Athletico BIlbao 1- 2 FC Barcelona, a.k.a. “watch out for the P!”

17 08 2009

P!

The face….the steely gaze that says “I will score”….the magic.

Ladies and gents, it was all about He Who Was Formerly Pedrito today, as he and Xavi combined to bail out what was really a desultory side today, with a few exceptions. Yes, it was the first, away leg of the SuperCopa but really, it was still pre-season for us and boy, did it show.

Guardiola rolled out a starting XI of: Valdes, Alves, Pique, Puyol, Abidal, The Yaya, Keita, Xavi, Pedro!, Henry and Krkic. It was a semi-serious lineup that said “Hey, I’d love it if we could win this thing, but a draw would rock my world, as well.”

And things started out great, with lots of possession that, truth to tell, was a lot of the wrong kind of possession. Rather than triangles that dance about with evil intent, we got a lot of clunnky passing and the lads poncing about as though it was a practice session. Which is fine, because as I said, we should still be able to beat Bilbao with that side.

And so it came to pass.

There were a few things worthy of note in this match:

1. We will have to work on how to play when our backs get pressure. The pressure means that rather than playing the ball out as we love to do, they have to long pass it to midfield.

2. We’re getting better at integrating new blood into the lineup.

3. It’s still pre-season for us, folks, make no mistake about it.

4. We’re better at set pieces (so far), which will help a significant defensive weakness.

I’m just not sure what the cause of the desultory play was, but even Xavi gave away a couple of balls, and The Yaya wasn’t his usual commanding self, as his lost possession led to the Bilbao goal that was a rather scrappy one, coming as it did off of Alves’ leg. Worst of all was if he doesn’t make that stab, Valdes has the shot covered.

What was more vexing was the goal ruffled their feathers and suddenly we were on the back foot. The elegance and time of possession weren’t there for us, as Bilbao pushed up the pitch and applied pressure. Not much of it was of any real significance, but our fundamental tenet is if you don’t have the ball, you can’t beat us. We have seen opposing coaches try a few different things this early part of the year. Man-marking The Yaya, man-marking Xavi, putting pressure on the backs.

Cross-pitch passes alleviate stress and create working space, to be sure. But it’s the comfort that our players have with the ball at their feet, that makes the machine go. And after a rotten start to the second half, magic arose from nothing, and we got to see a glimpse of the future, Xavi to Pedro!

Pedro! took the pass, did a little dance and as elegantly as can be, rolled a perfectly weighted pass to Xavi, who smoked it past the keeper on the near side. Suddenly it was 1-1, and seemed to have the same effect that the Eto’o goal did in the Champions League final, another one that came when we were kinda struggling to get on the right foot. We started getting more possession, fighting back and pushing them back into their end.

But the second goal was pure magic, as Pedro! took a pass from Xavi and again, created a little space for himself with a slick little (dare I say, Messi-esque) move that led to an unleashed curve ball that the keeper missed by mere inches. But miss he did, and it was 2-1 good guys. From this point on, despite their efforts, there wasn’t any real danger, and the scoreline could have easily been 4-1 as we had some great chances, particularly Alves’ stunner that banged off the crossbar.

The other great thing about the Pedro! performance is that it kicked off just as some of us were noting that not only do we have to play the ball to him, but he has to make himself available for said balls. Dancing out onto the wing and waving your arms is not going to do it. Constant motion is the answer, movement linked to the efforts of Xavi. Once that began to happen, we really started to see what Pedro! can do, and why his promotion to the A team was a no-brainer.

He could be this season’s Giuly. If you consider that our starting front will be Messi, Ibrahimovic and Henry, Pedro! can come in as that firestarter, with all of his movement, energy and effort, not to mention a very quick shot that he gets off. We saw him shine against lesser competition, but the real question was how he would do in a match that mattered, against real competition. I think we have an answer.

And now, the points (sort of, since I was taking notes, but without replay, things get a bit more difficult):

Guardiola: 7. He rolled out a solid lineup, and had the tactical awareness to change our style of play, based on the midfield-clogging, back-pressuring efforts of Bilbao. If either of those Henry passes are completed (and they will be as the season rolls on and form is found), that match is a rout. Busquets and Jeffren were astute substitutions, that kept our energy up without disrupting possession.

Team: 5. Full credit for the fightback, but everybody was off today, except for Pedro! Passes were short, long passes were abnormally inaccurate, everything was kinda messy.

Valdes: 7. Couldn’t have done a damned thing about the goal, and knocked about a couple of horrific clearances/passes that could have killed the side. But every save he had to make, every ball he had to grab–including one with a Bilbao player right on the doorstep–he did.

Alves: 6. He played to a higher score, but I am going to start subtracting a point whenever the “Alves Tuck -N-Roll” is implemented. It’s a shameful thing that detracts from his very good play today, including a shot from distance that would have been one queen hell mother of a golazo.

Pique: 6. Off on his passes, let some Bilbao players loose in and around the box, but was very solid, for the most part. Unfortunately he was playing next to Captain Caveman.

Puyol: 7. El Capitan is ready, folks. Pre-season? Early season? What’s that? It’s time to get in some ass. Hell of a late block of a very dangerous Bilbao effort.

Abidal: 6. Our French Greyhound transitions too readily into Wreckless Eric, as he was giving and taking away. Strong offensive effort and his usual indefatigable defensive effort shone, but then he’d clunk it up with a pass or make a control/clearance more difficult than it should have been.

The Yaya: 5. Hmmm. It’s early season for our Mammoth Man, and that’s okay….sort of. He took a step back from the excellence on display in the pre-season friendlies.

Keita: 4. If I seem harsh on him, it’s because I didn’t have benefit of a match re-watch. He’s often better when you watch the match a second time, as you can see the little things that he does. But from my seat he was pretty invisible, though helpful once we regained control of the match, in keeping possession.

Xavi: 6. Yes, he got a goal and an assist, but he should have been playing with Pedro! more and earlier (though some of it was the fault of P!), and his passes didn’t have that usual effortless precision. Which is fine. It’s still early days for him, as well. Killer shot for the first goal.

Pedro!: 8. Simply put, he was the difference-maker today. If he learns that he can’t be played as effectively when he moves constantly, stand back. Destruction is going to ensue when he enters the pitch. He always plays with his head up, and he understands the Way We Play. And it goes without saying that P! is Man of the Match.

Krkic: 4. The Kid was pretty worthless out there today, uncertain in possession and making the reception of passes more difficult than it should have been.

Henry: 5. He’s been better. If he wasn’t 100% he shouldn’t have been out there. And even if he wasn’t, he simply has to do better with the chances he was given. A+ for defensive effort, however.

Substitutes

Jeffren (for Henry): 5. Final Fantasy made some nice moves, but showed a tendency to play himself into trouble. We don’t give a player the ball, then say “It’s yours. Make something happen.” If something isn’t there, send it back to Xavi for a re-set, then try again.

Busquets (for Xavi): incomplete. I know he was out there running around, but damned if I recall any real evidence of his presence. My notes don’t mention him at all.

So. First review of the season. It’s pre-season for me, as well. I might be off a bit on some ratings, might not. Dunno. I do know that I am excited about this season. That was a rotten grinder of a match that could have easily gone the wrong way. But we didn’t let it happen, because of pride and hunger. Yes, it was an….um….measured effort, but it all worked out in the end, which is what counts, right?

And now, for some really cool news. Hopefully (not sure if he took notes this time) this season, Isaiah, Hector and I are going to be triple-teaming y’all. Isaiah will preview, I will review and Hector will make the world make sense tactically. Is anybody else as geeked about this last bit as I am? Yes? Thought so.

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