This was the face. Messi has, of late, undergone a degree of scrutiny that might make many believe he just stands around, waiting for the ball before he springs into action. But if you want to see how much this club wanted this title, just look at this image.
Better yet, watch this glorious, glorious match by the best club in football and one of the best in the history of the game, a beautiful thing that never fails to bring pleasure, even when it fails to fully execute its mission.
Notions of beauty fascinate me. Men and women, cars, objets d’art can all be justly labeled “beautiful,” by many a person who, subjectively, deems them thus. Disputes? To be sure. Recall when MOMA featured a blockbuster exhibition that featured motorcycles. “That ain’t art,” some crowed, “and it ain’t beauty.” But subjective definitions quake in the face of logic, since subjectivity is, by its very definition, unassailable. “I say it’s beautiful, so it is. The end.”
They won’t be putting our glorious club in any museum for people to gaze upon, though they should. There should be videos, and things so that people remember what this is like, rather than some elderly Catalan dude in the stands, waving around a cigar in open defiance of the Camp Nou’s non-smoking edict, talking about the Best Club He Ever Saw.
I’ll start you right off by saying that my Man of the Match is Pep Guardiola, for what he did for this side, on this weekend that is, so far, the culmination of a season that saw so many doubting him. “He messes around too much,” said some. “The players aren’t motivated,” said others. He just said, “We’ll be fine,” and has proceeded to craft an amorphous, glittering objet d’art that leaves its viewers in open-mouthed astonishment, time after time after time. Further, he made them understand how precious this weekend was. Yes, we were better than the clubs at the tournament, better even if an all-star side were to have been ginned up of the best players from every club in the tournament. That’s just a consequence of big-time football.
But the incredible focus that this club had made this destruction of a Santos side that did the best it could without the ball, a true thing of beauty.
Recall when I was wishing that the A team would play the System the way the Babies played it against BATE. Voila. Who thought, at times, that we had more than 11 on the pitch, as the pressure and movement were incessant. Santos pushed and pressured but after a while, as the players re-dedicated themselves to the system that brought them to the current lofty heights, it was all over but the shouting. “Run, you bastards, run,” Guardiola urged the club when he first took over. And you saw it today, when the Santos players were sweating and tired, and we looked like we’d just come out of the locker room to begin the half. You saw it today in the way that our players never were found without a place to move the ball to, no matter how tight the confines.
Guardiola had those players as ready as could be for two matches that were really academic. Santos had only slightly more chance than Al Sadd, despite them having the current holder of the Phenomenon crown in Neymar, who at this point should consider himself lucky to be mentioned in the same sentence as Thiago, never mind Messi. Most importantly, he somehow got them to believe again, in the System. Did they learn from the Babies? Maybe. Was Santos complicit in its own demise? Hard to say, as they never really got the ball all that much.
But this much is without question: It was a dazzling display, a display for the ages capped off with four goals of indescribable beauty.
Guardiola rolled out with the “in it to win it” lineup of Valdes, Alves, Puyol, Pique, Abidal, Busquets, Xaviniesta, Thiago, Fabregas, Messi. If anyone was wondering about the respect that our club had for this tourney and its opponent, look no further than the lineup card. And that lineup set about the task of destroying Santos with a single-minded zeal not seen since last season’s manita. This, for me, irrespective of the opponent, is the best match this club has played this season. Period, full stop. Because it displayed the System to its fullest effect. Was it the rest for Xavi? Dunno. Or maybe, the fact that Messi played his most complete match this season? Possibly.
I prefer to think that it was everything coming together all at once, from a gazelle-like Abidal to our Captain, Carles Puyol, who, as he did with Thong Boy, said to a much-lauded opponent, “You fit in my back pocket rather nicely, thanks. Now git!” It was everything. Dani Alves was his old, bombastic self on the right, and Thiago created danger and good things every time the ball was played to him on the left side of the pitch. Busquets destroyed and created, wrecking attack after Santos attack, and creating ours with delightful balls to Xaviniesta. Santos brought in Elano, hoping that would be the difference, but the same thing happened: We kept the ball, and they chased it. Those two things have but one logical, inevitable outcome.
On the oveall scale of silver, the World Club Cup isn’t all that important. I’ve always viewed it as a sop for the Champions League winner, who gets an easy chance to pad the trophy case. But what made this match interesting, was the hype. Messi against Neymar, a comparison that, for those luxuriating in the delightful clarity of hindsight, is rather like comparing a lump of dough to a perfectly made baguette. You don’t know what the former is going to be yet, because it’s still raw, while the baguette is perfection, a ray of gustatory sunshine suited to melt even the hardest of hearts.
Put another way, Neymar wasn’t allowed to have the ball. And we knew this going in, as Fabregas said during the pre-match chatter, “If dude ain’t got the ball, how good is he going to be, yo.” Or something like that. But in Catalan, so it sounded all pretty and stuff. This was the strategy, one borne out by the lineup of our quickest, best ball handlers. There wasn’t a real forward to speak of, as Guardiola chose to wreak havoc with a cadre of attackers who are supremely comfortable with the ball at their feet. Possession was key against a Santos club that was so dangerous in the counterattack. So we kept it, and kept it, and kept it, and kept it, until suddenly a slick 1-2 between Messi and Xavi broke the match open.
The ball from Messi wasn’t the best, not that it mattered a whit to Xavi as Messi continued to steam right on past him, because this has happened a million times in practice. Messi knows that the ball doesn’t need to be perfect for Xavi. It needs to be sorta there. So Xavi lifted a heel to control the ball, bringing it down to his feet in perfect time to slot a through ball for Messi, who just kept on running. Xavi brought it down, controlled and one-touched it almost in the same motion, to a perfect spot. Messi deftly lifted it over the keeper, and it was 0-1.
A one-goal lead is complex, because it is an error away from starting all over, particularly against a club such as Santos. So not long after, it was time for No. 2, another amazing bit of alchemy, again with Xavi at its core. Alves smacked in a pass to Xavi, a ball that had to be struck with some venom to get it past the ball-hawking, aggressive Santos defenders. Again, showing the remarkable control that makes him unfortunate to be the best player on the planet, playing with a player who scores bags of spectacular goals, Xavi controlled and again, with precious little time wasted on fully controlling the pass, half-volleyed it past the Santos keeper.
At 2-0, you really couldn’t say that Santos played all that badly. It was simply that they weren’t allowed to play. The rare time they got loose and (inevitably) fed Neymar, Puyol would roll over and say “Hey. Kid! Sign says no ball playing. Give me that.” Or Valdes worked some magic, including a shot that Neymar probably scores on in a few years, even if he does become Robinho II. 2-0 is also a mistake away from being fraught, so we pressed for a third and again, Alves was involved.
Brazilian Unbound laid in a perfect ball right at the feet of Messi, that was parried away. So Alves ran that ball down and laced in another bit of perfection for the noggin of Thiago, whose header was again stopped as the rebound flew directly to Fabregas, who slotted home from the doorstep. This goal also came at the worst time, right before halftime. A 0-3 against the best club in the world is bad enough. That scoreline with only a half of footy left to be played, is insurmountable, even if players have to think “Sure, we can get this done.” But at 0-3, when your best player has this to contend with ….
It was Alves Time again for the fourth goal, as Busquets won a long clearance from the Santos keeper, heading it directly to Alves, who headed it forward so that he could run onto it to feed Messi, who did something that makes me wonder about The Way Things Are.
He took the ball from Alves and ran at the keeper, who decided that sliding was the best option, because that works to stop mortals. Messi, in full stride, chipped the ball into the pitch so that it hopped up as he rounded the keeper and slotted home. For me, the question is Did Messi mean it? If yes, it’s a remarkable play by a remarkable player. If it was just a happy accident, still …. what a golazo!
All four goals were, in effect, unstoppable because they involved two things:
–Great players doing remarkable things, all at once
–Belief in, and knowledge of a system that enables the first thing
So if Messi has any doubt that Xavi can control the ball and slot it through for him, maybe he doesn’t make that run with the vigor sufficient to beat the defense. If Alves doesn’t know that Xavi is going to take his pass and make magic, the possession game dictates that he probably wouldn’t have made it. It truly is a remarkable time in this great club’s history. It might not win another piece of silver this season, and I have to say that to such things, I don’t care. For seekers of footballing beauty, this club has shown me, all of us, what the game can be like at the highest levels. And that, for me, just like when you visit a great museum and carry the memory of the pure emotion raised by seeing great art with you forever, is enough.
Team: 10. Even as it let off a couple of times in the second half, the support network was there as everyone held everyone else up. They played this match with the fire and focus of a Clasic. Santos should be honored to have gotten our best match.
Guardiola: 10. Right lineup, right psychology, right substitutes. Did everything right and at the end of it is another piece of silver that further underscores the magic he hath wrought. One part of me believes that he will stay at Barca, because he knows that no other club in the world can offer him what this one does in its supernatural players. I hope that is the case.
Valdes: 10. You’re sitting at your desk minding your own business, and suddenly a bunch of people run toward you and one of them kicks a ball at you, really hard. That’s the life of Victor Valdes. Santos had 3 or 4 very good scoring opportunities, including some 1-v-1s. Valdes stopped them all. Calmly and with style.
Alves: 9. If a team is going to allow Alves the space that Santos did today, he is going to kill you. But is also raises the quandary of what to do when there’s Messi, Fabregas, Xavi and Iniesta running at you. Still not a fan of his fouling to fix getting caught out of position, but whatever works, right?
Puyol: 10. Damn. Poor Neymar. Another lauded, preening, stepover whiz with pace, outrun and outplayed by Captain Caveman. He brought the ball up, he played midfield, he did it all, but most importantly during those rare times they (and Neymar) got the ball, Puyol hung out the “Closed” sign.
Pique: 6. Distressingly ordinary on a day when the rest of the squad was playing to such a high level. From wayward long passes to potential extreme danger when he lost a ball to Neymar on our doorstep, Beanpole has had better matches.
Abidal: 9. Let Ganso get the better of him a couple of times, but brilliant match. His closing speed is staggering, and his committment is full. What more can you ask, except why haven’t we renewed him yet?
Busquets: 10. Remarkable match. Supporters of this player should record this match as an example of what he is capable of, and then some. He combined a physical presence, with Keita’s in-the-wayness and he quelled his tendency to dwell on the ball too much. Keeping it moving is the answer.
Xavi: 10. I run out of words to describe the excellence of this player. He should have won Ballon d’Or last year. He won’t this year, either. Not that I think it matters an iota. Simply the best in the world at his position.
Iniesta: 10. So, here’s the thing: You have Messi and you have Xavi, and you have to deal with them. Then you have Iniesta, who seems to be able to dematerialize, then re-materialize behind you with the ball. Sucks to be you, right? Ask Coentrao.
Thiago: 8. He holds the ball too long, and is a little too casual with the flicks and tricks. Having said that, have we found our new left winger when Sanchez needs rest/healing? Every time the ball went out there, something good happened.
Fabregas: 7. In and out of the match, like a transistor radio. Unlike Sanchez, who has decided “Screw it, I’m playing my game,” Fabregas has a more complex world to deal with, peopled by the two best players in the world at his position. So now what? He will learn.
Messi: 9. His most complete match of the season as well as his most selfless, as he worked within the system with fire and flair. I still the Neymar stuff fired him up, which isn’t a bad thing.
Mascherano (for Pique): 7. Was certainly playing his way to a higher rating. He reminds me so much of Puyol when he plays. Same for Neymar, unfortunately, who set off on a break up the right side, and Mascherano said “Different hair, same result. Gimme that!”
Pedro (for Thiago): incomplete. Worked hard, got some good touches, continues to show flashes that he is back.
Fontas (for Puyol): incomplete. Too little time to do anything except marvel at Mascherano, which he did very well.
A few more things:
–Next up is L’Hospitalet, for the home leg of the Plat del Reig. For those who don’t know, my view is “Dump the Plat.” We won’t, and I don’t expect us to have much trouble at home against this side. but again, you never know.
–Please don’t think that I am in any way dissing the talent of Neymar. But this was, really, his first showing against a top club side as a club player. He has done well for Brazil, but Santos (and hopefully, Neymar) learned a valuable lesson today. Yes, Barca is as good as advertised.
–That this man scores headers is a continual source of wonder.