La Liga Review: FC Barcelona 2, Athletic de Bilbao 1, Or, A Test of CharacterBy: Ade C. | February 20th, 2011
After the 1-1 draw against Sporting, and the worst-thing-that’s-ever-happened-to-us 2-1 defeat against Arsenal, the Barça nation was one breath away from screaming ‘Crisis!’, declaring February a cursed month, and giving up football in favour of competitive snail racing.
The announcement that our great Víctor Valdés is injured (he over-extended his left knee during the match at The Emirates, and though he has started a PRP treatment already, there is no date set for his return) nearly was the straw that broke the culé’s back, but our faith in Whistling Pinto carried us through…
… until the start of the match, when we discovered that Pep had chosen this moment to start with the rotations. Luckily for Jeffren he’s injured and couldn’t be drafted as a RB, so we got Pinto, Alves, Piqué, Busquets, Abidal, Mascherano, Xavi, Iniesta, and our MVPs up front. Instead of the woeful Milito, and since Puyol stubbornly insists on being injured, Busi was sent to hold Piqué’s hand as a CB, while King Abidal made his triumphant return to LB in place of a Maxwell that even I can’t say has been more than average lately.
On the other corner of the ring, Caparrós was more conservative, deploying his usual 4-4-2 with Iraizoz, Iraola, Ekiza, Amorebieta, Koikili, Susaeta, Javi Martínez, Gurpegi, Gabilondo, Iturraspe and Llorente. Business as usual for the Lions, whose plan was, as usual, to defend mightily and send the occasional long ball to Llorente to see if he could give our makeshift backfour trouble.
And yet it all started so well for us! Not four minutes after the start of the match, Illa-illa-illa, Villa Maravilla scored the first, after a splendid Xavi pass was caught by a Dani Alves (who might have been slightly offside) who then sent the ball back to where both Villa and Messi were waiting. A powerful shot saw Iraizoz beaten, and Barça started Pep’s 100th match as a coach in the best way possible.
(video thanks to 101greatgoals)
Credit where credit is due, Athletic reacted very well to going behind in the scoreline so early. They pulled their defense and midfield tighter, sent their two strikers to terrify our CBs, and held on as best they could… which turned out to be pretty well indeed.
Villa had another great chance that was a victim of the well-known Villa Effect (’all goal-bound shots will hit the goalposts, crossbar, goalkeeper or defenders, unless the player is offsides’), and then sent another sailing high, but it was Llorente who had the best chance of the half, jumping over Busquets, and allowing Pinto to make a great reflex save that gave us a moment of relief in our constant worry over VV’s knee.
Although both Busi and Piqué are great players on their own right, their partnership in front of Pinto definitely does not have the look of a permanent option in Puyol’s absence. Piquenbauer was somewhat back on form after a few dubious perfomances that made us fear he’d never make it away from Captain Caveman’s hand, but Llorente still managed to give him a hard time, while Busi had positioning problems that made both Piqué and Abidal have to worry almost as much about him as they did about the Athletic forwards.
But still, we went into the half-time with a one goal lead and a feeling of having, more or less, the control of the match… was this enough?
Of course not! The second half, which saw Toquero come in for Iturraspe, started in the very worst way possible for Pep’s boys (well, almost. No meteorites fell on the Camp Nou). Abidal, our defensive rock, for some reason decided that a back pass to the wobbly Busquets, with two Athletic players Right. There. was a good idea, and Busi was left to make a clumsy challenge on Llorente to try to keep him out. Although he did get the ball, he got the man too, and the ref awarded Athletic a PK that all of Pinto’s mindgames couldn’t keep Iraola from scoring.
(video thanks to 101greatgoals)
1-1. And the breakdown began.
‘Hey,’ the hive-mind of Athletic said, probably in Euskera. ‘We’ve actually drawn level against Barça on the Camp Nou. A couple of their defenders have yellow cards, and we’re bigger than them. How about we actually try going forwards?’
Piqué was lucky to just become one of those defenders with yellows as he had to resort to a nasty foul on Toquero to keep the Athletic tide in check, but that’s about as the referee’s sight went, because he went on to miss a clear PK call as Messi was bodychecked out of the ball in Iraizoz’s box after one of those mazy runs that he was just starting to make, as Athletic’s pressure forwards liberated him a bit from having to drop into midfield.
Pep has innumerable virtues, and one of them is that, sometimes, very rarely, once in a blue moon, he actually sees that something isn’t working and decides to make an early sub to fix it. Which is what he did as Barça continued to flounder. Mascherano came off for Maxwell who stepped into LB, allowing Abidal to slide into the CB position and Busi to return, with a sigh of relief, to his usual DM position. A more normal eleven now, with players feeling more secure in where they were standing and what they were supposed to be doing there.
Be it this chance, or that their earlier intensity was costing Athletic now, but Barça recovered now the control of the match and thus began one of those nerve-wracking experiences which is to watch our players shoot and shoot and shoot on goal and keep missing again and again. Iraizoz caressed a Villa shot just enough to turn it into a corner, and all of Iniesta’s brilliance seemed to last only until it was time to shoot on goal. Moreover, Caparrós decided it was the best time to unleash Bart Simpson look-alike Iker Muniaín on Piqué, as if he didn’t have enough trouble.
But as it usually happens when things are not going our way (except in cold Monday nights in Stoke, or wherever), Messi came through with the goods. In what was almost a copy of the first goal, Xavi gave the pass from the midfield to Dani Alves, who for once didn’t sky the cross, and Messi just had to toe it past Iraizoz.
(video thanks to 101greatgoals)
2-1. Even Rosell, he of the poker face and monkey ears, heaved a discreet sigh of relief.
Still 15 minutes to go, which were mostly filled with Messi doing all those wonderful things he should’ve been doing since the first half, but seeing his shots saved, and Keita coming in for Villa in a move that brought recent memories of the Arsenal match; luckily this time Iniesta was good enough to play on the left wing and still spill enough into the midfield that Keita didn’t need to give more than he had.
And that was it. A vibrant, hard-fought match against a worthy rival. A win. 3 points. We keep our five-point-lead over Real Madrid in La Liga, recover a little confidence after the two latest stumbles, and now face that rarity, a week without a midweek game. Our players get two well-deserved days of rest, and we get some time to recover from all the excitement.
And now, for the controversial, subjective, universally-despised player ratings!
Pinto: 8. His save on Llorente was splendid, and he looked a bit surer on his feet than we expected; his distribution still needs work and his mindgames are unnecessary, but he didn’t make us miss VV too much.
Alves: 8. Excellent match from our Man of Steel, who unfortunately will be suspended for our next match, against Mallorca; he gave two assists, his crosses weren’t all over the place, and he even tracked back to defend!
Piqué: 7,5. Thank goodness Piqué is recovering his form; he made some mistakes that could’ve cost us, but he looked more confident than he usually does without Puyol by his side.
Busquets: 7. Yes, Busi was forced into a position that does not suit him and he did do what he could, but still… let’s strike him from our list of potential CBs, shall we?
Abidal: 8. He made a mistake in the play that gave way to Athletic’s PK, but he was fantastic the rest of the match, as a LB, CB or even darting across the field to fill in for Alves when the Brazilian got caught upfield.
Mascherano: 7. Not bad, and he didn’t even get carded, but he wasn’t as good as he should’ve been, letting far too much danger through to our defence.
Xavi: 8. Xavi, oh Xavi, may your tendons never give up on you! Those two splendid passes to Dani Alves were just the tip of the iceberg of the work that Xavi did on the midfield to keep Barça afloat.
Iniesta: 9. MOTM. If during the first half he stayed back and helped Xavi control the midfield, during the second half he turned into a paler, less hairy Messi, with some great runs, a control of the ball that was unreal, and several chances on goal. Brilliant.
Villa: 8. Goal? Check. Several missed opportunities and close encounters of the third kind with the crossbar? Check. Offsides aplenty? No, but that was more because the Athletic defence didn’t budge.
Messi: 8. He did more in the last twenty minutes of the match than other players do in a season, but for the 70 minutes before that, he went too deep into the midfield, and since Athletic had enough bodied in there to keep him in check, this didn’t have the usual results. Still, he’s now La Liga’s top goalscorer (even for Marca!) and has celebrated his 250th match with Barça in style!
Pedrito: 7. Our Pedroadrunner is not beep-beeping as well as he used to. Maybe he’s tired, maybe defenders have caught up on the fact that Messi and Villa aren’t the only ones that need to be marked to death.
Maxwell (for Masche): 6,5. While his entrance marked the return of the best Barça, the best head of hair of the team didn’t have a particularly great game, misplacing a few passes and not giving as much in attack as we know he can do.
Keita (for Villa): 7. The change this time worked as expected, leaving Keiteeeee to bring some muscle into our midfield.
Afellay (for Pedrito): did he touch the ball this time? Poor darling, at least we know he’s moved ahead of Bojan in the 87th-minute-sub pecking order.
And with this and a Ray Hudson shoutout, our day was made and or February Slump became a little less slumpy!
What do you think of the match? Share your opinions, and your disagreement on the ratings, in the comments!