Champions League: Benfica 0, FC Barcelona 2, Or, A Costly VictoryBy: Ade C. | October 3rd, 2012
If they’d told us that the key to break the Estadio Da Luz Curse was to sacrifice an innocent Barça player to the Football Gods, we’d have taken a baseball bat to Cesc’s kneecaps before kick-off. Or cut off Pinto’s braids. Or something, anything, rather than see Puyol get injured on the very day of his return.
Oh yeah, and we also won. And kept an away clean sheet for the first time this season. But mainly, Puyol got injured and it’s awful and we’re all doomed.
Tito made us wait a very long time for the starting XI, which was totally unnecessary since there were barely any surprises: VV, Alves, Puyol, Mascherano, Jordi Alba, Busquets, Xavi, Cesc, Pedro, Alexis and Messi. The surprise was the return of Puyol to the starting XI, just over two weeks after he was ruled out with a 6-week injury. Why no, he’s not human, why do you ask?
We didn’t have to wait long for goals, though. Five minutes in and Alexis silenced everyone grumbling about the absence of Villa/Tello, poking home a lovely Messi cross; also, please take a minute to admire Jordi Alba’s contribution to Messi’s run, he’s come a long way to understanding how the team works.
The game was lively. VV had a save, Artur had a save, Cesc had a yellow, and Alexis was running his little heart out; starting on the left seems to have suited him, as he was putting on a display worthy of Adriano after having been sent off (our new gold standard for Barça players).
The moves were there but the finishing was -as usual- lacking. Faced with the choice of shooting on goal or attempting to pass the ball to a non-existent teammate past five defenders, Barça players always chose the latter, and it wasn’t fear of having Messi shout at them (as some Marca journalists were likely speculating), since little Leo himself was doing this. It was a bit frustrating, but the passing was good and the scoreline was favourable, and we’ve seen Barça have much worse matches this season, so I just shouted at my TV a little.
Most worrying was -what else?- the defence. Benfica had several chances, most of them coming from long passes which completely beffudled our CB pair (neither of whom looked fully fit, it must be said). The good news is that Dani Alves seemed more focused than against Sevilla, and had some good defensive moments; has anyone else noticed, though, that he has stopped running after lost-cause balls? Before, even when a pass was obviously unreachable, Dani sped after it like a hound; last night, he calmly accepted the ball going out of bounds with a shrug. Conserving energy, or apathy?
In any case, it was half-time and Barça were ahead. Not only that, but they almost were what we would call good. Sure, Messi was less involved than usual -dropping deep and leaving his space to Alexis-, and Cesc and Pedrito both looked on the edge of being sent off, but it wasn’t one of the performances that leave me beating my head against the wall and wondering if it’s too late to try and understand what people see in golf.
The second half started with no changes for Barça; no subs and no change in their attitude of seeking the goal but being a bit shy about it. Until -to another Messi assist, and he can keep not scoring as long as he keeps assisting-, Cesc rediscovered his confidence and sent a lovely shot past the Benfica keeper.
VV then had his moment on the spotlight with a great save to keep the scoreline tipped in Barça’s favour and remind us all that yes, he is still a great goalkeeper.
Being 0-2 to Barça is a demoralising situation to any team; Benfica weren’t exactly sunk, but they were floundering a little. Tito felt comfortable enough to take Cesc off and give some minutes to Iniesta, freshly back from injury. And another familiar face appared, this time for Benfica: Nolito, lately of Barça B, who left La Masía for being too good for the bench.
The match was all elegant moves by Iniesta and good will when it happened: Puyol -true to his habits- threw himself like a tornado to try and catch Xavi’s corner-kick, and landed in a way that will give us nightmares for weeks. We’ve added video of the injury, but really don’t reccomend watching it. Let us just say that we felt just like Alexis looked.
The match continued after Puyol was stretchered off and Song was subbed in. I found it hard to concentrate, and it seemed like Barça players did too; they passed the ball around, making time, stealing looks at a poker-faced Tito on the sidelines. Villa came in for Pedrito with ten minutes to go, but couldn’t even muster a smile as he jogged in.
And Benfica? Well, Benfica decided that Puyol needn’t be alone in his misery. Messi was hunted relentlessly; so was Iniesta; the ref wore out his yellow card, which is the only explanation I can give to why he showed a red (a red!) to Busquets for a foul that was frankly nothing out of the ordinary; I can’t even find a video for it, and you know how people like to pick on Busquets, if it was bad, it’d be plastered all over the internet.
Even deep in extra time, there was time for more injuries, with Dani Alves catching an elbow to the face and having to spend the last few minutes on the sidelines; thankfully, it looks as if it was nothing worse than a bad bruise.
And that was that. A good away win, and Barça are still leaders of the Champions League group, but mainly… Puyol injured. Out for something like two months. Damn.
Now, it’s time for my infamously bad player ratings, with a twist!
VV: 8. A couple of good saves, enough throwing himself to the ground that skeptics cannot grumble. Like he said on Facebook after the game, “Crazy first half, it’s been ages since anyone reached my box so often!”
Dani Alves: 7,5. Better than previously, putting more work in defending, more solid. I’ll give him the benefit of doubt about those lost passes for now.
Puyol: 8. He was amazing right up until he got injured. Gods, we’d missed him like crazy, and we’ll miss him much more now.
Mascherano: 7,5. I don’t know if Masche is carrying a knock, or if he’s just exhausted, but he looks a bit less sharp than he did last season.
Jordi Alba: 8,5. Good! I like this squirrel! Hard work and a willingness to fold himself to the team’s needs, what more can you ask for?
Xavi: 7,5. Good, but not fantabulous. It’s not my fault Xavi has gotten me used to expect fantabulousness from him for years.
Alexis: 8. Much better match from the Chilean; starting on the left suits him, Messi giving him space by dropping deep suits him. Better shooting and less falling, and we might even be friends!
Pedrito: 7. He disappeared a little by the side of Alexis’ exhuberant display; and that temper…
Iniesta (in for Cesc): 8. It’s a joy forever to see Don Andrés back. Let’s hope he’s here to stay.
Song (in for Puyol) 7,5. It’s true that the match was in shambles once he got in, but I think he did well and he had a good couple of defensive moves.
Villa (in for Pedro): there wasn’t much he could do by the time he came in; at least he’s regaining match fitness.
Since Kage and I won’t stop fighting about my ratings of Busquets, Cesc and Messi, and it’s too late to bring someone to mediate, this time you guys get to give those three their rating. Remember to be stern but fair, keep in mind their contributions to the match, their overall form, and any intense personal likes/dislikes.
Let’s see what you make of it!
Now, deep breaths. Try not to think that we’re going to play a Clásico with no defenders. Everything is going to be fine…