Barca 3, Villarreal 3, a.k.a. “Lady Luck spits in our faces”By: Kevin | May 10th, 2009
History is a bitch, ain’t it? Yes, this Pique red card from the last time that we played Villarreal was rescinded, but there is little chance that Abidal’s stinker will be, for it was well-earned. It was also, with the ensuing penalty kick, the screwup that made the Barcelona street cleaning crews breathe a massive sigh of relief. Yes, the championship is ours. It’s only a matter of time. But clinching it on the road means a lot less mess, as 100,000 people won’t be streaming out the Camp Nou, heading directly for La Rambla.
This is an unbelievably expensive draw. Let’s tally up the cost:
–Best lineup used with victory in mind, so the guys are tired for Wednesday.
–Not clinching means no relaxing yet. We have to win or draw the next match.
–Iniesta is injured, possibly at risk for the Champions League final.
–A pretty massive bill from cleaning egg off of all of our faces.
Guardiola, as predicted, rolled out his best available lineup for this one: Valdes, Alves, Pique, Puyol, Abidal, The Yaya, Keita, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Eto’o. The idea was to clinch the title today, and I don’t mean yesterday.
And things were going extraordinarily well for the side. Alves laid on a great ball for Eto’o that really should have made it 1-0 nice and early, but Eto’o has been shit for a while, so I didn’t expect him to close that deal. There was a bit of sharpness absent, but that was to be expected, given the Wednesday match and all that it entailed. Then came a crazy moment
Abidal laced an inch-perfect ball for Keita to run on to, and he let fly. The deflection found the upper corner and just like that, it was 1-0. The crowd was going crazy, everybody was smiling, Keita was grinning as if he’d planned it all along, and I was wondering if Abidal should get an assist for that one. That goal was a result of fortune favoring the brave. If you don’t shoot it, nothing can happen. Hats off to Keita for that one.
Through it all, Pique was being spectacular, stopping attack after attack and making pass after pass. He kept right on with the task of being our most effective back line player, and the midfield was starting to exert control of the match, and then The Yaya got caught doing what he so rarely does these days, which was being stupid with the ball. He usually has an unerring sense of danger and when to one-touch it to safety. This time, his touch was a little lax, and the ball was stolen.
Villarreal were off to the races on an attack that lots of defenders had a chance to stop, but it was shoddy, shameful marking as everyone ran to the ball, forgetting to mark the only man who could kill you, the leaker for the tap-in. We can argue for days about whose man it was, about whether Puyol should have left the center to go for the ball, about whether Abidal should have been standing there ball watching, about whether Pique should have just thrown his body in front of the most obvious passing route, but the fact remains: it was a soft, soft goal to give up, almost as soft as the Valencia sashay through the entire defense.
Should Yaya have had better control? You bet. But the job of the defense is to have your back if you screw up.
And then it was off to the races for Villarreal again, as they coaxed a staggering save out of Valdes, and what turned out to be a crucial save, right? If that goal is in, it’s a loss, and we’re really vexed. How he stopped his body and reached back across to palm that ball away, I’ll never know. But he did.
Then, it was Ghostface time, as he took a pass and, in avoiding the tackle, fell to his side, somehow keeping the ball in the neighborhood of his foot. He rose and calmly laced a pass to a wide-open Eto’o for a 2-1 lead, and the place was really going crazy.
My place wasn’t, because I didn’t like the way that the match felt. They were playing like a side that had already won, rather than a side that was trying to clinch, and went off the boil. Passes were lax, and Eto’o stone-touched what would have been a sure-thing goal for one injured Frenchman. Then Messi earned a free kick with some dogged, determined play, and Dani Alves stepped up to the plate.
That free kick that he laced past Villarreal’s keeper was spectacular. Where have those been all season, I will never know, but that he pulled one out at that point was excellent, and with a 3-1 lead, we should have been home free, but nothing is ever easy when you are trying to clinch, particularly with people who haven’t been there before. You start to feel things, the legs get tight, the breath gets short.
The second half began much like the first ended, with Iniesta running amok as he nutmegged, deked, battled, then yellow-carded a defender as we attacked Villarreal again. And when Puyol chest-passed to Messi, only to have the goal go begging, my anxiety level continued to rise, because the lads weren’t sharp, or this match would have been over. Done. Gone. Put to bed.
Another beautiful moment, a 1-2-3 interplay between Pique and Xavi that set us off on a scintillating attack, was ruined by a moment of Eto’o selfishness as he shot the ball directly at the defenders, as if they were going to somehow magically dematerialize, leaving him with a clear shot at goal.
Then came the moment of the match, really, as a lofted ball to Nihat found him in space and on goal. So Abidal fouled him. It wasn’t much of a foul, and Nihat made a meal of it. As last man, the straight red (particularly after the hooraw of mid-week) was a given.
I imagine some will rail about the ref, and some of the calls that he made. They shouldn’t. There will never, ever be a perfectly officiated match. We should have killed Villarreal, and didn’t.
Now. I have, and am still a fan of Abidal, defending him when everyone wanted his head on a stake and out of the Camp Nou. But he was as stupid as could be on this one, because there’s no way that taking one for the team makes any sense at all there. Get in front of the ball, give Valdes a shot at making the save, do something except put your side a man down. But he did, and it was a critical, critical goal that took a lot out of the side, particularly coming after Messi and Eto’o were strolling down the pitch, grinning about some interplay in the Villarreal box that fell short.
That it fell short because was their defenders were falling to the pitch, putting their bodies in front of the ball and playing their hearts out, goes without saying. And down to the other end it went. Puyol tried to stop the stabbed ball preceding the penalty, but came up short. He even dove at it hands-first, willing to concede a free kick on the hand ball outside the box. But it came up short.
From then on it was a question of defending, of holding on to a one-goal lead for about 20 minutes, as you had to figure on 3-4 minutes of added time with all the substitutions. And the value of the 4th goal, which threatened time and again to come, was clear. A two-goal cushion is a lot less desperate than a one-goal edge, when you are defending with 10 men against a side that actually wants to score, rather than play defense.
But who knew it was going to be a Monument that killed us? Gudjohnsen, on for Messi, made two plays that hurt:
–He sashayed up the pitch and, surrounded by 4 Villarreal players that he knew he was running into, didn’t have the circumspection to pass the ball back to safety to reset the offense and help kill time.
–In the ensuing contretemps that saw Villarreal with the ball, he then committed the unpardonable sin in Guardiola-land of being lazy. He was content to jog at the man with the ball, rather than realizing that the only way we could be beaten was with a long ball over the top and applying pressure to prevent it. To allow that pass, rather than running at the man and forcing something different, was appalling.
And away the pass went, a great ball to the attacker that saw it bounce around off legs and feet. Puyol and Pique were in the area. The former had it bounce around, the latter just missed clearing it. Llorente stabbed it into the top corner just off the post, and that was that. You can even lay a little culpability on Valdes, who should have been doing the math to realize that he wasn’t going to shoot it over a prone Puyol, and that the only shot he had was the near side. And yes, Puyol never, ever should have let the man get behind him to even have a shot at that ball. Keep the play in front of you, stroll out and head the pass away, then pop the champagne corks.
Gudjohnsen had two chances at redemption, but just wasn’t fast enough for the one great ball, and couldn’t keep himself onside for the second. And at some point, in all the scrummage, for lack of a better word, Iniesta picks up what could be an extremely expensive injury. I watched again and again and couldn’t see where it happened, but he was moving fine and running well right up to the end of the match.
My guess is that it’s one of those “Henry injuries,” that happened earlier in the match and the player thinks it’s just a knock that he can run off. But it isn’t. It’s potentially a Champions League chance-killer. Say prayers, light candles, work juju, do whatever you have to do to work the magic that brings our little Ghostface back for the Champions League final. Here is the ugly moment: (thanks, Jnice).
And with that:
Team: 5 Key moments of lax play and taking a collective foot off the gas let this match get away. Can it be forgiven, after the drama of the Champions League match? No. You have to be sharp until you reach the finish line.
Guardiola: 4 I know his philosophy about the strongest side. And it’s easy to second-guess someone. But the lads were tired, tired, tired. Tired players get hurt. I would have liked the starting XI a lot more had Wednesday not been so grueling. And when the EE lost, we could safely lose and still back into the title, while resting key players for the Copa final. Krkic instead of Eto’o? Hleb instead of Iniesta? I didn’t like the substitutions, either. Eto’o was still Touch of Stone, but he’s valuable in defending from the front, more so than Sylvinho on the left. And I would have pulled Iniesta, based on value to the side. I didn’t like Gudjohnsen for Messi either. The latter would have been contesting that ball and running at Villarreal players. Gudjohnsen back there meant that they had all night to kick the ball around with no danger, and they knew it.
Valdes: 7 Yes, I’m giving him some culpability for that tying goal. I’d even say that a sharper Valdes doesn’t allow that pass across the goal for the goal that tied it at 1-1. Both those would be harsh, however, hence his rating. He played a hell of a match today, including his save of the season off the Villarreal header.
Alves: 6 Alves is on the road to recovery, too bad it can’t be for the CL final. Many great passes today, including ones to Eto’o and Gudjohnsen that deserved better fates. And that free kick goal was a stunner. But yes, he had what we will henceforth label Alves Moments, that could have damaged the side. Not sure what his problem is, other than pressure.
Pique: 8 Two errors today, both crucial: he should have given up his body to stop that first pass in the box, and he whiffed on the clearance on the tying goal. Those sullied what would otherwise have been a 10. He was still our best back line defender, as he has been for a while now.
Puyol: 6 Fervor does not an excellent match make. He had a good one, but (and it’s the reason I prefer him on the wing instead of in center these days) he roams, which creates difficulties for his back line mates. Had he not run to the ball on that first goal, it wouldn’t have happened, as the pass crossed the space that he vacated. And he should have been playing back, right in front of Valdes as a center fielder on that third goal. He knows better.
Abidal: 4 Had been playing well, until his brain shut off. His stupidity turned the match irrevocably in Villarreal’s favor. He’d been making strong plays and good passes, including the ball to Keita for the first goal. But good lord, man! Yes, people will blame him for the draw, but they shouldn’t. There was plenty of culpability to go around.
The Yaya: 5 He’s been better. A lot better. A sharp Yaya doesn’t allow that steal that leads to the first goal, and he was a little off on the usual Yaya telepathic magic that always puts him where the ball is. We now see how crucial he is to midfield control.
Keita: 8 Okay. This was the first match in which I understood why we bought Keita. It wasn’t just the goal. He made a series of excellent plays, passes and defensive stops that just knocked me out.
Xavi: 6 Took one for the side, in that The Yaya’s clunkitude meant that he had to do more defensive work, which meant that he couldn’t be as influential as he usually is. But he was also off today, with the Champions League hangover. Bummer.
Iniesta: 9 Almost perfect. His effort, committment and desire make him my Man of the Match, going away. He’s on form and playing his heart out, which makes him so dangerous. There were a couple instances of Bad Ghostface, when he fell to the pitch, hunting for a call. But what a player, and that assist to Eto’o was just absurd.
Messi: 5 Some good, mostly mediocre. If he’s on and ready to play, we destroy Villarreal. But you could tell from his dead eyes and that faraway look on his face that he wasn’t going to have a good match, and he didn’t.
Eto’o: 4 No, no, no, no. Yes, he scored a goal, but I could have put that one away. His stone feet cost the side time and again, including one play in which he was away through the middle, and all he had to do was not cock up the touch. And yet he did, straight into the hands of the keeper. He made an all-pitch effort today, which is about the only thing keeping him from a lower rating. Yes, he had moments of very good play, but they amounted to nothing.
Sylvinho (for Eto’o): 5 It’s good that he got some time, but he should have done more with it.
Busquets (for Xavi): 5 A few good moments, but I probably would have left Xavi out there, frankly. His style of play is such that he can conserve himself, and those few minutes wouldn’t have hurt much. When we need to defend, that means possession. No player is more assured with the ball than Xavi.
Gudjohnsen (for Messi): 3 The cruelest sting of all is that he came on for Messi. His failures are documented above.
Now, we have an 8-point lead with 9 to play for. If we lose all three and the EE win all three, we lose the championship, and we deserve to. Now anybody who thinks there’s a snowball’s chance in hell of that happening needs their head examined.
But two of my biggest worries have manifested themselves:
Injuries: Marquez, Henry and now Iniesta, with a recurrence of the thigh injury that kept him out for quite a while earlier in the season. I have faith, and believe we will fight and be in it, but anyone who doesn’t think that our Champions League chances are damaged without Henry, Iniesta, Marquez, Alves and Abidal is crazy.
Tactics: Chelsea have shown that long balls are the way to attack our back line, bypassing the fluent, attacking midfield which we present. Does anyone really think that isn’t going to be a M.O. of every side that we face for the rest of the season? Our midfield is our strength. Long balls allow a side to bypass that strength.
That we will get at least one piece of silver is without a doubt. Two is pretty certain, though Bilbao will be playing their hearts out for the Copa win. The Champions League we will just have to see about. I am encouraged by the fact that Iniesta played the rest of the match with his injury, and Henry seemed a bit affected by his, but not much. Let’s hope that both will find their way to Rome.