sound ensues, which is either indicative of the end of the world or of a culer falling out of his bed and generally making a mess of what once upon a time looked like a bedroom)

Still there?

What? Where? When? Clásico? Here? Now?

No, not now. Take it easy. Keep that heart attack at arm’s length from your chest. Breathe in, breathe out. The game is tomorrow.

Tomorrow? So why you calling me at three o’clock in the morning?

I can’t sleep.

Why not?

Tomorrow’s the Clasico.

Oh. Right. Why don’t you watch tv or something, get your mind off things? And let me sleep! Jeeez…

I tried that but they talk about the game on every channel.

Oh, right… Uhmmm… Hold on… Why is there a picture of the Camp Nou above this article? The game is at the Burn-the-Eeew.

Man, you’re slow!

Yeah, so? What does that got to do with it?

It’s got everything to do with it.

You’re a jerk. What do you think of the game?

Well, do you want my BFB-contributing, sangria-drinking, happy-go-lucky, rallying-the-troops and stand-behind-my-team opinion or do you want my honest opinion?

What do you really think?

Color me culer but I think we’re gonna lose. M*drid is playing like a monster right now. What do you think?

Man, you’re one pessimistic son of a bee. We’re gonna kick some whitey butt. We’re gonna run rings around Pepe until he bites his own —hole. We’re gonna make D-Lo wish that he’s Iker and Iker wish that he’s Sara sitting at home and breastfeeding the baby. We’re gonna make Ronaldo cry piss from his eyes, only they don’t call it piss they call it CR7. We’re gonna rip Bale’s nuts off and feed them to Tomás Roncero. We’re gonna fill their diapers with blaugrana doo-doo and snap the neck off of any Ancellady that tries to change ‘em.

Dude, forget I even asked. I forgot how weird you are. And Tomás Roncero would probably love to eat Bale’s private parts. Or at least nibble on ‘em just a little bit.

Man, he’d gobble ‘em up. And who you calling weird? Look at you, man, I mean, man, just look at you!

My point exactly. But I wish I shared your confidence. I’m also worried that Martino might have lost the team.

Lost the team? Martino? Not the Pope of the Pampas, no Sir. Gerardo knows what he’s doing. They don’t call him Tata for nothing.

Huh?

Ta-Taaaa, Ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-Taaaaaaaa! Ta-ta-ta-ta-Taaaaaaaaa!

Oh, I get it. Yeah, blazing trumpets. Cute. Some say he’s not Catalan enough for this team.

Sheeeeit, by the time he’s done they will hand him the keys of the city. He’ll be trainer, mayor ‘n president and all at the same time. Every other sentence heard on the streets of Barcelona will be “Who the f— is Pep?” They will change the country’s name to Tatalunya!

Enough with the madness already. You’re making my head spin. Why can’t you be more normal, like me? I thought you’d be more chilled out half-asleep. You’re still a crazy bastard.

I am chilled out, man. What the f—.

Yeah, I guess you are not as bad as usual. Wish you wouldn’t cuss as much, though.

Awwww be honest, you love me the way I am. Show me some love, man, let’s do it!

Hey, kids might read this, man, that’s nasty.

Here we go again (sigh). Always with the kids, huh. No kidding, man, but you’re boring! Anyway where we gonna watch the game, bro?

See, I don’t know. I don’t wanna go to La Rambla cause there’s just way too many tourists out there.

Shit now who’s crazy? The Rambla. Ha! Very funny! You act as if you’re in motherf—–g Barcelona or something.

Eh, du-uh! Where have you been?

Inside your head.

Yeah, and have you ever bothered to look out of my eyeballs?

I see a computer screen. An orange wall. A fan. And three mirrors. What you got three mirrors for? Wanna be three times as ugly?

Look to the left.

Ok.

Out the window.

Uh-huh…

(waaaait for iiit…)

WHOAH!!! Oooh shit! We’re in (breathe), we’re in (breathe), we’re in (breathe), we’re in…WE’RE IN BARCELONA!!!

You mean I. In the eyes of our beholders there is no we, ’cause we are I. One person, not two. You should know that by now. This ain’t the first Clàssic preview signed by yours trulies. I, that’s who!

Yeah, whatevs b—ch. We live and direct from the city that never creeps: Mother…F—–g… Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaar – Ceeeeeeeeeeeee – LONAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!! BARCELONA! BARCELONA! BARÇA! VISCA EL BARÇA! BARCELONA! OMG. I CAN’T BELIEVE IT! WE’RE IN BARCELONA. BARCELONA! BARCELONA! BARCELONA. OH MY MOTHERF—–G GOD! I CAN’T BREATHE. I CAN’T (breathe), I CAN’T (breathe), I CA– I CA– I CA– AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARGHHH! BAAARCELONAAAA! BARCE—

Calm down, calm down. Calm down. I know how you feel, boss. Please, just trust me and calm down. Maintain focus. Stay sharp. Concentrate. Waaait for it. And inform our readers in a cool and collected manner that we will now write our articles for the best football blog in the world from the best football city in the world. The Camp Nou better be ready for us, and by the way, I really hope you’re not gonna get me banned. Enjoy el Clàssic, y’all! Visca el Barça i visca Catalunya. Over and out.

Posted in Barcelona, El Clasico, Fantasy, La Liga, Nonsense139 Comments

A Classic preview, aka “For some, this colossal event is also the end of the road”

clasmess

We have it, they want it. It was always going to come to this, when you really stop to think about it.

This remarkable team that to date has yet to lose a big match, faces on Sunday one that is immense. Cliches abound: all the marbles, season at stake, etc, etc, but what it really comes down to is that for this wonderful team of ours to have a snowball’s chance in hell of repeating as Liga champions or finishing a comfortable second place, even, it must win against its eternal rival, in that opponent’s house.

A more fitting challenge for this remarkable group of athletes escapes my thinking.

Sid Lowe wrote a lovely piece in which he makes a case for something akin to a fin de siecle, a completion of tenure. Valdes is leaving in the summer, and so is Puyol. Many speculate that Xavi, who always prefers to keep his cards close to the vest, will also be stepping down. This would mean, as Lowe so eloquently posits, that the three captains would all be leaving in the same summer, thus marking the end not of a cycle (which has been over for some time at any rate), but of the tenured Masia influence as embodied in those three giants.

As such, this could be the last Classic for three amazing players. We know it will be the last one for two of them, only one of whom will be taking to the pitch for sure, as Puyol seems to wrestling with the same kind of injury that Eric Abidal had late in his last season.

So it is that when people ask me how I can continue to not be a fan of players, it is matches and moments such as this that illustrate the partially protective nature of my reserve. Like Pep Guardiola, the struggle is with getting too close to them, to having players mean so much … too much, really, that when they leave, get injured, suffer and finally move on it becomes something more than what it is, which is a changing of the guard for a football club that you love.

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In a world where we only have so much extraneous love for objects that you can’t hold in your hands or arms even as you can hold them in your heart, the struggle would be to hang on, to read something more into a situation that is simply Time, doing what it does. So even as I sit back and say Puyol, Valdes and Xavi are moving on, it is impossible for this match not to feel final in a weird, abrupt kind of way.

The last Classic.

It is also one of the most confounding, because we don’t really know which Barça will show up, even as we are confident that Big Match Barça will pop in, rather than Whatevs Barça. This is a big match. Win and we are within a single point of the top, piling on the pressure. Lose, and we are seven points adrift and ready to put all of our eggs in the Champions League basket in a season that threatens to shape up in a fashion similar to Guardiola’s final year — the Copa isn’t so bad after all, is it?

And it won’t come down to who wants it more, who had more heart, silly cliches that make me want to throw a shoe at my television set. Both teams want, both teams have vast reserves of talent, both teams cherish the prize at the end of the season.

This match will come down to execution, to staring a moment in the face and holding bedlam at bay by dint of quality. Both teams have players who can do that. Do I like to be consoled by the fact that Barça has a system of play that at its best verges on automatic? Sure, even as I know that they also have a system of attack, even if some people they just run around, pell-mell, toward the opponent’s goal.

Moods and things

The situation for the first home Classic was different. We were rounding into shape and they were still finding their way, without a system to base their behavior on as the team came together. They, like us, had a new coach, but bereft of on-field generals such as Valdes, Xavi and Iniesta, their task was more daunting as they came into our house. The result was a 2-1 scoreline that but for an error, would have been 2-0. This time, things are more even.

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They are playing some fine football, pundits tell me. Bale has found his way, Ronaldo is banging goals in and Benzema had rounded into the attacker that his substantial price tag called for. Midfield is solid, and they would seem to be primed to wrest the crown from us with style.

But we have some stuff going on as well, our team that is coming off of a dispatching of Manchester City, a team that was supposed to be our Waterloo, then slamming 7 past our last Liga opponent. More significant than that gaudy scoreline was the fact that for the first time in a very long time, the team played like it didn’t care about Messi. More specifically, it played as if Messi was another player on the team, rather than the player. Yes, Messi notched a hat trick, but the goals flowed out of the overall team play. Nothing was forced, and if a pass wasn’t available to Messi, the team didn’t make it. Pedro got his, Sanchez raised hell, Iniesta was decisive, Xavi was in the box to take potshots at the keeper.

Barça was s TEAM that included the best player alive. That is a team to be feared, no matter the opponent.

With both teams on form, you begin to look at wild cards, things that will decide the match one way or another. Obviously, there’s Messi and Ronaldo, but they are known quantities. This will be the first time this season that RM has seen a fit Messi, rather than the sweating cypher parked on the right wing. If those two cancel each other out as they often do in terms of production, it will come down to the other players.

Lee Roden makes the case for the positions of Bale and Neymar being reversed, with the latter struggling to regain form while the former has found his. Will that be the thing that decides the match in RM’s favor, as Neymar did in the first, scoring a goal and delivering the assist for the other one?

For me, a few things are key:

The midfield

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This will be where the match will be won or lost. Look for Martino to roll out with four mids, almost certainly Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas and Busquets, in an effort to control the match and blunt the effectiveness of their slash-and-burn attacks on goal. Possession will be absolutely essential, with two thoroughbreds who will be itching to take a run at our backpedaling defense. If possession is turned in a dangerous part of the pitch they will be most of the way to our back line, as chasing midfielders try to catch up to the play.

And that ain’t happening. So the ball will need to be controlled and not turned over. But of course, it ain’t like their midfield sucks. Post-mortems on Sunday will, I think, bring it all down to control of this key area.

Set pieces

Limiting them is key for a few reasons, not least of which is the height differential that will make set pieces against almost any team that isn’t Juvenil A a danger. But set pieces will also mean that they have the ball in our end and are presenting danger sufficient to draw fouls or corner kicks. If that is allowed to happen repeatedly, we are in trouble.

The other guys

The reason I am convinced that Neymar will start on Sunday irrespective of form is that he is, next to Messi, the most dangerous 1v1 player we have. His ability to destabilize a back line is significant, and a known quantity. He will also be the one on the pitch least interested in having it become the Messi Show. He is also capable of making it into the Neymar Show. Pedro can’t do that, and neither can Sanchez.

Both Pedro and Sanchez can indeed capitalize on space created by others, but they are too easily walled off so that Pepe and Ramos can focus on keeping Messi from being a difference maker.

For them, Bale, Benzema, Di Maria, Modric are all more than capable of standing a match on its ear, which is what will make possession, and lots of it, imperative. In many ways this argues a bit for Pedro, who is very careful with the ball, more than willing to pass it back to Xavi rather than taking a risk that might result in a break in the other direction.

But Pedro doesn’t inspire fear. Fear from someone other than Messi will be required in this match.

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I see an XI of Valdes, Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Alba, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, Messi and Neymar.

As for a predicted scoreline, it’s so tough. It could be a manita in either direction or a scoreless draw. I don’t think there will be a lot goals in this one, as both keepers are too good. If you held my feet to the fire, I will say 2-2, making Atletico the real winner in this contest, assuming they can keep winning their Liga matches.

But I don’t think the 2-2 will be a tight draw, as Martino will have to go for it if he wants to win. Obviously he will anyhow, without question. But risks will need be assumed, risks that will make culers uncomfortable even as they might potentially decide the match in our favor. I worry more about the form of Iniesta and Neymar than Messi, who is always Messi, for lack of a better descriptive.

And culers, do me a favor. Whatever happens, no matter how it happens, be proud of your team. Not arrogant if they win, or filled with recrimination and blame if they lose, but proud. This is and has been an exceptional group of athletes. As the runs of some players end and other prepare to slide into seats that have been kept warm by the backsides of true greats, their efforts are worth celebrating. They are going to give their all for us. If we want to honor them, the best way is to be honorable … and proud.

What a team.

clasteam

Posted in El Clasico, La Liga, Preview, Thoughts21 Comments

Barça 7, Osasuna 0, aka “It’s the little things”

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I won’t begin, for an instant, to pretend that I didn’t expect Barça to win this match.

–They were at home against Osasuna, a team that doesn’t travel well.
–I think that those who want to write this team and its coach off are nuts.
–The group appears to be coming out of a collective trough.
–It’s what professionals are supposed to do.

Nonetheless the match brought me great joy, not because it was a victory, but because for the first time in a long time, our sprites looked like they enjoyed playing football. I won’t presume that I would be able to chronicle the human side of today’s win as eloquently as Eric Coffin-Gould did over at TotalBarça.

All I can point to is the Messi smile.

This has, quite frankly, been a long, long season. From board squabbles and stadium referendums, legal actions and NeymarGate, players leaving, personal tragedies and heartbreak, this has been ridiculous. That, through all that crap have come moments of searing beauty makes you wonder how the people who do them, actually manage to accomplish such feats.

And then, Messi smiled. A genuine, “Gosh, this is fun” smile that made you realize how much of this season we have watched him trudging around the pitch, head down and grim-faced, visage set not in determination but in something else foreign. He broke another record today, but I don’t think he was smiling because of that.

Every week we watch, marvel, carp, piss and moan. I have said that it is multimillionaires capering about, playing a game. But it’s also a job. Just like you get up on Monday morning, sigh and get dressed for work, so do they. It strikes me that just because fools like me think that it would be fun to play football for a living, to be able to do tricks and make people cheer, doesn’t mean that it’s so. It’s a job, a job that isn’t always whistle while you work.

And I got to thinking about why Messi smiled, and came to my own conclusion, as writers are wont to do. For me, he smiled because for the first time in a very long time, the game was fun. It wasn’t fun because of the lopsided scoreline. It was fun because of the glee of possibility. When a conductor and an orchestra bask in the rumble of a well-earned standing ovation, they are thinking, every last one of them, “Holy crap, we did it! We didn’t just play the piece. We played that piece of music in a way that changed lives, just for a moment.”

One lovely summer night, at the end of a spectacular reading of the Mahler Symphony No. 2, people were applauding like crazy for the Grant Park Symphony as I cursed my critical reserve that doesn’t really allow me to clap at performances. But I rose to my feet and, with one hand, gave the devil horns salute, that metal tribute that says to the band, “You killed that shit. You, my friend, are metal as hell.”

A young violinist saw me, pointed me out to a friend and, from behind huge grins, gave me a nod. If I was at the Camp Nou today, it would have been devil horns for everyone, because that performance was metal. It was “this is what we do.”

Messi smiled because he was part of that collective wonder that is created by in-form performers. He scored three goals, but my delight was in seeing the thrill he got from celebrating the goals that teammates scored. Was it a monkey being lifted from the team’s back? Was it the realization that yes, they still have the capability to obliterate an opponent? All of the above? Dunno, but yell at me all you like for reading so much into a smile, but that grin made the match for me.

Does anyone who has a dream job realize how lucky that they are to have that job? Good question. I love what I do. I would do it for free. Every now and again, I get paid and say to myself, “Wow. AND money?” Football players must do that, as well, even if it isn’t always 7-0 scorelines and goals for everyone, even as they also have those “Oh, crap … work!” days.

Ray Hudson, during his match commentary, focused on a simple word in describing how the team played against Manchester City, and again against Osasuna: hunger.

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People bristle when our team’s hunger is questioned, as they should. Saying that players don’t want something is a complex allegation. It also isn’t true. There is never a time that players don’t want to win, even as there are times when they aren’t physically or mentally capable of doing everything necessary to ensure a positive result.

So La Real, mad and seeking vengeance, play out of their collective minds and beat us. Then Valladolid come in and take advantage of a still-down team, and grab a one-goal win. And the world comes to an end. Players should be sold, #Tata out trends on Twitter and it is, simply put, bedlam.

And whether it was a collective mirror check, or the realization that “Hey, this is going to be it for many of us,” or all of the above, the hunger returned. They didn’t just trot against City … they ran. Watching that match and looking at the 50/50 balls that were ceded against La Real and Valladolid with almost a “Sure, go ahead,” were attacked with fire against City. Can fear and worry make a team focus? Certainly.

Tata Martino said in his presser last week, that the best way to fire up his team is to doubt it, so people who don’t want Barça to play well should stop saying bad things about it. Who hasn’t done something to spite someone, right? “I’ll show YOU.”

But a lack of hunger doesn’t imply a lack of wanting to win. A friend and cycling mentor said to me that some riders walk up to the pain door, look and shrink away. Others open it, then decide it’s too much. The winners don’t even think about kicking the door down and striding through it. You don’t win because you are better or more talented than your opponent. That is just part of it. You win because at that moment in the competition when it’s on the line you say to yourself, “I want this enough to do anything for it.” Then you do. If you couple that desire with effort, that defines hunger.

And to hell with tactics. It wasn’t tika taka, it wasn’t counterattacking, it was everything all at once. Long balls for Pedro to run onto; a long pass launched by Valdes that Pedro tracked down; Messi being a bull; Iniesta unleashing a piledriver that had something extra on it from outside the box … goals scored in all kinds of ways, from team goals to individual brilliance by a team who was saying, with its collective play, “It doesn’t matter what you say, it doesn’t matter how you play. We are better than you, and here’s why.”

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You watch that from the bench if you are on that team, and you marvel. So Song comes on and kicks ass, because he has the hunger. He doesn’t want to let down the side. Tello comes on and scores a marvel of a goal, because he doesn’t want to let down the side. The cliche “all for one and one for all” in the context of a football team seeking to be its absolute best, isn’t a cliche at all, but rather the way things are.

People will say “The team still needs a CB,” “This result doesn’t hide the team’s problems,” etc, etc, and they will be right. I also don’t care. We have the players that we have, players who on their day, are fully capable of beating any club in the world.

Even as faith-filled culers know that, we are also clueless as to the ultimate fate of this team. It could win a Treble, it could win nothing at all. But I do know this: those who come to bury this team, should, as blitzen said on Twitter, put away their shovels. Because the hunger is back, and it’s a lovely thing.

osaalves

Posted in La Liga, Messi, Thoughts47 Comments

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