I’ll be brief with this review, a) because it’s my bedtime and b) because there isn’t a whole lot to say that hasn’t been said, except that I really don’t see how people can doubt, or find fault with this club. I watched and re-watched this match with my own beady little eyes, and what I saw was this:
The best club in the world owned one of the best clubs in the world for about 91 and a half minutes. Two plays, two errors, allowed them two goals. I said it before and I will say it again, that not every club, or even a fraction of the clubs will have that kind of conversion percentage against us.
I honestly expected, before my viewings this evening, to find a match more fraught, with more chances than Milan actually had. But we bossed the match, not with meaningless possession as some have suggested, but with probing, incisive possession that constantly looked for holes in the brick wall that Milan erected around their keeper. And between hitting the post twice and Messi trying to make a sure thing instead of taking a shot, we left some goals on the table. And I won’t even mention the shot that Villa had on the side of the goal, after being set up by a lovely ball off the head of the Most Maligned Man in Show Business, Seydou Keita.
I just can’t find fault with this club, after this match.
Guardiola came out with a lineup of Valdes, Alves, Mascherano, Busquets, Abidal, Keita, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Pedro, Villa. And as this match progressed, we got to witness something remarkable, really: A club that came into its own during the match. The tentative, clunky bunch that started the match, spraying balls all over the place and never quite being in the right spot, became the tight, cohesive group that we liked to watch so much, driven by the smallest man on the pitch with the biggest heart. Messi created chance after chance, danger moment after danger moment, and we fought and team that was, at 0-1 up, content to just play defense. At 1-1, it was still content to play defense, with 9 and 10 behind the ball.
And while it’s easy to say that we failed in our execution of attacking a bunkered-in defense, I don’t see it that way. I see it as the shaves, the inches that define success and failure in this game, weren’t quite going our way. Why? Luck? Nope. The players aren’t quite sharp yet. So Xavi’s post-shaving free kick will, next month, go in. Same for Messi’s. The passes that found the feet of lunging Milan players will, in a short time, find the feet of Barca players, because like an analog radio that is almost on the station, you can almost hear the music.
But let’s start with their goal, the disputed moment that had people blaming everyone from Keita and Busquets to Guardiola and global climate change. That play was, simply put, a collective breakdown combined with an excellent player doing his thing. When Messi does that against a club, nobody says “Holy crap, it was so and so’s fault.” Nope. It’s a top-level professional capitalizing on a moment to make a brilliant play.
Pato took the ball and poked it past every last one of our defenders. Iniesta tried for a steal and missed, and his man passed to Pato, who took advantage of Busquets and Mascherano coming forward to poke the ball past everyone, run onto it and beat Valdes. So let’s break it down, so that we understand the notion of team goals, for and against.
–Iniesta tried for the steal, then stopped pressuring, giving his man plenty of time to find Pato.
–Keita and Alves stood there and let Pato take the pass. I know it’s early, but jeez.
–Busquets and Mascherano should have stayed home instead of coming forward.
–Somebody should have fouled him and given up the free kick, but who thought this would happen, 25 seconds into the match.
–Valdes should know better than to come at a player with his legs apart. It makes it too easy for the attacker.
So, who you gonna blame? Good question. I blame Pato for being fast and brilliant, the bastid.
Then we resumed business as usual, with possession that allowed us to find our feet in this match and I think, moving forward, this season. And it wasn’t that Milan let us have possession. They wanted the ball and chased it when possible, rather than just parking the bus. But with our skill players and the Fear, which is what teams now have whenever Messi gets the ball, it just wasn’t in the cards as Messi fought and clawed all night. And when the goal finally came, it was simplicity at its finest, our best player doing what he does, just as theirs did.
Messi took a pass, snookered a trio of defenders, outran them all and slid a ball to Pedro, who tapped home. “How could he have been so open,” some wondered, but it was The Fear. Messi had 5 men in his neighborhood. If you rule out the likes of Pato, Cassano and Seedorf, that leaves two men to take care of business, which isn’t going to happen. And Pedro did the smart thing, which was to run toward the net when Messi ran into the box. It will always leave a free player. When Villa figures that out, he’s going to have a 50-goal season.
We unbalanced their defense in three different ways:
–Width, through attacking, sometimes overlapping fullbacks
–Speed of play. Recall all the times that fast-moving, one-touch football opened up their defense
–Movement on and off the ball, taking advantage of the way their players tracked our danger men
Whenever we did any of those three things, chances were created, whether it was Abidal crossing a ball to nobody (he’ll get better), Pedro crossing a ball to nobody, etc, etc. Hell, even the much-maligned Busquets created the chance for Villa free kick golazo with his attacking movement from a forward position. It’s easy to find fault in an unexpected, undesirable result, but harder to just give credit where credit is due. We have recently faced two clubs who were able to take advantage of their chances, and our still working our way into form. It happens, and doesn’t worry me an iota. The only thing that does worry me are the two injuries, both hamstrings, a muscle that can clunk up a season in a hurry, if a player and the club physios aren’t very, very careful.
Ah, yes, their second goal. Even if you don’t believe that the ref should have called the foul on the player who shoved a gimpy Abidal (I do, as it was called on the other end, earlier in the match) you just have to credit Thiago Silva with a hell of a header, and say that’s that. It wasn’t a free header. No more free than Puyol’s towering header against EE in their house. Sometimes, a player just wants it more. Should somebody have marked up their biggest set piece threat by putting a body on him in the box? Sure, but we aren’t that kind of club. That stuff just doesn’t occur to us, because like a beef-dipped bunny rabbit hopping through a wolf’s den, we just don’t think anything bad is going to happen to us. It’s an endearing quality that is also a bit naive, and a quality that won’t be present later in the season.
So for now, let’s have fun watching our club round into shape, and revel in how strong it’s going to be when its wounded (Pique, Sanchez, Iniesta) return. Plus you all get to call me a biased jackass over the next part of this review, which should kill a day or two.
Team: 8. Excellent display of bossing one of the best clubs in the world. Two moments, two goals. It happens, as the club played 99.8% of a match that was more than good enough to win.
Guardiola: 8. Mostly the right starting lineup, and I admit I wasn’t the biggest fan of Keita coming off. Made almost all the right moves, as well. I do wonder if a back line of Alves/Mascherano/Abidal/Adriano wouldn’t have had more success.
Valdes: 4. It’s hard to say that a keeper who shipped two goals had a good match. Playing headers is a skill. So is keeping your legs together to remove the easiest shooting option for an attacking player. Still the best keeper in the world for us. He isn’t as sharp now as he will be, either.
Alves: 5. Too many misplaced passes and he holds the ball too long. He worked his way into the match as his teammates did, however.
Busquets: 4. Uncertain with the ball early, and didn’t do enough when he moved into his natural position. Sometimes, we need the physical presence of Keita out there.
Mascherano: 5. Was playing his way into a higher rating, for sure. He, like the rest of our team, was a bystander on the Pato goal. But later in the match, he just shut everything down that came near him. His slide tackles are unerring.
Abidal: 8. Excellent match at both ends of the pitch. His overlapping runs and that one solo charge were dangerous as can be. Yes, he gave up that late corner. But he, like everyone else, was waiting for the foul to be called on the attacker. That’s life.
Keita: 8. Again, a monster match as he served as everything from safety valve and reset button, to ball winner and physical presence in the middle. He got a standing ovation from the Camp Nou faithful for a very good reason.
Xavi: 8. Brilliant on offense and defense, with shots that were so close to going in. Always the right pass, and you could tell how much he wanted this match by his amazing effort.
Iniesta: 4. He just wasn’t all that effective before his injury, with an intermittent presence in the match. He didn’t quite seem to know what to do at times, which is odd for him.
Messi: 9. Man of the Match in a walk. He put out for the cause at both ends of the pitch, and created danger almost every time that he touched the ball. Guilty of trying to cut things a little too fine, but what an amazing match from an amazing player.
Pedro: 4. Scored a goal, didn’t do much beyond that. He seemed to be having a “misplaced pass” contest with Alves. Not sure who won that one. Note also that he has the clunkiest first touch on the team. Play a ball to foot, and he always has to run forward to control it, rather that going right into action. That interval can be key for a defense to reposition.
Villa: 7. Strong, strong match tonight, from the free kick golazo to the way that you saw him all over the defensive part of the pitch, as well. Made some errors, misplaced some balls, but more than made up for with his other attributes.
Fabregas (for Iniesta): 4. He didn’t do a damned thing out there except run around and play tentatively. Yes, he’s still finding his way around, but he needs to be more aggressive with the ball, as he was at Arsenal.
Puyol (for Keita): 7. Excellent match. As the announcers noted, the defense was much better organized with him on the pitch. Key interventions, as he shakes off the rust of a loooong spell on the sidelines.
Afellay (for Villa): incomplete. But it sure is good to see 3M again. You can see the value that he has in his destabilizing effect on the Milan back line.
Next up for the club is a spate of winnable matches: Osasuna, Valencia, BATE Borisov, Gijon, Racing, Sevilla, Viktoria, Granada and Mallorca. That gets us into November, when we can start rounding up our woulded animals. Until then ….