Sporting Gijon 1, Barca 1, aka “An undeserved point”

This is the kind of match that it was today. Pulling, kicking, scratching and fouling by an opponent fighting for its very existence. Sometimes, we just don’t understand, and this was one of those days. We’re on top of the world, everybody says that we’re the best EVAH and people slide off their chairs in ecstasy when we play. But sometimes, we just don’t get it.

A side such as Sporting Gijon is fighting for its Liga life. It isn’t a game to them, a match of football in which you display your talent, kick out the jams, score a few goals, then go home and read about how amazing you are. It is a constant battle to stay up, to stay out of the relegation zone, to not go down to a place that features the likes of Betis, a place that you might not be able to get out of again.

For them, it’s war. And shame on us for bringing a pillow to a knife fight.

Gijon deserved to win this match. As their keeper said, we’re probably pretty happy with the draw, and we should be. It was only their fear that allowed us to salvage a point. Imagine if they had continued to play with the aggression and fearlessness that grabbed them an early goal. But they let us off the hook by scoring, then setting up shop in front of their keeper, determined to get at least a point. It won’t be the last time that a team gets an early goal on us, then immediately starts playing for a draw, even though it has the lead. So get used to it. And be thankful. Gijon could have won this match.

We rolled out with a lineup that was keeping upcoming big matches in mind: Valdes, Alves, Pique, Milito, Maxwell, Mascherano, Xavi, Iniesta, Afellay, Messi, Villa. It’s a lineup that on paper, should have been enough to beat Gijon, had the players decided that they were ready to play, but they weren’t and had to salvage a late draw off a delightful Villa lob, to snag points that were really undeserved. So what the hell happened?

There are lots of excuses:

–International break
–February doldrums
–Big Champions League match looming
–A hummingbird flapping its wings in the Amazon

For me, there is only one excuse: The side didn’t come to play, and got surprised. For me, that is the most vexing thing about this match. When we drew against Copenhagen, that was one thing. That club played its heart out, and we sweated to earn the draw. This time, we kind of passed the ball around, walked a little bit and allowed Gijon to stymie an attack that has been (and still is) amazingly prolific.

So again, what happened?

First, the goal. It was the first time that we have really been damaged by what I call The Alves Complexity, aka Abidependencia. When Alves gets caught up the pitch, pace or positioning have to solve the problem. Messi slid a ball to Villa, who batted a too-soft return pass to Messi. The fight with the Gijon defender saw Messi, for some unfathomable reason, worried about a foul, so he threw up his hands and backed off rather than continuing to battle. Gijon sprung into action. Most teams have a right back over there, playing for precisely that kind of situation. But because ours functions mostly as an attacker, the three defenders and defensive midfielder are on their own.

Mascherano hesitated a bit, then loped over to cover the runner up the wing, instead of running as if a goal and points depended on it. The attacker got past him, which means that it’s now on the central defenders to quell the danger. The Gijon player did the perfect thing in running hard up the wing, then sliding a pass to an attacker who was already running at full tilt at Pique, who isn’t the fastest of players on his best day. Pique had one chance to stop the attack, and bollixed it up. He should have just fouled him. Instead he tried to make a play but the attacker shoved him aside, and kept right on running. Milito had one chance to stop the attack, but he tripped over his shoelaces or something. Valdes was screwed, because he had to make a choice. It was the correct one, in forcing the player to make a very difficult shot across the face of goal. If the shot is off by even a little bit, the keeper parries it away. But it wasn’t, because the Footy Gods deemed it so.

At the moment of the shot, Iniesta is the defender in the box, playing the extra Gijon attacker to prevent the pass. No other defenders are on the scene. To me, the goal typified the match. Who can remember the last time that a team got back on a break, and we had nobody in the picture to defend? Maxwell comes trotting (yes, trotting) in late, but the shot is already on the way. As usual when we concede, it was a team effort. Remember when Messi tracked back like a wild man to gangsta the ball from Aguero? Not today. No Lord Pedro of the Windmills, because he was on the bench, as were Busquets and Abidal.

It’s easy to support being beaten by brilliance. It’s a lot harder to support succumbing because of a lack of effort, and that’s how it was for most of the match, for most of the players, who didn’t seem to understand that if you’re in a fight with someone, you have to figure out what’s at stake, then match that effort. Yes, there are going to be matches like this again, which doesn’t mean that I am going to let them off lightly. That ain’t my job here.

Gijon adopted a defense that (funny how many Chicago Bulls analogies are apt for our beloved club) brought to mind The Jordan Rules, instigated by the Detroit Pistons. Essentially, the Rules were:

–No layups.
–Make the other players beat you.
–Foul when you have to.
–Disrupt the game whenever possible.

Preciado’s charges did precisely that, applying loose pressure that stiffened as we approached their box, whereupon they descended on the ball the way that we usually do when we actually care about a match. Messi was attended by at least three defenders at all times, and when in doubt, they fouled or made the maximum of our fouls. Or just booted the ball up the pitch, giving the defense a chance to reset.

Our attack played into their hands by evincing all the movement of Stonehenge. And when the midfield pressure was such that Messi dropped into the midfield to get the ball, Villa slid into the middle, where he stood. And Afellay was on the right wing, where he stood. So passes that usually find an attacker in stride, ready to play it to another attacker, found 2 or 3 Gijon defenders who understood that today was, if they worked hard enough, going to be their day. So they did, while we sashayed about, checking the watch and saying “Is it time to be brilliant yet?”

And then suddenly it was, which is the crime of it all. Leonine Messi fought off a Gijon defender and won the ball, making the run like a man determined. For a change, Villa anticipated this and actually moved to a pass that was perfectly placed. It all happened so quickly that the keeper was caught out of his box, playing Villa for a pass or hard, low shot. So Villa lobbed him, a delicate bit of perfection of sufficient velocity to preclude a charging defender clearing it off the line, yet high enough that all the keeper could do was watch it go in. It was a staggering goal, that demonstrated fire and the sheer quality that makes the laudatory prose constantly lavished upon us, deserved.

Why it took the 81st minute to finally show up, is beyond me. Some of it was the addition of Pedro!!, who brought movement and effort to the attack. Suddenly, a defender-dragging dervish was creating space and danger with movement, not standing around like a Dutch statue. The delightful result is that their defenders, instead of being able to watch us pass the ball around then converge on the player making a silly run, had to move and anticipate, and gaps were found.

After the goal, Messi came to roaring, vibrant life, but it was too late. His amazing play in the box in the 87th minute was, again, the Footy Gods showing their displeasure. He rumbled, stumbled, fought and flat-out outran a Gijon defender to the end line, smoking in a perfect cross that had the exact right pace to not be parried by the keeper, yet slide between the keeper and his defense. But alas, Villa decided “Hey, whoa, maybe I should move,” too late, leaving Pedro!! to make a last-second lunge at the ball that pushed it wide of the gaping goal.

That was the last real scoring opportunity, despite Pique’s best effort at gifting Gijon the match when a horrific ball back to Valdes turned into a gilt-edged chance for them, and earned Valdes a yellow card. But the threat was dealt with, and that was that.

Team: 2. Show up, and play the whole match. It’s as simple as that.

Guardiola: 6. I haven’t seen him this involved in a match in a long time, as he did all the right things. But he didn’t have them ready to play. The Pedro!! for Afellay substitution was perfect. Keita for Milito should have come a lot earlier, when it was clear they weren’t interested in attacking.

Valdes: 7. Hard to fault him for the goal, and he came up huge on a few occasions, and made some excellent decisions in covering leaked balls. His distribution was unusually mediocre today, which probably had something to do with not having defenders to carry the attack.

Alves: 6. The effort was there, the cohorts weren’t. You can’t really fault him for the Gijon attack getting busy on his side. He’s just doing what he always does. He was funky early like almost everyone else. Some good movement and work in the box, for crosses that deserved a better fate, and his setup for Messi on what should have been a goal was immense.

Pique: 3. Some good, mostly bad. Made a few good defensive plays, then sullied it with those ridiculous long diagonal balls that he keeps trying. And Gerard: When you aren’t the last defender, just foul the attacker and take your chances with the set piece. No shame in that.

Milito: 5. A very solid match after the early shakes. Very strong bringing the ball up the middle to start attacks, as well.

Maxwell: 5. Some good, some bad. But what is it about him that lets his passes always find the other team? He was lofting balls into the box without a lot of point, poking balls directly at the feet of Gijon defenders and making a general mess of himself. Messi being off song can still be pretty good. Not so with Maxwell. Some key defensive interventions in and out of the box, and even bailed Mascherano out.

Mascherano: 5. A stronger effort was required on the run that led to the goal. Strong challenges in his usual stout effort at DM. But his lack of attacking creativity showed here, at a time when Xavi and Iniesta were under siege.

Xavi: 7. He had a very good match, thwarted by the lack of effort on the part of our attackers. Kept the ball, rode out challenges and worked beautifully with Iniesta. Had moments of uncertainty, mostly because Gijon were clogging the passing lanes, making it difficult for him. So make a run, dude!

Iniesta: 7. Ghostface was wonderful today, the only player in the first half who actually came to play. Runs, passes, tracking back and effort galore. Forced a very good save from their keeper.

Afellay: 1. Welcome to reality. It’s easy to dazzle when you come in with a match done and dusted. It’s yet another thing to play against a determined, hard-working opponent. Movement helps that a lot. If they build a statue for you, it won’t actually be you. The awful pass that unleashed a Gijon break and earned Mascherano a yellow was typical of his match today.

Messi: 3. Playing only about 10 minutes of a 90-minute match isn’t going to work. And get on your teammates about their lack of movement, don’t just start making runs into the heart of a defense determined to stop you. Yes, it was the kind of day that a perfect setup gets spanked right at the keeper.

Villa: 2. Yes, loved the goal. But good lord, his movement was nonexistent, when you weren’t asking “Where’s Villa,” as he went to the left wing to disappear. And when he was leading the line, he was every bit as static as Afellay. He doesn’t play like he’s hungry.

Substitutes

Pedro!! (for Afellay): 7. What a difference a player makes to an offense. He was super aggressive, and how is he always where the ball is? It’s a magical gift that unsettles defenses and makes everyone’s life easier. Bummer about the late chance that he pushed wide, but in watching the sequence, it just looks like he never expected the ball to get that far, that Villa was going to move and tap it in.

Keita (for Milito): incomplete. His willingness to do everything at any time shows why he’s such a favorite of Guardiola. He worked like a dog for the time he was on the pitch.

Krkic (for Iniesta): incomplete. He entered the match, and vanished. He reappeared when it was time to somehow lose a ball to Gijon, then disappeared again. Guardiola was clearly trying to impress upon him the urgency of the situation. It didn’t work.

So as of right now, the lead is 5 points. If EE were playing any other team except Espanyol, I’d say we have a shot at the lead being 7 points again. But their hatred of us is such that even if they aren’t conscious of it, they will play in a manner that ensures full points for EE. But don’t forget. 5 points means that we can still dump El Clasic and be fine. Keep the faith.

P.S. Botia was “our” best defender today. He would have been a valuable asset to have in the side. Smart, physical and anticipated very well.

By Kxevin

In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.

315 comments

    1. Cazorla has been invisible, and the Villareal defense is awful today. When Deportivo players can make multiple runs into your box, you know something is terribly wrong!

  1. atleast kick someone like a man, iker. de jong or hernanes style.

    who’s gonna whisper instructions to dudek now? this is weeeeird.

  2. I cannot WAIT to see what the Marca headlines are tomorrow! And for Mou’s press conference! 😀

  3. According to optajose, EE have won the last 4 matches when they had a player sent off at 0-0. Obviously, it’s never been Casillas….

  4. This probably just means Carvalho and Pepe will get away with murder for the rest of the match tbh.

    1. EE getting good chances.

      Must.stop.watching. Must.stop.watching. Must.stop.watching

      Wait, Alonso gets booked? Really? *continues to watch*

  5. Well, we all knew that pericos will not fight for this, even when EE is a man down, the pericos still give up…

    1. Not all of us Milla some people here actually thought that espanyol will come out to play, i said EE will win 0-4 i still believe that will happen

  6. Alonso could very well be the 2nd man off the field, treading it dangerously with a yellow already.

  7. God they really are pathetic. Where is the aggression they always show when they play us? How are they letting Madrid boss this game with only 10 men.

    I wasnt going to watch this game as I have a general rule not to watch the EE play but a friend texted me that Casillas got sent off early on and i thought… why not.

    1. At times there was 1 man in the box….Against 10 men…In your home stadium…With a Reserve inexperienced keeper.

    1. he’s always been good. he was really great that one season in arsenal. was convinced his shit didn’t stink & was focused on moving to greener pastures. who know’s what that whole togo thing did to his head? in the few appearances he got for man city, especially in the europa league this year, he’s been phenomenal. i thought he would’ve been worth the risk for barca, really.

    1. Dunno. When I wrote that everything was coming off him into dangerous situations plus he sold the goal. However, since then he has made some pretty good stops.

  8. Healthy advice: Watching/hoping for a result in the EE/mini-EE match will definitely lead to a headache..

    Watch the Derby d’Italia instead. Experience the joy of being a neutral..

    1. Geez, I’m not old enough for the rocking chair, bifocles , and knitting needles yet. The kids are still at home.

    1. She likes watching EE so much we might just have to force her to watch EE’s whole 08-09 season as punishment!

  9. Oh, boy, where to start.

    –The point is undeserved because Gijon played their hearts out, outplayed us for much of the match despite our gaudy possession stats and morally, I don’t think a team should earn a point for playing about 10 minutes of football.

    –And ooga aga: “But i guess its good journalism to froth at the mouth and get indignant.” 😀 Really? No, it’s good journalism to evaluate a crappy team performance as it deserved to be. We. Were. Poor. Simple as that. Don’t hate the messenger. Yes, they had one shot on goal. But look at how much possession they had, and how they were all over our defense when they were actually trying to score, rather than defending a one-goal lead. If we’re on song, we win on a stroll. We weren’t, and that isn’t all Gijon’s fault.

    –Ratings. I’ve said it before and will say it again: Ratings aren’t meant as affirmation. I don’t care what or who anybody likes. As others have noted, had Villa not scored the goal, he was headed for a 1. He did nothing, and was invisible while doing it. Not my fault. As I noted above, he isn’t playing like he’s hungry. Does anyone think Eto’o wouldn’t have gobbled up that Messi cross? No, it isn’t a comparison, but it’s what I mean about playing hungry. Right now, Villa doesn’t.

    Messi played to his rating. Watch the match again, and count the wayward passes and runs to nowhere. Yes, I love and respect what Messi does for the side. But play the whole match. If he’d played the whole match like he played the last 10 minutes, we would almost certainly have won.

    –People are being too hard on Maxwell. He didn’t have a bad match. A 5 isn’t a bad rating.

    –Next match review, I am going to break down an individual player’s rating in its entirety, directly from my notes. It probably won’t help it make any more sense, because so many will still be seeking affirmation from the ratings, and just ain’t coming. Sorry. I don’t do that. But the process will be clear. Or not.

    –Jim, your defense of Maxwell is admirable. But you mistake my observation for a criticism. Fact of the matter is that everyone should have been busting their hump to get into the box to stop that threat, including Maxwell, and nobody did, except for Iniesta. And if Iniesta is the defender keeping the loose man in check, then something has broken down, or there is a lack of effort.

    When our goal is in danger, nobody should be trotting. The lack of team effort on that goal is shameful. It’s why I also noted that we conceded it as a team. Iniesta was the only forward player who tracked back. Really? Where was Messi, or Villa, or Afellay, or anyone? Mascherano lazed over to half-ass at the stop, as noted above. And Pique should have just fouled the attacker. Problem solved. But it didn’t happen that way and frankly, it shouldn’t have. Just my sense of fairness. Gijon left nothing on the table.

    I only wish our shirts had been as sweaty as theirs.

    1. “Does anyone think Eto’o wouldn’t have gobbled up that Messi cross?”

      To be fair, probably not if was against Mallorca, which was his Kryptonite, as Sporting is David’s.

    2. I take your point, Kxevin, but he was the one you picked out. When you say (of alves) “You can’t really fault him for the Gijon attack getting busy on his side” I have to disagree. He was only 5 yards from the ball and he basically stopped running when it was passed. On the other hand, Maxwell was literally the furthest away person from this particular action ( on the diagonal of a large pitch) so if he managed to cover all that ground in that short space of time its no wonder he was trotting.

  10. Such things happen. Five points (RM won, right?) is a good margin.

    Regarding Afellay: As I mentioned once, Kxevin, since the first match I got the impression he can perform much better in the midfield than the wing. Yes,he can expose spaces, but spaces are usually nonexistent for Barcelona forwards. In the midfield he can exchange passes, retain possession, and place long shots.

    It is still too early to figure what he can and what he cant, but so far that’s my 5 cents on him.

    Note: I would have preferred a different substitution at the beginning of the second half: Maxwell out (didnt like his performance in this match), Pedro in, Mascherano as a third CB and move Afellay to the midfield with Iniesta and Xavi. Then I would have tried more Keita in the box later on. But what do I know?

    1. Welcome back, Ramzi! I’m still not sure why Guardiola doesn’t trust Mascherano more as a center back, but he doesn’t seem to.

      Afellay works wonders on the wing for the Dutch NT. I just can’t understand why he was so static.

      As for a sub, my ideal substitution was the one made, Pedro!! for Afellay. I also wouldn’t have minded Villa coming off. I know people will note that he scored the key goal to keep us from losing. I also think that with him off, our offense would have had the movement necessary to keep that goal from waiting until the 80th minute.

      Agreed on Keita. But I love him, as others have noted. 😀

    2. Yes I watched Afellay playing for the dutch, he was as brilliant as Villa was while playing for Valencia. In both situations there were more spaces than both can ever dream of at Barcelona. But as I said, it’s still too early. We can wait and see how he will develop…

      I wanted him more in the midfield last night, first to create additional outlet where the team was struggling, secondly to get advantage of his long shots against such a well positioned team defensively, and thirdly to keep Messi closer to the opponent’s box instead of the typical habit of shaking hands with Valdes every time the team slowdown shuffling the lines forward.

      But I havent watch him enough yet, so Pep (and you) can abuse my lack of info about him at Barca and claim being perfectly right with the sub:)

    3. I like Afellay more in the midfield as well, but I think that maybe Gijon, playing so deep squeezed Afellay in the corner weather he liked it or not. Once Pedro took that position back it seemed like he was able to muscle his way and claim that part of the turf in a way Afellay could not. Sorta like, don’t send a boy to do a man’s job ….

  11. And by the by, Espanyol is fundamentally incapable of doing anything that will help us. It just isn’t a functioning part of their psyche. If they needed to draw EE to avoid relegation, but in doing so would enable us to pad our points lead, they’d go down, middle finger raised in the direction of the Camp Nou.

    1. I dunno, Kxevin. It may be that they are fundamentally incapable for talent reasons, but they do seem to be trying.

  12. If EE started this match with only one player they were/are going to win it, so now they have 10 players, that’s 9 more than what they need to win against Espanyol

    1. They didn’t even need to put another GK in for Casillas, really. I can’t remember the last time Espanyol actually took a shot on goal.

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