Thursday, October 02, 2008

Barcelona 2 - Shakhtar Donetsk 1

Man, there's nothing quite like stealing a win under the opposing team's nose (and in front of the opposing team's crowd). Hereunder are my thoughts on the game:

1. I know this is an understatement and all, but it's good to have Lionel Messi on your team. Every single game, he will create either for himself or someone else two or three chances to score. Whether those chances are actually taken is another question entirely - particularly given Barca's pitiful finishing over the last 18-20 months. But the very fact that every game he creates those chances means that he's the best in the world. There's simply no one else who can do that, not with the regularity that he does, not with the ungodly amount of attention that is paid to him, and certainly not with the style and silken touch that he displays.

When he came on in the 60th minute, Barca were down 1-0 and didn't even look like scoring (a welcome departure from their usual problem of looking like scoring but never actually doing so). About 10-15 minutes after his introduction, he set up Eto'o with a beautiful ball right down the middle, giving Eto'o a chance to run at the goalkeeper, one on one, from well outside the area. Of course, Eto'o fluffed it by tripping over his own feet and having no idea what he actually wanted to do, but that didn't deter Messi. For Barca's first goal, around the 86th minute, Messi lurked in the six-yard box as Bojan fired in a low cross. Keeper fumbled, Messi pounced, goal. Then, in the third minute of added time, Xavi released Messi, who made a beautiful run from the left side of the penalty area, one touch, and then delivered the calmest, cutest, and most audacious little chip under pressure you could possibly imagine. Game over.

2. These Shakhtar boys are a bunch of fucking thugs. Look, I understand that the best way to play and beat Barca is to get right up there, and not allow them to string any passes together. But there's a fairly thick line between "not giving them space and getting in their face" and "trying to shatter the shin, ankle, and jaw bones of each of Barca's players in 17 different places", and unfortunately, Shakhtar continually crossed that line. The worst of the lot was this Brandao fellow, all 6'2" and 170 pounds of him.

By the end of the night, poor Dani Alves looked like he followed up a 12 round fight with Mike Tyson with an all-night sexcapade with Courtney Love. I'm just warning any of you guys out there who support teams that might run up against Shakhtar Donetsk: be prepared for a beating.

3. Barca's miraculous escape (to reiterate, two goals after the 86th minute to win it, in Ukraine) should not hide the fact that Guardiola needs to drop whatever the hell formation he's employing. It basically looks like a 3-4-3, except the four in the middle are neither square, nor a "two wingers sandwiching two central midfielders" nor a diamond. It's basically a parallelogram on the right side of the pitch. Here, let me draw it in paint to show you what I'm talking about.

Alright, so I'm not brilliant with Microsoft Paint, but you get the idea. It basically becomes (or is supposed to become, I think) a 4-3-3 when the opposing team has the ball, with Dani Alves (the bottom right of the parallelogram) supposed to track back.

There are a number of issues with this formation. First, it leaves Barca massively vulnerable on the break with just three at the back, especially when two of those three are Marquez (clumsy) and Puyol (old). Second, it presumes Barca are solid enough to have three at the back at the best of times, when nothing in the last two years should provide such assurance, especially considering their best defender from last year (Gabi Milito) is hurt until godknowswhen. Third, it leaves oodles of space up front on the left for someone who doesn't want to be on the left in the first place (Henry). And fourth, it leaves everyone really confused as to who's playing what role in the midfield, especially when both Keita and Yaya Toure play at the same time (as they did today).

Look, I'm all for innovation, but innovation has to make sense. The fact that Barca have kept just one clean sheet in nine games thus far this season (against world beaters Wisla Krakow on August 13, almost seven weeks ago, that too at home) should tell you something.

4. Something has to be done about this Eto'o/Henry problem. Both of them are tentative because, really, there's just one spot for the two of them and I suspect they know it. They keep missing easy chances, and I'm getting really tired of it. Plus, neither of them is a spring chicken anymore. Come January, I'd like to see one (preferably Eto'o) shipped out, the other given a permanent spot in the middle up front, and some young hotshot striker brought in to be groomed.

5. Six points from two games puts Barca in the box seat in the group. It's imperative to finish on top, because finishing second usually means a killer knock-out fixture right off the bat, and you obviously want to avoid that. Thanks to today's gutsy performance - winning when you don't play well, away from home, is always a mark of a good team - Barca look to be on their way to doing so.

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