Thursday, March 11, 2010

Almeria 2-2 Barca, or, Did I say "Thrash Almeria?"

An unexpected, I mean, draw...this week has brought an interesting question to the fore: Are Barca a good, verging on great, team at home, but a mediocre team away? One needs to look no further than this wonderful blog to see that while Barca are capable of turning out some stunning performances within its fortress, they struggle to produce the same quality outside in the unadoring cold of the road.

Some will say that the Camp Nou pitch is so good, that all other pitches in the world destroy Barca's flow with all the long grass and holes every other square-foot. Whatever. If you ask me, this game came down to a bit of exhaustion, a bit of jadedness, and you know what, a bit of curious coaching decisions.

I am as big a supporter of Pep Guardiola as you will find, and as recent posts will indicate, I am not at all against the direction he seems to be taking the team into, tactically and when it comes to personnel. But in this match, Barca looked on the ropes for a long, long time, looking sluggish as a team and, for the most part, individually. The team went down once, ground out a fairly lucky equalizer (not the first one lately, either), then went down again, still looking slow and relatively tame.

Note the lineup: Valdes, Alves, Puyol, Milito, Maxwell, Yaya, Xavi, Iniesta, Pedro, Messi, and Ibrahimovic. That is just a suspension, an injury, and an I-don't-know-what's-up-with-Henry away from last year's tour-de-force. Yet, Guardiola tried--and commendably, at first--to try his new tactics with Yaya instead of Busquets. It was not quite working.

Did it really have to take a sending-off to pull Iniesta back into the midfield and have the team play the way they knew? With Yaya, last year's rock of the midfield trio, in the squad, why play the 433-cum-424/4231 experiment that Busquets is central to? At half-time, with the grip on the game tenuous at best, could Pep have not said, "Right, decent showing of the new tactics--now let's do the Xavi-Iniesta-Yaya thing, move the damn ball around, and put Almeria in their place"?

It was not all the manager, though, who should have known better than to get sent off with his team down. It was most of last year's legends whose performances factored into the draw. No analysis of important Barca players in a game should begin with anyone else but Xavi Hernandez, who just was not the engine that the team needs him to be. He looked to be lacking barrels of mental sharpness--his passes were inconsistent, and his movement did not involve himself enough and allow him to take a hold of the game. Gone, for the most part, were the one-touch passes that kept the ball moving, as almost every one of his passes seemed to take moment after agonizing moment to consider and execute, successful or not. Did having only one midfield partner, and one that tends to stay behind the attack, give him more to think about than usual? Probably. But most of all, he played lethargically, without urgency, without the usual conviction.

His slowness set the tone for the team, as the story of the first half was possession at the back. Xavi had his good moments, everyone had their good moments--but somewhere along the line, someone scuffed off a poor pass or lost the ball cheaply somewhere in the field. Xavi's hesitancy led to hesitancy all over the field, and the ball never really got moving. Sometimes the team moved the ball quickly from right to left, from left to right; other times, they dribbled and turned, made a back-pass, or lost the ball one way or another. Defensively, the whole team did not track back as one far too often. Fingers will point to Alves for giving Puyol more work than he needed, but when that happened, and when Puyol got beaten, where were the midfielders on too many occasions? Inconsistency and slow speed of play marked a very uninspired game.

Like Xavi, almost everyone who showed last year that they could, did not. For some players, it was also partly because of tactics. Iniesta, playing as a left-forward for most of the game, looked uninspired. In that position, his currency is the ability to dribble his way out of tight situations, and in most games he produces some magic a few times against the sideline, but he could not in this game. As long as he depends on his dribbling in the final third, as long as his final balls are not-quite-there, as long as he does not score goals or even take shots most of the time, he will not be very good in that role.

Other players will not find their excuses in tactics. Between tracking back too late, too often, getting caught out of position, as well as with trademarked-loose distribution, trademarked-inaccurate crosses, and one trademarked-exaggeration on the floor, Alves showed off a lot of what we hate him for with precious little of what we love him for. Loads of involvement and flash in his game was more than counter-balanced by the wastefulness that Barca fans hate to call predictable. Perhaps he is playing his way back from injury--I hope that is the case.

Yaya was also a bit off-color. Though his passing was generally sound and his possession generally smart, last year's defensive proficiencies were as lacking as they were in the Stuttgart game. Very inconsistent was his positioning, as he was just reaching balls too late, having to make most of his tackles in the places you would not expect--anywhere but the middle of the field in front of the defense. More noticeable was his ineffectiveness in imposing himself. For such a historically intimidating player, if not technically excellent in his tackles and interceptions (though often he is this), to see him lose so many physical battles in the air was baffling. People seem to be pointing to Puyol for the 12th-minute goal concession, and with reason--but that goal began with Yaya holding onto his man, looking to be on him, but allowing him to escape and get his head to the ball. Perhaps he is shaking off some rust--I hope that is the case, if he remains with the team. I would hate to see him go.

The other concession effectively started with Yaya as well. Sure, Maxwell gave away the ball cheaply upfield, but then Almeria moved right through the middle, as Yaya ran alongside the play. Also like the opener, it ended, obviously, with Puyol at the scene of the crime with blood all over his hands, but this time, it was for real. An own goal is not something you see often from El Capitan, but it happened, and it symbolized another sluggish, inconsistent, and, well, slow performance from another of the team's staples. Did Valdes call him off? Should he have done so louder if he did? Was Puyol listening? We will never know. What we do know is that if it was not for that practically once-in-a-lifetime mistake, Barca would have scrapped out a narrow and only arguably deserved win.

Was it really any surprise that our best performers were the relative newbies, the ones that did not partake in last year's spotlight? Milito played arguably the best game in the defense, with superb reading of Almeria's passes in the final third, several well-executed tackles that came from that reading, and flashes of Beckenbaur-esque forays and passes forward. His cross-field- and long passes were not that bad, either. Busquets, when he came on for Yaya for the last 20 minutes of the game, really showed his form by playing a near perfect game off the bench, picking off loose balls, pressuring every player that came into his zone and running them straight into one of our defenders, and passing 100%, including one Xavi-esque cross-field ball.

Pedro, though playing a supporting role throughout the game, did not put one foot wrong if I remember. His passes, when they were not adequate to keep the attack moving, were excellent to put the ball in a wholly unexpected place. Especially after the team went a man down and he was allowed to play more strictly in the left-forward position, he showed flashes of playing it exactly as Henry did last season. I mentioned in the last post that one of his criticisms is his inexperience that is reflected in hesitancy in final-delivery situations on the wing. Against Almeria, when he received the ball at just the right time, he had no trouble in beating his man and racing to the touchline to put the knife in. Once, he opted to pass the ball back to Xavi, when Alves was wide-open in the middle. Another time, he delivered a dangerous one to the far-post, which came back through an Almeria header for Messi's second goal. With a bit more confidence--as if he does not have a ton already--he gets a couple of assists.

The exception to the rule, of course, was Messi, who really had an exceptional individual game. Almeria could not deal with his heroic runs, and, unlike most teams, could not deal with his foolish runs most of the time, either. They were also terrorized by tiny, chipped flicks of the ball to nearby teammates that Messi cheekily pulled off again, and again, and again. His passes were right-on, too, as he would consistently hold the ball just enough to draw two or three players, before giving to someone like Pedro, through whom he could have had one obvious assist. He looked so threatening throughout the game, and really deserved both goals of the type--cool, but just a tad lucky. If Ibrahimovic played half as well as Messi did, Barca would have put this game to bed quickly through sheer class at the front. Unfortunately, the big man kept bundling over his defender whenever the ball came near him, and finally the poor guy had enough of it and exaggerated some contact, which got Ibra sent off--and that is all I will say about him.

But, again, Barca only came near their full potential after he was sent off. It was not because Ibrahimovic was the wrench-in-the-gears--he was far from it. Puyol's own-goal whipped the team and the manager into shape, as they both realized that this could go down as an L. Guardiola, for his part, got on his iPhone and told Villanova to authorize the tactical changes that allowed the (old?) Xavi-Iniesta axis to run the midfield. The players, for their part, started to get the ball around the field faster. The defenders, who had until that point been far, far too content to imagine that the Valdes-Puyol-Milito axis was the key to dominance, moved the ball forward. Iniesta became much more assured in his passing, visibly relieved that he did not need to wow the crowd as the only way to do anything right. Xavi, with an attacking outlet, hesitated much less. Both of them, plus Pedro and, sometimes, Alves, coalesced around Messi to create three chances--three--right after the sending off. The fourth was the second equalizer.

More came, and to the last minute, I felt fairly comfortable that Barca could pull it out. Messi still produced some great things out of sheer drive, including a half-volley that gave Diego Alves his best save of the game. I did not know it, though. All the players that were only half-there prior to the sending off were still only 75-80% there afterward. Xavi continued to rack up passes like a collection of dull-knives. Iniesta was certainly more comfortable, but still was not playing like St. Andres. Alves dived in the box and freaked out when the ref didn't give him a penalty. In some ways, things got worse, as Maxwell began to get beaten like a gong toward the end, and Almeria returned the favor Messi did their goalkeeper by giving Milito his best, if subtle, moments. It was only when stoppage time began, and I saw six of our players still in our own half, that I knew that we would give up the lead to Real Madrid.

In a very real way, Barca did not want three points as much as Almeria wanted one. When Sergio Canales was subbed off during the Racing game a few weeks ago, four goals down in the Camp Nou, he sat on the bench, shook his head, and smiled. Almeria players, when the 2-2 stalemate consolidated itself, became visibly frustrated with one another when things did not work out. Sure, our boys looked upset--mildly--but not enough for a second title. On Sunday, they need to prove that they want this Liga against a much more formidable team than Almeria--Valencia.

This just-in: Hopefully, the fit-again, and fit-again-early, Seydou Keita will help us. Arriba!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

What'd He Say? Busquets, Pedro, and My Starting XI

I would like to take a moment to give some due credit to FC Barcelona's two brightest emerging stars: Pedro Rodriguez and Sergio Busquets.

In the last post, I put on my turban and gazed into the crystal ball with a passive bit of speculation that, if anyone commented on this blog, would probably have drawn some discussion. Clearly, Pep Guardiola is playing Busi and Pedro more often than Yaya and Henry, and it has been quite a conundrum for myself and for many other fans. With every starting selection that goes by, it becomes more and more apparent that the manager prefers the boys he groomed in his days managing Barca Atletic: why? Why, when you have two proven players that played such vital roles on the team in the year in which Barca won ab-so-lutely everything, two players that were always-starts, start benching them in favor of last year's clear substitutes practically every time both are fit? It is one thing to rotate, but it seems that Yaya and Henry cannot even buy a start this season. Both are two of the classiest of world-class players, while Pedro and Busi each have had their good and bad games this season--why has the transition been so sudden?

After the last month, I am beginning--just beginning--to think that all the awful headers that led to goals from Busi and all the invisibility in spite of goals from Pedro has been worth it.

Sergio Busquets came onto the scene, of course, last season, as a clear substitute. After a first-half of the season that saw him adopt the role of the lanky foul-vacuum, Busi experienced a quick drop-off in performances as Iniesta started to play at his very best, becoming completely untouchable in that left-midfield position. At the start of this season, I was not alone in being very, very confused by the lack of Yaya, as expected lineups across cule fandom were proven wrong game, after game, after game. Not only was (and is, for now) Yaya a fan favorite, it was impossible to argue for anyone to replace him as the man just ahead of Puyol and Pique, even more so to advocate his replacement by an unproven player that did not even look a natural defensive midfielder. But that is how it happened, and pretty soon, a lot of us were calling for his head, as he accumulated agonizing giveaways, a record of committing rather than drawing fouls, and a number of headed assists for the other side that was looking to become his awful trademark.

Fans knew of Pedro Rodriguez last season as the young boy wearing the shirt with the really high number, who came on in the 89th or 90th minute of every tenth or fifteenth game, most famously for Andres Iniesta, with smiling applause, in the last gasps of the Champion's League final in Rome. That was all we really knew, though, and far was it from us to expect that he would usurp Bojan's position this season. However, he was perhaps the stand-out performer in the pre-season, as if transformed, and it became apparent that not only had he firmly overtaken Bojan on the pecking order, but he had just about nudged an aging Henry out of his place as well. This season, he has been Mr. Goals, popping up time and time again to put away all kinds of one-on-ones and crackers from outside the box. But the question has been: is his goal-scoring form enough to keep a player with the experience and finesse of Henry on the bench? Aside from his goals, he has often suffered from positional ill-discipline, that leaves him chasing plays, coming into position too late, and tracking back on defense only inconsistently. Though Henry has not exactly been putting them away this season, a trademark of his play since last season has been his defensive contributions and his ability to either hold up the ball or put in a quick run and cross, skills that come with years of playing at the top level.

Still, the halfway mark of the season has passed, and Guardiola, who in my opinion has not made a seriously wrong decision in his short tenure, seems to be grooming his canteranos to contribute to the future of the club. In retrospect, it seems naive to have ever thought that when Pep spoke of needing to make changes to the plan, he was only referring to a replacement of Eto'o with Ibrahimovic. But I do not know if anyone expected him to make these particular changes. Though, indeed, it makes sense. Henry and Yaya were Rijkaard purchases in the former manager's final year, while Pedro and Busi were Guardiola promotions from the B-squad that he himself managed--why should we have expected something different?

The question remains: are the apparent successors playing well enough to take over for their predecessors as completely as they are? I will venture to guess that they are. Though we will never know how Yaya and Henry (especially the latter) would have played with more time on the field, the fact is that they are not playing well. Meanwhile, both Busi and Pedro, their flaws in the first half of this season duly noted, have rapidly improved in recent games.

Pep has always defended Busi, and the rumor mill tells us that the manager sees a bit of himself in Busi. When fans were attacking him for heading goal-kicks agonizingly backward into our own box, Pep pointed out that Busi played well "tactically." After awhile, Busi's positioning and teamwork with the players around him became more cohesive and systematic. And then, he stopped making mistakes--in fact, he became the player that made the simple passes and the simple interceptions, without garnering any highlights of his own. He is still making the simple passes, but every once in a while, he sprinkles in a lob to a running Messi or two. Sometimes when he tries this, he gives up the ball easily, but then he goes back to the simple game and humbly allows Xavi and Iniesta to do the fancy stuff, which is healthy. His positioning has not only been predictable for his teammates lately, it has been more fluid and mobile, and he has the odd appearance in all parts of the field without looking incompetently out-of-place.

Most recently, I have noticed his flourishing amount of tackles. In the last two games--at Stuttgart and Malaga--Busi racked up a ton of impressive tackles. If you watch those games again and only watch Busi, you will see more moments of chasing-down players, standing blocks, sliding tackles, and pass-interceptions than anyone else on the field. In this last round of international matches, Busi started for Spain against France and played all 90 minutes, and in the last twenty minutes or so, he played alongside Marcos Senna. Though Pep may compare himself to Busi, but in my opinion, if he continues in this vein, with tons of safe-and-sound tackling, positioning, and passing, Busi in the future will be more comparable to Senna.

Pedro has not dominated his position on the left as completely as Busi has in his position, partly because of Pep's experimentation with Iniesta on that side. However, his performance against Malaga was very good, and showed that he is learning to cure the problems that he is criticized for. To be clear, he is not played strictly on the left, as Guardiola has opted to play Messi closer to the middle some of the time. Against Malaga, Pedro played substantial amounts of time on the left and right. In both situations, he did well to drop back into defense when necessary, and, especially when he played on the right against a fullback that was admittedly having an awful day against he, Alves, and Messi at different times, he showed quick thinking and sprightly movement to beat his man more than a few times and deliver good crosses. Best of all, he was playing very well with his teammates and allowing them to make good plays.

The second goal against Malaga shows his progression very well. Pedro was the one who initially earned the ball back, as Malaga cleared the ball toward the left midfield. Maxwell was caught upfield, but Pedro sprinted back to win the 50-50 ball, then do a little shimmy to escape pressure and pass back to the defense. Pique gave to Xavi, who gave to Messi, who ran in and gave to Ibrahimovic, who touched it on to Pedro, who had run all the way back to Malaga's box. He took two touches, and gave it back to Ibra, spotting his run to the other side of the box. Ibra gave to Maxwell, who flicked it back to Pedro. Pedro had his back to goal, but shielded the ball from his marker, and, with two touches, put it back into the midfield to Xavi. One pass and two touches later, Messi has a goal that Pedro had a three-part role in that showed good tracking back, positional discipline, good and quick decision-making, and humility. Oh yeah, he scored a goal from 25 or 30 yards, too, and I think he is the only one on the team that does that from the run of play. Pedro does not have a place on the Spanish National Team yet, but if he keeps putting in these performances, he could just come off the bench in the 90th minute of the World Cup Final.

Of course, there is no way of knowing if what we see now is a reliable indicator of real growth or just a patch of good form that could go with any injury. Henry and Yaya are both excellent players, and Henry commented today how difficult it is to play "25 minutes here and 15 minutes there". With their experience and demonstrated quality, they could displace their competitors in the matter of a few games if given the chance. However, I doubt this will happen: Guardiola's decisions show that he has a project in the making, and for better or for worse, Henry and Yaya will probably stay on the bench and only get Guardiola-style 80th- or 85th-minute substitutions when Busi or Pedro (or Iniesta) are available. I am not totally sold, and it would bring tears to my eyes to see Henry find one last burst of form at the top of the soccer world, but there are many reasons to be optimistic about Pedro and Busi.

Barca 2-1 Malaga, or, Last Season We Put Away 15

It is an understatement to say that I was very pleased with this match. However, as I watched, and then watched again, a creeping doubt entered my mind: what did Guardiola have to say about it? According to's translation:

"The important thing is that we played very well, with excellent possession and control of the ball. It was one of our better home games. [. . .] We were far better than our last games."

Phew! After thinking I was going crazy after hearing his pretty sharp criticism of the admittedly-incomplete hammering of Malaga, I hear a blessing from the master, which gives validation to what I had in mind which was this:

Dear Lord, did Barca look good. Dear Lord. Did they look good. Very good. Exclamation point. Exclamation points. More of them.

Did Malaga lay down and take it? That is partly the case. More importantly, Barca never let them stand up. The way the team was spreading the ball from the wide left to the wide right, back and forth. The way the whole team cohesively defended, with everyone in the right position. The way each individual won their own one-on-ones, and the way many of them did even more than that. The way everyone moved. The simplicity and precision of every pass, dribble, and tackle...all these things made this performance one that could have left world-beating opposition completely stumped.

And mark my words, our best performances this season will come at home, from "The" starting XI of this year (minus Abidal): Valdes, Alves, Puyol, Pique, Maxwell, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Pedro, Messi, and Ibrahimovic. Why do I rate Henry behind Pedro, and why do I rate Yaya behind Busquets? Because Guardiola does so on both counts, and because I am just starting to believe.

That said, I am not convinced that Barca is a better team this year than last year. Last year, Barca finished a great many of their chances. In the first half of this game alone, I counted eight quite gilt-edged chances. A sampling:

-9th: After a failed cross to Xavi from Pedro, with three other players in the box lurking, Messi touches the ball but cannot control. However, Busquets' pressure is immediate, and forces a bad pass to a man tracked by Alves, and the ball bounces back to Busquets without ever having crossed the halfway line. A few passes later, Xavi drags his marker forward before dropping back and receiving a pass from Pedro, who continued to run diagonally inside, and Pedro feeds him through a quite-tight angle. He touches it on to Messi, who lofts it to the wing for Alves, who makes a fool of his man, crosses in with the outside of his left foot, and nailed Messi's head at the far post. Messi's run was great, and whether he saw it late or not we will never know, but he missed the open net.

-14th: After a goal-kick is owned by Puyol in the air, and it comes to Iniesta upfield, who cannot control his space in the air. Malaga briefly recovers the ball, but they have their own problems with the bouncing ball. Within a half of a second, Messi pounces onto the ball and has a two-on-two situation. Being Messi, he leaves that unfortunate player in the dust, dashes into the box with Ibrahimovic to his right, but Weligton tackles the ball just as he takes the shot. Whether he should have taken the shot earlier or stopped and gave it to his partner, that should have been a real punishment.

-24th: Maxwell's header, one of the approximately one hundred (and 98%) he won all day from a goal kick, sends the ball bouncing into the middle. Xavi never has control of it to begin with, he has no right to it. But he sombreros the man running at him, then with the second touch, sombreros a second man running at him. The first comes at him for his third touch, which flicks it behind his standing leg and turns one of them. The second arrives and converges on the ball, but with the fourth touch, Xavi passes it in between both of his victims to Messi, who is fouled on the break. That was not a goal scoring opportunity--it was just awesome.

-26th: Another Maxwell defensive header finds Ibra, who uses his head to ping it back to Xavi. Busquets uses great composure to receive one of the not-so-great passes from Xavi under the pushes of two Malaga players, and gives it off to Messi, who runs off and gives to Pedro, wide open on the wing. Pedro jukes once, jukes twice, and beats the left fullback handily, puts in a peach of a cross into the path of a great run from Messi, who inexplicably heads it high.

-29th-30th: Busquets finds himself on the wing, and gives to the real winger, Pedro, who loses the ball with a loose touch. However, Busi chases his man immediately to the corner flag, and the fullback passes it forward expecting it to hit his winger--but Pedro had tracked the winger, and controlled-cum-passed it to Busi. In a real error, the fullback doesn't attack Busi (on the wide right) for several seconds, and he is allowed to pass it back into the midfield. The forward play falls into the midfield (and to the wide left), mainly through Xavi, and the midfield play falls into the defense (and the middle), mainly through Busi, before coming forth (to the wide right!) to Alves, who releases Messi at the corner of the box. Messi jukes once, jukes twice, finds himself in on goal...but honks it high, with Ibrahimovic waiting at the other side of the goal. I really do not know if that was supposed to be a shot or a cross.

-36th-37th: A Xavi set piece is headed out, but Xavi himself runs across to catch it and distribute it to Alves, who knocks it on to Pedro on the right wing, who absolutely tears his man to pieces with a simple turn and run. He should have crossed to Ibra on the far post, but instead he gives back to Xavi on the edge of the box, who moves about and gives to Iniesta on the left side. He keeps running though, and turns around, so that when Iniesta crosses it to him, he looks uber-cool, when he catches the ball with his studs and flicks it with decent pace on-target for the keeper to save. I do not rate that as a gilt-edged chance, it was just another most excellent Xavi-moment (and a great Pedro-moment, as well).

And that was just the first half. And, that is not to mention 1) an Alves cross that somewhat luckily came to Ibra, whose reactions were not quick enough, 2) a Busi header scuffed that came from a shortly-taken corner on the right that was crossed in from the left, 3) a piece of beat-three-then-pass Messi magic that should have been a Pedro one-touch assist and an Ibra counterattacking goal, and 4) another piece of Messi magic and teamwork with Pedro that would have been either a goal for Messi's portfolio or an always-coming scrapper from Iniesta. That is also not to mention that those last three came in the 43rd, 44th, and 47th minutes respectively. And thusly, I explain the title of this post. Last year, Messi is calmer with his touch and scores four. Busi scores also scores one with a calmer touch. Pedro's pass is perfect and Ibra doesn't have to stretch, like that goal from last year of Eto'o's, assisted with Henry's one-touch.

But I do not want to be negative because this was an absolute blitzkrieg, with the "style and discipline" that marks our best performances. Notice the main characteristics of all these goals. Except for the last three chances that came in the last four minutes, everything started with good defense. It could have been just a header from a goal-kick that seemlessly connected possession upfield with possession at the back, and it often was. That is nothing to underestimate, however. It was all the defense needed to do most of the time, because once Barca had the ball, they passed it from right to left, from left to right, usuallyall the way into Malaga's box. Was Malaga fighting? Perhaps they could have fought harder, but they certainly were fighting: they just had no chance of winning. When Xavi is playing his best game all season, when Messi is combining his excellent runs with excellent passes, when the defense (+ a Busi who is really, really getting the hang of the game) does their one-necessary-action-per-few-minutes perfectly, no team in the world has a chance.

Strange, then, when Barca finds all this collective play perfectly, and all that is missing is the finish, the game-breaker has essentially no collective play, and only a finish. Or should I say cannonball. Indeed, it took my bet on first-scorer, the always over-performing Pedro Rodriguez, to finally open up the scoring, after ten or eleven great chances. Out of nowhere, Pedro puts the ball on his right foot and, from about 25 yards beyond the left side of the goal, drives it home--as simply as that. After creating a ton of chances in the expected way, Barca scores the unexpected way, from the most expected of unexpected scorers. And just like that, the game is 1-0, seemingly dead-at-last, and Pedro, the Real Special One, is one piledriver closer to the always-starting list in everyone's opinion and not just mine.

Within 15 minutes, all that brilliance seemed to come to an end, with the one mistake the defense made. It came down to overconfidence and thinking that the game was over. After Alves puts in his 1,843 poor cross of the game, Busi makes a rare defensive mistake. Sure, he is in the right place, as he was the whole game, but he tries to recapture some of that fanciness that characterized his poor play in the past by heading it to somebody who would be there, because Barca is magic. Except they are not magic. Malaga does the right thing for once with one of their few moments on the ball and brings it down our right side, which, with Alves having just made the cross, is wide-open. Xavi fills the space, but he is no defender. Pique and Puyol are, but they, in quite uncharacteristic overconfidence, miscommunicate and burst forward at the same time, each thinking that the tackle will be made, so why don't they themselves make it? Magic, right? No--the ball is passed simply in between the two, and Valdo has at least forty yards to run in on goal. Just maybe, Valdes could have done better--Pique and Puyol definitely should have.

And after 81 minutes of domination, it looked like one of the worst "one-of-those-days" anyone can think of. Except, Barca had a perfect reaction: "well, graham crackers. We have to put one away now." On the very next play, within a minute of the restart, Messi ran in from the right, beat two, passed it to Iniesta, who backheeled it back to Messi, who took the snap-shot for a good save. Within three minutes, Barca had their goal, and it was a special, special goal.

In those three minutes, Malaga did not have the ball. Not once. They came close to getting it after a Maxwell cross to Messi that was to tall for the little guy, but Pedro came bursting back to pick up the loose ball, and showed off some great skill to escape pressure. Then he passed it back, and the ball moved back to Pique, who gave it to Xavi, who gave it to Messi on the right. Messi jogged inside, and mis-placed a pass to Ibra, who mis-touched to Pedro, who was back on the left side of the box. Two-touches, Ibra continued running to the wing, and he gets it back. One-touch to Maxwell, one-touch (and a difficult one) back to Pedro. Two-touches, turn, and it's Xavi in the middle, who just takes a moment to look--three touches. Alves is running inside the box on the right. Boom, he has it, from a narrow ground pass through a gap between four players. He is unmarked, one-touch into the middle, and Messi is unmarked. Messi taps it home.

Tracking back from a forward. One touch in our third, one touch in the middle third, then the rest in and around the box. One-touch and two-touch play, with only one player--the key player with the best eyes in the world--touching it thrice. Ball-movement that puts the sport of basketball to shame. This goal had it all.

It should have been 3-1, when Bojan came on for Pedro and, in his one moment, received a perfect long-ball from Pique on the left, ran in along the touchline, and stroked in the most perfect ball you can ask for from the young'n for Ibra to tap in. But Weligton, who was a constant thorn in our side with his strength, fell over next to Ibra because he was "fouled".

I apologize for the length of this post--it will probably be my longest post for some time, but I cannot say enough about this performance. It was not a perfect game. Aside from the goal conceded and the chances missed, certain errors became prominent, such as Iniesta's consistently poor crosses, to Alves' consistently poor crosses and deteriorating distribution throughout the game. Everything else felt so distinctly not-memorable that it is hardly worth criticizing. If I was in the habit of rating players, I would give the worst player on the field an eight--maybe a nine. But I do not dare say who I thought that was, because it would be so harsh.

Next week, tune in to see Barca thrash Almeria. I cannot say if it will be such a good performance, but I also cannot say Barca will not put away six or seven goals on a poorer performance. Such is the period this team is in right now, and sometimes I feel honored to watch.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Stuttgart 1-1 Barca, or, A Looong and Dirty Job Done

The Setanta Sports commentator for this match noted the curious fact that Johann Cruyff, after the Racing match, called the 4-0 win "the worst performance he'd ever seen of a Guardiola side."

Huh. I wonder what he is saying about this one.

When the results of the Round of 16 draw came out several weeks ago, I doubt that I was alone in thanking my lucky stars for the easiest possible draw, knowing with the fullest confidence that Pep and the boys would deliver up a thorough and vengeful Hlebbing of the side with that one guy who wanted out last year.

Boys and girls (and Isaiah if you're reading), we just barely escaped a right-Hlebbing of our own.

Pep went to Deutschland with a lineup geared up with our most intimidating beasts of men, plus a magically fit-again midfield maestro: Valdes, Maxwell, Pique, Marquez, Puyol, Yaya, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, and Ibrahimovic. I suppose all credit must go to the manager for recognizing the need for an abundance of experienced defensive talents in such an important away fixture (injury obligations aside), but by the same token, all fingers must point to him for preparing his men for nothing more than an awful defensive display throughout much of the game. The players have to accept some responsibility. But the pervasiveness of cheap giveaways, woeful touches, weak clearances, and overall defensive incohesiveness and evident scrambling, especially in the first half, proved to me that Pep did not instill in his troops the sense of importance of this crucial fixture that could have been won handily.

Barca started the game looking solid enough. They had most of the ball for awhile, and when Stuttgart got the ball, some very organized-looking defensive plays by the team earned the ball back. For instance, in the sixth minute, Marquez gave away the ball with a poor pass to the forward line. But immediately, Ibrahimovic and Messi put pressure on the receiver, forcing a pass to a man that was well-covered by Busquets and Puyol. Puyol makes an easy tackle, gives the ball calmly to Yaya, and off we go again. It was a brilliant collective move that stood out to me, but it was the initial poor pass from Marquez that set the tone.

Iniesta played awfully throughout the first half, passing just about every ball he received straight to a Stuttgart player. Yaya was worse, playing the most useless match I may ever see him play, with some of the loosest possession and slowest defense; whenever Iniesta gave the ball away, Stuttgart flooded right through our middle. Often, the middle was just a route from our left to our right side, where Marquez was all over the place, Messi was clearly not tracking back consistently, and Puyol was rushing around like a mad man, putting on as much pressure as he could and making last-ditch tackle after last-ditch tackle. That right side should have been our strong side on defense, but it collapsed like a Jenga tower again and again.

The goal came came from our left side, but it began on our right. It was none other than Alex Hleb that totally schooled Yaya and Puyol and delivered a pass that led to an excellent cross. A better head from the un-marked receiver would certainly have been a goal, but the contact by the un-marked receiver was poor and Busquets was aloud to clear...poorly, for a throw-in around our box. It should have been routine defense for the boys, but discipline broke down quickly when play resumed, and Stuttgart dragged the team toward the middle before switching it back out to the left, and the crosser had nothing but time and space to put in another excellent cross. Puyol did not mark Cacau closely enough after getting pulled apart moments earlier, and this time the contact was perfect. At 1-0 in 25 minutes, the score reflected what was shaping up to be real domination of the game by an opponent of the mighty FC Barcelona.

The team's most baffling period was over, but they continued to look very much un-mighty. Iniesta's passes continued in their failure to find Ibrahimovic. When Ibra did have the good graces to finally get on the ball, his poor touch gave it away just about every time. Messi had the worst of both worlds: despite having the only moments approaching highlights with a few futile runs and shots, including that stinger that so nearly trickled into the goal after sneaking past Lehmann, Messi had plenty of poor giveaways in possession and in sprayed passes to more than render his highlights forgettable. Everyone gave the ball away: go down the team-sheet, and you find three poor giveaways at the very, very least, and the result was absolutely no attack.

In the second half, certainly after a good ripping-into from Pep, Barca found their scrappy equalizer and something resembling a rhythm. The goal, appropriately enough, came froma corner, and it was all down to our tall men. Xavi's cross was kept alive by Ibrahimovic, whose height prevented a solid clearance. Iniesta finds the ball outside of the box and gives it to a more-central Marquez. Marquez did the only thing he was doing right in the entire game, and put in a good long ball over the top of the defense, the shortest of his game. Ibra kept it alive again, nodded it to Pique, who rose and knocked it back to Ibra, who smacked it...against Lehmann. Luckily, the rebound only fell to Ibra again, who did not repeat the same mistake with a simple tap-in.

And thus, Barca escaped. Afterwards, Stuttgart lost their ravenous edge, and Barca passed the game to death without looking really dangerous and only getting into it with Hleb once or twice. Part of this was due to two very wise and uncharacteristically timely substitutions from Pep: Henry on for Yaya after the goal in the 52nd, and Milito on for Marquez in the 59th.

Setanta's cameras did not capture Yaya's substitution. If they had, they would have caught a glimpse of a defeated Yaya. I have no idea what got into him. It was not just his poor passes, defense, positioning, possession--everything!--it was the situational unawareness that marked it all. For a player whose strongest and most remarkable trait, in my opinion, is his intelligene on the ball, this game was extremely shocking. His replacement changed the game, arguably more so than the goal. For the first time ever, I can say that Busquets was much, much better in that position. Defensively (but certainly not offensively), Busi was one of the strongest performers in the first half, with a ton of midfield tackles, including an athletic "tackle" of a ball passed loosely to him that he hooked straight to Messi for one of the few "chances" of the first half, and when defense became his primary responsibility, the team was far more solid. Xavi, on the whole our best player throughout the match, had all the more opportunities to orchestrate the game with most of the best passes, the calmest presence, lots more great distribution, and superb movement (I cannot believe he healed up so quickly). Most importantly, he had the opportunity to play alongside his buddy Iniesta, who looked completely relieved and incomparably better in a deeper position. The typical routine commenced, as Xavi set 'em up with great space-finding and shorter passes, and Iniesta knocked 'em down, acting as a constant valve to make perfect cross-field balls and passes into the attack. Henry saw little of the ball and what we did see from him was definitely underwhelming, but that just seems to be Titi these days: more of a presence for defenders to respect than a real threat. Without him, the Xavi-Iniesta-Busi midfield that properly controlled the game in the second half would not have been allowed to show off.

Now, Marquez came off because he was terrible. Appalling. Useless. His long passes gave Iniesta ample opportunity to give the ball away in the first half, but except for the easiest of clearances, he accomplished nothing in the heart of the defense. He was at the center of most of the defensive disorder, almost constantly out-of-position. The contrast between his youthful heir-apparent, with the excellent positioning and impenetrable presence that used to be hallmarks of the Kaiser's game, could not have been starker. Milito did not have much time to shine with the midfield under control, but if Marquez had stayed ont he field, I daresay Barca would have found themselves in a lot more trouble. Like Henry, Marquez is aplayer whose aging is difficult to watch.

And that was that: there is little else to say about the match. 1-1 was quite an honest result, as it was a tale of two halves, and after our goal, Barca considered the job done and did not really expend themselves to earn a second away goal. They should be able to take the away goal they do have back to the fortress and kill the tie properly. Remember last year's CL: in the knockout stages, Barca scored only three goals in the away fixtures (not counting the final), but ten at home. At Lyon, who we were matched up with at this stage, the result was also 1-1. In that match, Lyon drew first blood, before Henry headed in a scrappy goal from a corner. I see nothing to worry about, especially with Alves returning very soon, and Xavi shaking off the last shades of his injury. If we have to be one of those "home-sides", we will be one of those "home-sides" and take care of business.

Other short notes:
-I didn't like Busquets' timewasting at the end. Alves has all but stopped that practice, and Busi does not need to adopt it. Not a classy way to play a sub-par game at all.
-Is anyone as worried as they were two or three weeks ago when the news came out that Abidal would be out for two months? I'm not.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Barca 4-0 Racing Santander, or, Stepping Up

After a conspicuous loss that had the Madrid rags predicting Real's imminent dominance, Barca lit up the Camp Nou and put its mighty foot down.

Looking at the injury list ahead of this match, even the most experienced and skeptical viewer of La Liga might have believed, to an extent, the shouting Madridismo coming from the capitol about how Atletico has opened the almighty floodgates to allow Madrid's astronomically superior quality to shine through at last. After a soft hammering of a light defense against the other team in Madrid, the Racing match presented similarly unusual problems in the all-important Barca midfield. With Xavi out, surely Barca would be without its guiding rudder, and without Keita and Yaya, Racing would be able to run roughshod all over the sleek Camp Nou pitch, right?


Not this team. Some people will view this match, and see a world-class team against a side that had obviously given up before even entering their opponent's house--not me. I prefer to think that, with the raaaaaaare absence of Xavi Hernandez, the incessant nattering coming from Madrid, and the widespread doubts stemming from an ignominious defeat to a basket-case of an Atletico Madrid team, the boys put their heads together and said "heeelll naw."

It started with the brilliance of Pep Guardiola and his magesterial physical staff, that patched up Yaya in two steps of Messi's pace and rolled out a lineup that looked, well, full-strength: Valdes, Puyol, Marquez, Pique, Maxwell, Yaya, Busquets, Iniesta, Henry, Messi, Bojan. And I expected a start from Thiago or dos Santos.

Through the rest of the game, though, it was the individuals. They had no illusions what it would mean for Xavi to be out, and they also noticed that their big, expensive Swedish striker was out as a late-scratch. So it was a time to step up, for everyone. Marquez and Henry needed to prove that they're still world-class after a first half of a season that left people like me doubting. Maxwell needed to prove that we can survive a long absence for Abidal. Iniesta and Messi needed to prove that they are formidable even without Xavi. Bojan and Busquets needed to prove that they're worth a good-goddamn, and arguably both played out of position.

Guardiola said that the team was not at its best--I think they were inspired and energized enough to put four goals past a team that they should have beaten as badly as Atletico should have been. What's more, almost all of the players I have mentioned stepped up and proved exactly what they set out to prove, and some of them, emphatically so.

The game started out at a neck-breaking pace, as Barca invaded massive swaths of space in the midfield. Iniesta was Barca's fount of creativity, and set the tone by charging through the midfield on the ball and ripping great long passes that would be the trademark of his game. But it was really Marquez who stamped his name on the game first, however, as one of many wonderful, questioning balls over the defense found Racing's box. Two defenders had tracked Henry, and the ball bounced off one of their backs, and toward a lurking Iniesta. Iniesta pounced on the bouncing ball, jumping on it ninja-style to knock it into the goal with a deceptively-controlled piece of skill. At 1-0, Iniesta slid in front of the adoring Camp Nou crowd to celebrate his first goal since Chelsea 1-1 on that wonderful day.

Eight minutes gone, and two reputations have been cleared.

The game went on at the same pace, and Iniesta continued to dictate the order of things with a supreme performance. He did the simple passes and moves with "oomph", and spiced it up with the best long-passes and cross-fields, profound moments of dribbling and distributing skill, and several moments of midfield defense. Assisting him was Busquets, who created a new talking point for guys like me: is he a box-to-box midfielder instead of a defensive midfielder? With Yaya playing behind him, Busi became a totally different animal. His excellently-timed runs forward came precisely at the right moments for teammates to put a ball into the defense and ask questions, and came back to haunt Racing for 90 minutes. Wonderful positioning found him cutting out tons of wayward passes and touches in the midfield. His passes took on a whole new meaning, and in a few majestic moments, his play with the team took on a centrality that reminded me of where Xavi runs, what Xavi does. Frankly, it took all the dumb-looking, too-fancy moments of his play in the defensive role and threw them in a whole new light.

Indeed, moments in which Sergio Busquets was the central figure led to two fouls that became two free-kick goals. In the first, Busquets found the ball in the midfield, with a too-far-up defender right on him. He simply turned, and started to lumber toward the goal. Though he was tackled quickly, Messi was right there to sweep up and terrorize the scrambling defense. After causing some alarm, he laid it back to Iniesta, who of course caused more alarm. But he just laid it back to Yaya, who made a great little pass to none other than Busi, who ran right to the perfect place. All he does is one-touch it to Iniesta, whose touch is perfect, and he bursts through, only to lose the ball which Busi's feet. Now, Racing's defense is falling to pieces, and as Bojan takes the diagonal run inside, it's beginning to look like a brilliant Barca goal. But, it isn't to be: Busi puts a most-excellent touch past one defender, but succumbs to a foul.

But no problem. The much-maligned Thierry Henry, the one that never takes free kicks for Barca for I-don't-know-why, stepped up and side-footed it through the wall into the near-side, and Racing was finished within half-an-hour.

But still, the team carried on, to prove a point: We are the best team in the world, and certainly, Real Madrid is not. Only a few minutes later, Busi had his other moment of greatness. An awful clearance finds him in the box, with his back to goal and everyone surrounding him. He simply looks up thinking, "Where's Mr. Reliable," and pops a lofted ball to the feet of Iniesta that would be worthy of the man himself. Iniesta controls without a problem, and pops the ball up to a Racing player's hand. In a similar situation to the last set-piece, Marquez steps up and puts in an even better free-kick. 3-0, Racing is really finished, Marquez has a goal and an assist, Iniesta is part of all three goals, and Busi is central to two. Point proven, no?

The game turned into a practice session, where everyone had a chance to work on their chops. Bojan took the opportunity to express himself. Taking advantage of some defeated defenders with a number of fabulous, sprightly runs through defenses, he had an above-average game by his standards. My favorite moment was when he found a loose ball deep on the left, and, having spied Iniesta running against the sideline, attempted a cheeky flick with the outside of his right. Though it did not work, he picked it up, a la Messi, and went off to the races, with three players floundering in his wake, only to pass it to Messi to calm down play with Iniesta further up the field. He put in a few dangerous-looking crosses, as well.

But the man of the match was Iniesta, who really ruled the game and showed that he truly did not need Xavi to run the Barcelona engine. From juking every defender on the field, to finding himself always, always open, to placing dangerous balls beyond it, to drawing a foul every single time Racing had a hope of finally getting the ball off of him, Iniesta overshadowed everybody.

Even Messi had precious few opportunities to prove that he does not need Xavi (or Iniesta). Perhaps his knee really was bothering him, because there was not much to remember of his play, except for the goal he assisted. But that goal was all Thiago Alcantara's, who had come on for Yaya in the 76th minute. Within ten minutes, this young boy put himself on the scoresheet and, in the spirit of the game, proved that he will one day be a valuable part of this team. With great off-the-ball movement that he showcased often in his brief time on the field, he found the ball just outside the box, and lofted an inch-perfect pass to a running Messi. Messi does what he should always do perfectly, controlled, froze his man, cut the ball back, and gave it back to Thiago, who did well to find himself space. He controlled, hesitated, and blasted it in for a goal that made me smile for the rest of the day. It was a shame that Messi did not celebrate with a player that he may play with on a regular basis in the future, but he knew that it was not his day when it really should have been.

It should have been everyone's day against such underwhelming opposition, but it unfortunately was not, and that is exactly what Pep was talking about when he said the team was not at its best. Pique mixed good defense and passing with bad defense and passing in a very inconsistent game. Maxwell did well to show off some great footwork occasionally and defended well in general, but still looks too unaggressive, especially in the air, to show anyone why he should start ahead of Abidal. Yaya began the game playing like his immense, bear-man self, applying pressure in all the right places, displaying great passes and superb intelligence on the ball, but showed his rust as the game wore on with some uncharacteristically loose possession and passing (to his credit though, when he lost the ball, he often ran after his tackler like a bull and won it back). Speaking of rust, Henry's game was characterized by the squeaking of rusty touches, passes, and shots that tragically overbalanced the handful of brilliant, experienced moments in his game. Puyol did generally well, popping in with a number of tackles that seemingly came out of nowhere, but is clearly never going to be the attacking force we expect of a starting fullback. And Valdes, well, he had literally nothing to do--but his passes between Marquez and Pique caused not a few anxious moments that become increasingly worrying as one sees them under increasing pressure, game after game. Pedro and Jeffren also came on for Henry and Puyol, respectively, but they did little more than look young and energetic and, in Jeffren's case, like a winger rather than a fullback.

And so, Guardiola has a few of the finer points to work out with his team. But how many teams can play with only three or four players playing particularly well, still bang in four goals, and keep a clean sheet? Next is Stuttgart at their house, and we will probably play without Xavi, but the way this team is, and how Iniesta plays, I say: bring on the Champion's League, and let's get to doing the double.