Perhaps the problem is that this team needs a challenge. Hercules doesn’t do it, Mallorca doesn’t do it. This team needs a reason to bare its teeth, and go for the jugular. Like a victory addict, it needs stronger and stronger juice to make the thrills more acute.
So rolling into this match, with one and all questioning who we are and what we do, nattering about a “resurgent” Sevilla and predicting all kinds of stuff, we do a flashback to the all-attacking, all the time Barca, and destroy them. This was the best, most complete display we have offered this season. Valencia got only a half of football, and that was enough. Sevilla got the full deal, and it was grim. As Sevilla’s coach, Manzano, said after the match, “There was never a game.”
Guardiola rolled out with our best lineup, Valdes, Alves, Pique, Puyol, Abidal, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Pedro! and Villa, and the message was clear that this was to be a statement match. And when the ball rolled out, it took less than a minute for us to threaten their goal, and less than four to notch our first goal, a busted play that was nonetheless a thing of beauty, because there were four men in the box. Gone were the days of one player rolling in with a scoring chance, only to have it go begging with nobody around for the follow-up.
So Villa smacked a shot that caromed off a Sevilla defender, Pedro! darted left for the rebound and fed it back into the mixer. Villa sprinted where P!’s cross was headed, but it was intercepted by Sevilla’s keeper, who knocked it away. The ball fell to Messi, who whipped a shot with his left foot that made no mistake, and less than 4 minutes in, it was 1-0. Showing his extreme class, Villa backed off the ball when it was clear that it was going in, rather than knocking it in himself to claim the goal. That would have been spectacularly cheap, and I think that everyone’s respect rose about 10 levels for him after that bit of graciousness.
And we didn’t stop attacking. Every pass, every move, every time Sevilla had the ball we unleashed wave after wave of mids, forwards, defenders, ball boys, everybody working with one goal in mind: get the ball back and return to the attack. It was a truly amazing display. Someone mentioned that this display harkened back to the treble season, and that was right, because that was how the team played every match. But there isn’t the depth or energy for that any longer. Nor, frankly, is there the necessity. If you can win a race by a nose, why win it by four lengths? It’s just wasted energy.
But against Sevilla, a for-real Liga contender, in a week of doubt by any, all and everyone who had an opinion, it was time. There was, really, only two real shots at goal for them, one from Fabiano that didn’t have a real chance, and one at Valdes that was easily stopped. And neither shot featured the imbalance, the scrambling that denoted a defense in danger. The first was an unfortunate series of caroms that found Fabiano loose, the second a hopeful volley off a cross. And that was that.
Part of why those shots were rushed, and didn’t have anyone around to try to follow them up, or be available for a defense-gutting pass, was because this was a team effort that found every Sevilla attacker locked down. The man who had the ball, had to shoot it because passing lanes were closed or clogged. It really was a brilliant display by a club that, every now and again, feels compelled to say “You know, we really are still the best side in the world.”
The second goal was the one that caused an immense sigh of relief, as Messi casually slid a ball to Villa, and was almost certainly expecting the return pass. Villa, however, found himself in space, decided “What the heck?” and unleashed a high, hard curler that found the far upper 90 and left the keeper, us and the Camp Nou stunned. Que golazo, indeed. If you are going to get the monkey off your back, what a way to do it, in a week where JoJoMo referred to Villa with comments in defense of Benzema. It was a shot that said “This, THIS you sonsabitches, is why this club paid 40m for me. And don’t forget it.”
Once they went down a man, thanks to an amazing bit of skill by P! that drew a second yellow card on one of theirs, the second half came and we settled into a mode that was more like “Don’t vex us, and we won’t kill you.”
And then came a third goal, yet another bit of gloriousness spawned by our incessant attacking. One of Sevilla’s thugs headed a simple ball back to the keeper that had a little too much lift on it. Alves, like a rocket, leapt into action with a balletic toe stretch that lifted the ball over the helpless, hapless keeper for the 3-0 lead. Alves didn’t celebrate, out of respect for Sevilla, the club that put him on the map. But he didn’t need to, really. The goal spoke for itself with an eloquence that could have filled volumes, because it was a microcosm of our entire match: speed, opportunism, precision and execution. Alves made an absolutely insane goal look easy as pie.
But we weren’t finished sending the message. Sevilla got the ball and thought “Hey, let’s try attacking them for a change!” They got to midfield, where the terriers descended upon them. Messi worked the ball loose and went off on a mazy diagonal run, before snapping a shot back across the keeper, for number 4 for the club, and his second goal of the match. Messi was accompanied by a flotilla of Sevilla defenders, but created so much space because of the threat of his running forward that he had space to spank the shot. That he did it off the dead run made it even more impressive, and more difficult to defend.
The fifth goal was one of those “Hey, I can do that too” moments as the omnipresent, indefatigable Busquets slid a ball to Villa who cut across the face of the defense, just like Messi, and smoked a shot into lower far corner, just like Messi, only with more velocity. Same result. A goal. It was 5-0 in a match so one-sided, the ref didn’t even run any added time, a fact that outraged Sid Lowe of The Guardian. I considered it a humanitarian gesture. Nothing else was going to happen. Sevilla weren’t going to score. The only thing that could happen with more time is some fluke, such as an injury. Let them get off the pitch and head back home to analyse what happened, and let the Camp Nou folks scramble for taxis, and a late-night snack from some place on La Rambla.
And speaking of the Camp Nou, there is a different attitude this season, as I’m sure people have noticed from the broadcasts, or for those lucky enough to have attended matches this season. Crowds are up, as almost 82,000 attended today’s match. But there is also NOISE, and lots of it. Screaming, chanting, singing, even today’s trumpet dude, blaring battle cries and a brassy Himno. It’s very cool, and befits the best club in the world. Here’s hoping it continues, as it is a welcome change over the quiet, almost blase approach that was the Camp Nou calling card in past seasons.
Team: 10. This was the match of the season, beautifully played in every facet of the game on both sides of the ball. It was all-out attack with energy and virtuosity, and Sevilla didn’t stand a chance.
Guardiola: 10. Don’t know what he said to them, but it worked. Right subs as well, getting Xavi off quickly so that he could rest up, and getting Krkic some time in a favorable situation (no pressure, nothing on the line in a decided match).
Valdes: 7. He probably would have played to a better rating but really, he only had to deal with two shots, and play sweeper keeper, all of which he performed excellently. Killer save on the Capel shot.
Alves: 6. Drifted in and out for me, and was kind of stinky early, before playing his way into the match. His goal was amazing, as were his contributions to our all-out attack. He was a constant bundle of energy out there.
Pique: 8. Piquenbauer in full effect, as everyone was deputized to help in the midfield, and Pique took full advantage. Made some key stops and interventions on defense as well. He plays so much better with Puyol out there.
Puyol: 9. Speaking of key interventions. That should be his middle name. After the Fabiano shot, you could see him coming down on the guys like a ton of bricks, saying in effect “Dudes, what the HELL!” It was a captain’s performance in every facet of the match.
Abidal: 9. Pace, power and control were his hallmarks today, not only of his side of the pitch, but of the ball. He has a great first touch, and is demonstrating increasing fluency in an attacking role. Maxwell has made him better, just as he has made Maxwell better this season.
Busquets: 9. This was a crazy match for a player who was everywhere, all at once. Interception after interception, well-timed passes and pressure defense were just some of the indicators of his play today.
Xavi: 7. Not quite himself, but he didn’t need to be as we had the midfield on lockdown, with the ball moving around and players moving up and back with like elevators. He had a number of amazing passes today including a wondrous backheel to Messi, and he has that knack for materializing at the exact spot he needs to be.
Iniesta: 9. Wow, what a match. Even when he wasn’t overtly influencing things, he was opening space with threatening runs. And what ball control and passing! The attacking threat that he brings to our side as Xavi pulls the strings, makes our midfield, when it’s on, unplayable. But he needs to be more selfish.
Pedro!: 7. He’s still learning how to play now that he’s being marked like a real threat, instead of some B Team dude. But you could see him in a much more controlled game, taking advantage of space that he was offered and constantly hustling to support the cause. Think about how many players would have just let that ball that he knocked back in, run out for a corner.
Messi: 9. Another Man of the Match performance for our Small Wonder, as he got two goals, some steals, tracked back on defense, moved and created and did pretty much everything. His first goal was pure opportunism, his second pure quality.
Villa: 8. This started out like another one of those matches for El Guaje, as he got a ball tangled in his feet, and created space to spank a weak shot at the keeper. Then he got it going, and couldn’t be stopped. He’s getting better and better, and is learning how to play with Messi, which is huge. Their mutual space creation can only benefit the side.
Mascherano (for Xavi): 5. Nice, solid performance except for that one time he slipped a bit, lost the ball and sent Sevilla off to the races. Not cool. Again, he contributed little Xaviesque moments to facilitate our ball control game.
Krkic (for Pedro!): 2. Had a few touches but precious little influence. Lots of running, to little effect.
Adriano (for Puyol): 7. Excellent play in attack and defense, with some exquisite passes and hustle plays as he roamed up and down the pitch.
So. Next up, on Tuesday, is a trip to Copenhagen with a simple mission: Win and advance to the Champions League knockout stages. And after the mood buoying the team in the wake of this thrashing, they will probably just float to Denmark. Until then,