To put it simply, that was the best Barcelona have played since the Champions League final against Manchester United. Against a strong Inter side -- without Sneijder, to be fair -- Barca bossed the game, and effectively ended it within half an hour. And all this without their two brightest stars, Lionel Messi and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and their first-choice defensive midfielder, Yaya Toure. And to have conjured that performance when a draw or a loss could have seriously left their qualification for the final sixteen in great peril? Nothing like it.
So how did they manage such a comprehensive win against such a strong side under such trying circumstances? Let's count the ways:
1. As always with Barca, the truly special performances are under-girded by the Xavi and Iniesta partnership. The level of understanding and touch between these two is telepathic. You feel like they are the types that will force their kids to hang out and dress the same when they organize day trips to the zoo, they're that close.
The interesting thing is that Iniesta, as the lineup had it, was supposed to be playing right forward, or the Messi role, in Barca's traditional 4-3-3. Only, they didn't actually play that way. In effect, Barca played a 4-4-2, with Iniesta tucking in to midfield, and leaving space on the right for Dani Alves to run into. Poor old Chivu had nothing to do for half the game.
But more to the point, the Iniesta-Xavi midfield was reinstated. Because of injuries to Henry and Ibrahimovic, among others, Iniesta has often played the left forward role this season, which he does adequately but not particularly well (often drifting in, and bunching things up in the final third, when above all else Barca require space to play in). And plus, when Iniesta is taken away from Xavi, the latter looks like someone shot his dog. Seriously, he looks completely lost without his partner in crime. It's quite cute actually. But anyway, the way they controlled the game would have seemed awfully familiar to United fans (and Real fans, and Bayern fans and, well, every other team's fans too).
2. Pedro! What a display. The young forward has really grown into his role this season (think hired assassin, either off the bench or as a replacement for one of the injured starters). He's now scored ten goals in ten games in all competitions. He owned Maicon the whole damn ninety minutes. His pace, movement, skill on the ball, and finishing (getting Barca's second, capping a scything and poetic move that left the commentators breathless) were a joy to watch. He really is the long-term answer to Barca's left-wing issue; I'd much rather see January transfer money being spent on a central midfielder to spell Xavi and Iniesta, particularly since Yaya and Keita will be out for the African Cup of Nations in January.
3. The back four all did their part. Puyol and Pique put out whatever very limited threats Inter engendered in the second half (there were none in the first half, none whatsoever), once again dividing their duties (Puyol doing man-marking and scurrying, Pique taking care of aerial threats and bringing the ball out, and even scoring the first despite having his shirt tugged harder than a fourteen year-old boy tugs...never mind, I'm not finishing that sentence). Abidal had a phenomenal game, after a couple of early jitters for which he could be forgiven (dude just came back from swine flu, for God's sake). And Dani Alves wreaked havoc on the right side, providing the assist for Pedro's goal, and doing a good job defensively too. You can obviously not base too much on one game, but he seriously outplayed Maicon today.
4. And finally, Pep. Anyone else would have panicked. Anyone else, with the dip in form and fitness over the last month, have started acting impulsively (cough *Rafa* cough). Anyone else would have been highly tempted to start at least one of Messi or Ibra, particularly since both were fit enough to be on the bench.
But you, sir, displayed the calm confidence in your team that no one else did. Because you know them, and trust them, and see them every day, you knew the guys you had would do the job.
I bow down to you, sir. May you live a long life and have many children and carry on the Guardiola name.
Honestly, when Barca play the way they did today, few teams can hang with them. Chelsea are probably the only team that can, based on their physical prowess and the organization. I thought Jose would be able to replicate that organization with Inter, but they were ripped apart today, cut like ribbons. They ended up resorting to thuggish fouls (they should have had at least two more yellows shown, and probably a red too), which was a disappointment.
Anyway, Barca are now basically through. The only way they won't get to the last sixteen is if there's a result in the Inter-Rubin game and Dynamo beat them by more than two goals. More likely, however, is the prospect of them not only going through, but also topping the group. This will require either a win in Ukraine, or a draw and the Rubin-Inter game (in Milan) ending in anything other than a Rubin win.
Order, ladies and gents, has been restored. Phew.