As match-changing moments go, this one was huge. Thierry Henry’s thigh injury necessitated a substitution, and thankfully the healing powers of Zlatan Ibrahmovic had him ready and available for duty.
And we all know the rest, right?
But the important part about this match isn’t any refereeing, or missed decisions, or dirty plays. It’s about how we won, and that we rolled up man-style, returning dirty play by putting the ball in the back of the net.
We also won a match that we could very easily have lost, and might have lost last season (yes, even last season). There is an institutional arrogance to our side this season, a group of players that only cares about one thing: winning.
Last year, there was some of that. This year, you can almost smell it in the air. They don’t care about playing pretty, though they will if allowed. They don’t even really care a lot about what the ref does. If he isn’t making the calls, they speed up play so that the ball is gone before the opponents have a chance to foul. And rather than the little curlicues, the oh, so efficient triangles, just fling a pass in to Ibrahimovic and let him do his thing, if that’s what is called for.
Just win, baby.
Guardiola came out with a lineup that was interesting, for me: Valdes, Alves, Txigrinski, Puyol, Alves, The Yaya, Keita, Xavi, Messi, Pedro!, Henry. It was interesting because the attack, by using Pedro!, was missing some essential discipline that makes the machine go. In other words, P! runs around too damned much. It’s hard to play with a player when you don’t know where he’s going to be.
But more importantly, we started this match with a collective case of the team craps. Messi was laying bad balls around, Xavi was invisible and we were being pressured in our own end by a Malaga club that had clearly come out to play. They were playing football, and we were walking and looking as if we wanted to be anywhere except there. And Malaga was running around like a kid with the car keys right after dad came home, expecting to get a spanking that still hasn’t come.
And then, gradually, we started playing into the match, and the fouling began. The very first hard foul was rewarded with a yellow card by the ref, who seemed to want to establish an immediate tone: Physical play was okay, aggressively physical play wasn’t. Which is fine. I mean, was anybody really surprised that a lesser side was going to, once they realized that we were ready to start playing, try to kick us off the pitch? I hope not, because it’s a footballing tactic that has been in use almost since the game began. It wasn’t the first time we saw it, and it won’t be the last time that we see it.
Even as we started to play into the match, the craps continued. Pedro! made a bad decision with the ball, Xavi was invisible, Messi’s lovely run was rewarded with a half-assed effort from Henry, and then came the play that shocked the world.
Behind the play, Malaga defender Weligton stepped on Messi’s leg. But don’t watch a gif, watch the match. Play had begun in the other direction, and the referee was not looking at the incident. Does that make the incident excusable? Absolutely not. It had potential to to harm a player, and it should be dealt with by the Liga swiftly and harshly, hewing to precedents already established when it comes to disciplinary matters. That’s why matches are reviewed, and this one will be.
The ref’s job is to ensure that the match is fair. But he’s human, and if something happens where he isn’t looking, or where some of the other officials aren’t looking, he doesn’t see it. It was a shameful play, but if Weligton were really interested in injuring Messi, he would have stomped a lot harder. He wanted to get under Messi’s skin, to take him out of the match, to turn him into a one-on-one player instead of the thoughtful dynamo that he has become.
It didn’t work. More importantly, we had set up shop in their end of pitch, with possession stats were in the low 70s for us. And then came the penalty that wasn’t. Or at least it wasn’t called. I don’t know if it was a penalty, because with GolTV’s cutting away to the Bayern match, or showing us on a split screen, you don’t see what really happened during the play, so it’s impossible to know if it was a definitely penalty, or if Ibra was just hunting. I’ve learned to ignore Ray-Ray’s screaming and hyperventilating. Ibrahimovic didn’t protest too vehemently, however, which should tell us something. More importantly, we didn’t let it take us out of our game.
Back we came, and Pedro! laid in an exquisite pass for Ibrahimovic that deserved a better fate. He was one-on-one with the keeper, and had more time than he thought. He shot it too early and from too far, so the save was made. But the message was sent: Here we come, as did our first goal, which was a pure a thing of beauty as any of us are likely to see from this club. I won’t be able to break it down like Hector, but here’s what I saw:
–Ibra one-touches a long pass past Messi to Xavi as the Malaga defenders are so used to ball chasing that they are all leaning the wrong way …. constantly.
–Because Messi has two defenders around him, there are acres of space for Pedro! and Keita, so Xavi plays it to Pedro!, who plays it back to Keita.
–The defenders, beginning to wonder if something isn’t brewing over there, continue chasing the ball.
–At this point there are not one, but two triangles formed: Xavi-Messi-Keita or Pedro!-Keita-Messi.
–Alves is unmarked on the right wing, and continues to show, knowing that would draw a bit of attention.
–As the Keita-Pedro!-Messi triangle played, Xavi sprinted into space created, offering up a new triangle much closer to goal.
–Ibrahimovic slows down his movement, aware that he’s in a sweet spot created by the danger of Xavi and Messi.
–Keita batted the ball to Messi who, with a clunky first touch, chased the ball.
–Ibrahimovic sensed the time was right, darted back on side, paused to establish the position then broke at the very instant that ….
–Messi controlled the pass, and lifted a perfect side-foot lob to Ibrahimovic, who chested it down to his feet and off the bounce back, with a balletic move, volleyed an instep ball past the keeper.
Now, this all happened in about .004 seconds, but it was yet another episode in the “Why We Paid 60+ Million For This Dude” show. Ibrahimovic changes the way that we play, because now we don’t have to pass the ball into the net. We can just flick it in to BANGS and watch him do his thing. (It should be noted at this moment that the churlish would say “Hey, why didn’t he convert that chance against Inter, dammit!” Valid question.) It should also be noted that the defender owned on that goal was Weligton. Did annoyance focus Ibrahimovic more effectively? Quite possibly. And that’s 5 goals in 5 Liga matches for Ibrahimovic. Could he really score in every Liga match he plays in? Doubtful, but quite the streak so far.
With that goal, we seemed to solidify, and the match was effectively over. Because despite Alves repeatedly getting owned by his wing attacker, and Puyol having to put out some fires, the closest Malaga came to scoring was when a bad hop off the turf meant that Valdes yielded a corner off a ball that he was going to play at his feet.
Note to Phil Schoen: Knock it off, you douchebag. Valdes was Zamora last season, and an integral part of our triplete. By refusing to admit this, by refusing to admit that he has made infinitely more great plays and saves than bad ones, and harping on the bad ones every opportunity that you get, you diminish yourself, not Valdes. Just saying.
The second goal, earned off a for-real foul outside their box, was also a beauty because of what it represented: We can score off set pieces now, and if you foul us in a danger position, you are going to pay. This goal was a lot simpler than the first one, though there was some Nuryev stuff going on here, as well. Xavi knocked in a flawless free kick and Pique just stuck out a leg, at the end of which was a daintily pointed foot. And voila. Number two, and a cushion against the kinds of mental lapses we’d been having of late.
And really, the only other thing worthy of note in the second half, was Messi owning Weligton with a series of fakes, moves and dribbles, before leaving him in his wake. He might have been a bit vexed, which explains why his shot didn’t display its usual power and accuracy. But that run across the top of the box is a new trick of his this season, a real danger because if you charge him he dribbles past you, so you almost have to let him shoot, choosing the lesser of two dangers. Expect more goals like that last goal against Racing Santander.
Was Messi hauled down in the box? Watch the play again. He got a little shirt tug and went down. We’ve all seen the physical batterings that Messi has just dribbled right on through. Yes, some refs would have given that one. But this one wasn’t going to. Note, also, the “That’s enough of this shit” straight red for a play that didn’t deserve a straight red.
No, I’m not defending this official. I am saying that he didn’t really call that horrific a match. I’m sure that he’ll see the Messi stepping-on and be just as outraged as we all were, and ashamed that he missed it. But we are going to have many more matches like this, in which officials are going to think, however, unconsciously, “Let the hot-shots play through some physical challenges, and I’ll step in if it gets too bad.” And if we get this worked up over just the first of undoubtedly many such matches, however are we going to survive the entire season?
Team: 5. I don’t like the bad collective early play, as if we have a difficult time getting worked up for an opponent that we know we should beat. One of these times, a lucky bounce is going to get us in trouble.
Guardiola: 6. You can say he made the right substitutions but really, they were the only possible ones. Pedro! cannot start for this side. He isn’t good enough, even against Malaga.
Valdes: 7. Controlled and patrolled his area, even if he didn’t really have very much to do this match. He now knows to get his body in front of those back passes, right?
Alves: 6. I know, kinda harsh, right? Against a real team, the fact that he was getting owned by his man would have hurt us. Bad.
Txigrinski: 8. Here’s why I enjoy Goal.com: “Not the most confident performance, was beaten for pace by Obinna often, and his distribution was also inaccurate.” Wow. Now, we all watched him get his body between attackers and the ball time and again, right, and drop perfect pass after perfect pass to the likes of Pedro! and Alves, balls that weren’t just on target, but on target and easily controllable? And did you see the way that he dispossessed Malaga attackers twice? And what about those calm, controlled forward runs? Just checking.
Puyol: 9. Every time, every where, he was there, making an argument that “Yes, you have Pique and you signed that big, hairy dude. But I’m not ready to stop being the best center back in Barcelona.” He bailed out everybody and their mamas, except for ….
Abidal: 9. His world was on lockdown, and the best chance that Malaga had to score was knocked away by a charging Abidal. He was excellent today, even making well-timed forward runs.
The Yaya: 6. He worked into the match, but this wasn’t his kind of match, really, because we were so controlling at the front end of the attack. His yellow for dissent was rash. Yes, it was a fair challenge. But refs often get those wrong. Play through it.
Keita: 8. Okay. This new Keeeteee! isn’t a flash in the pan. It’s the real thing. Awesome, just awesome. But he has to learn to pull the trigger on his shot before the defenders arrive. Consider that a helpful hint, sir.
Xavi: 7. Uncharacteristically loose with the ball early, but was his usual self before halftime. That back heel to Messi was absurd, and his free kick assist for Pique’s goal was remarkable. And check out his constant movement into spaces that draw defenders, and create space for attackers.
Pedro!: 5. Nice pass for Ibrahimovic, dude. You should have had an assist. But you have to learn circumspection. You can’t just run around out there like you’re playing sandlot football. And you aren’t Messi, so stop dribbling into three defenders. You’re just going to lose the ball. I think that you have talent, but you’re trying too hard, so it seems as though you are playing out of control all the time. (As Jason correctly points out, you should have had two assists. Bummer.)
Messi: 7. He’s had more influential matches, though he played very, very well. And he played through all the crap, which was so impressive.
Henry: 4. I know, I know …. he came off injured. But that’s what he played to before he came off. I hope this won’t be a replica of his last season on the pitch at Arsenal.
Ibrahimovic (for Henry): 9. He defended on set pieces, he scored a killer goal, he harassed the Malaga keeper, he headed away a Malaga corner and was off on the break the other way. He just plain raised hell.
Pique (for Txigrinski): 7. Was playing his way to a higher rating, frankly. And work on your shooting. You should have had a brace. It’s nice that he and Txignasty play almost identically.
Busquets (for The Yaya): incomplete. Didn’t have any discernible effect, but didn’t have very much time.
This was an expensive win, costing us Henry (for at least one match) and Txigrinski for 3-4 weeks. But 2 of the 5 matches in the long end of that stretch are Champions League, and only one, Valencia, should be difficult. But with Pique and Puyol at the center of our defense, no worries. And wait a minute …. my math sucks. With the break for Internationals, figure Txiggy to only miss Almeria. Cool!
And finally, as is my wont, a little parting image: