In the Absence of Giants

No Messi, no problem; those guys took good care of Barcelona’s results.

When it comes to football, power shifts are rarely as simple as they’d seem to be at first glance. Whoever thought Lionel Messi’s injury will pave the way for Real Madrid to win La Liga title after a three-year break – he was mistaken. Since the Argentinian’s knee gave in in late September, Barcelona have won twelve points out of fifteen possible, widening their edge over the arch-rivals, as Los Blancos drew El Derbi madrileño and brought home a painful defeat from Sevilla. No matter what angle one looks at it from: that’s a massive sigh of relief for a team that used to be known for their inability to win points without Leo running the show. Two years ago, when the best player on the planet had to be subbed off against Paris Saint-Germain, Blaugrana came very close to getting eliminated in the Champions League quarter-final. Messidependencia – the world learned this word and remembered it well.

Fortunately for Barca, this isn’t 2013 anymore. Back in the days, the club would heavily exploit it’s main man, gladly using his well-known matchoholism for everyone’s advantage. Messi looked like fortune’s first child: the injuries evaded him, the fatigue of playing fifty games a season showed only occasionally and everyone else in the team acted like playing football with Leo was the easiest thing ever – which, to be fair, was quite an accurate impression. It got to the point when TV cameras would sometimes find Messi sitting on the bench with an unhappy expression on his face – as if he couldn’t understand why there are games where having him on the pitch is more of an unnecessary risk than an asset. Everyone ended up happy: Los Culés celebrated seventeen trophies won in six years and Leo himself broke all possible records while never having his legs touched by the surgeon’s scalpel.

 

After a trail of domestic and European destruction, FCB has become a team able to plan not one, but three or four moves ahead – including setbacks like the one they’re in now. Bringing in Neymar and Luis Suarez for an outrageous amount of money was one thing – but training the whole squad to cope with new circumstances against rivals as strong as Villarreal – that’s already a different story. On Sunday, Blaugrana desperately needed to sink the Yellow Submarine to maintain their lead. The task was unenviable – prior to this game, VCF managed to beat both Sevilla and Dinamo Minsk. Not only that: with just 8 goals conceded in 10 games, Amarillos took pride in having one of the best defensive lines in La Liga – featuring the sensational likes of Alphonse Areola in goal and Eric Bailly as a centre-back. In these circumstances, simple plan of sitting back and holding a draw at Camp Nou seemed doable.

On Sunday, Marcelino García Toral had to somehow cope without Bailly, suspended for the fifth yellow card he picked up against Sevilla. In other news, Soldado’s usual partner upfront – Leo Baptistao – was out due to the muscle injury he picked up in a training two weeks ago. VCF’s manager opted for the simplest solution, putting in an extra midfielder to match FCB’s typical ‘three-in-the-middle’ formation – while his wide midfielders would take care of forward runs by Blaugrana’s wing-backs. For about half of an hour, the Catalans were experiencing enormous problems with this approach. Munir’s efforts to provide a link of play with the other two strikers didn’t work – and although Neymar looked like a constant danger down the left wing, neither his dribbles nor crosses were resulting with anything more than a scare for Víctor Ruiz and Bailly’s replacement Daniele Bonera.

Because of that, the first half ended up fairly peacefully; neither team was able to show any serious ability to win the game. Even right after the break, it didn’t change that much. Early in the second half, Mario Gaspar’s violent attack on Neymar’s legs caused a serious outrage from both the Brazilian and Luis Suárez. The referee booked both Barcelona forwards – and, from that moment on, the actual fight started. Acting as if they wanted to show the ref who really rules the pitch, the hosts started attacking with more passion, which was quickly rewarded when Dani Alves has found himself at the end of great, side-footed Neymar’s cross. FCB’s right-back had the ball on his foot but he struck it awkwardly and Areola punched it for a corner. Still, Villarreal were keeping their opponents fairly quiet, forcing them to put floating crosses into the penalty area – something Barcelona were never good at capitalizing on.

 

The visitors tried hard to stay in the game despite being under constant pressure, but the truth is, with Roberto Soldado isolated, they didn’t have a single player who could hold the ball on Barcelona’s half and provide some relief for his defenders. The longer the game went, the more one-sided it was – until Jonathan dos Santos has given the ball away in front of his own penalty area. It was a textbook example of successful pressure on your opponent’s half – and the one to win the ball, Sergio Busquets, immediately made a great, splitting pass to Neymar. The way FCB’s number 11 controlled the difficult, through pass and put it in the back of the net was truly admirable. Just like Messi would often do, he’s found the bottom corner at the near post – theoretically, the most guarded spot by the goalkeeper. But this time, the shot was so powerful, it didn’t even matter.

The rest of the game was easy for Luis Enrique’s boys. Iniesta nearly scored from a clever Sergi Roberto’s cross, VCF’s left wing started leaking, it didn’t take long for Munir to win a penalty from Jaume Costa’s ridiculous sliding challenge. In the end, it turned out to be a classic example of things falling apart for a team that had no ambition beyond drawing 0-0. Villarreal probably still can finish the league in the top 5 – but they need to take more risk against strong teams, because this ended up like a fairly simple capitulation.

After the game against Sevilla, Ronaldo said he thinks he played well. Yeah…

Three hours later, it was Real Madrid’s turn to try and keep up the pace with their arch-rivals. Just couple days earlier, Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán was a place of full hospitality for it’s visitors, as Manchester City scored quite comfortable win against Unai Emery’s team. Real, even in the middle of a slight squad crisis (Keylor Navas, Marcelo, arrested Karim Benzema), had the blueprint to digest and draw from. However, this game wasn’t the case. Right from the start, it seemed that Rafa Benitez wants to win this game in a most cost-efficient way possible. His players were extremely static, the ball was moved way too slow in the final third and the best chances for Los Blancos’ came from one Pepe’s long pass to Ronaldo and three corner kicks. Nacho managed to hit the post of Rico’s goal early on, but that hardly made up for the lack of vitality in the visitors’ play.

To be fair to Benítez, the one thing his teams usually do well is being on the ball and having lots of control in the opposition’s half. Sevilla, set up with defensively-minded Krychowiak and N’Zonzi, never even tried to contest that advantage. However, in terms of creativity, neither Luka Modrić, nor Isco were recently up to the task. Gareth Bale, who was supposed to make an immediate impact following his calf injury recovery, needed about an hour to warm up and start putting his foot-stamp on the game. In order to score, Real needed as much as Sergio Ramos’ spectacular bicycle kick. It was a corner again and this time, Sevilla players all ran to cover the opponents lurking at the near post. The ball went right over their heads, to Ramos, who, while backing off away from SFC’s goal, hit it on the volley, giving Rico no chance in hell for a save. Brilliant effort… except that it put Real even further into lethargy.

Sevilla needed 27 minutes to take advantage of their opponents’ lackluster play. Tremoulinas has put a venomous cross towards Immobile – a cross that Pepe just barely managed to clear and which then bounced off Ramos’ chest – luckily, only to land behind the end line. Six minutes later, the story repeated itself: this time, the ex-Dortmund striker was stopped by Kiko Casilla, following Mariano’s cross. The Italian might not be the fastest or the most gifted player, but his timing at getting to the aerial passes looks great. 36 minutes into the game, yet another, amazing corner ball from Konoplyanka went over the heads of three people on a near post, bounced in front of totally confused goalkeeper, only to be volleyed in the back of the net from a very narrow angle by the home side’s lone striker. Whatever Nacho’s been doing at that point (marking the post? tracking Immobile? kibitzing?) – it didn’t work.

Under pressure from this, confidence-building goal, Real Madrid have almost managed to ruin everything right before the break. Another good, old-fashioned cross from Trémoulinas, a little flick by Konoplyanka and Immobile went centimetres from tapping it in. Minutes later, only Modrić last-ditch block prevented Vitolo from putting away another chance. The nerves were getting the better of Benítez’s team; as soon as the first sign of chaos crept onto the pitch, the visitors have found it hard to put it back in order. Even the half-time helped them only temporarily. After the break, it was all the same stuff all over again: fairly open game, in which both teams kept creating half-decent chances by the virtue of fast wingplay. And, to the surprise of many, Los Rojiblancos have come out on top in this kind of encounter! A brilliant one-two between Konoplyanka and Immobile was tucked in by Banega!

Once in the lead, Sevilla immediately switched to 4-4-2, Atletico-Madrid style setup – a testament to what Los Colchoneros have done to them recently, when this approach has allowed them an easy, 3-0 win. It’s an absolute pain in the ass to get through this kind of formation – and for a team with a shot confidence, underwhelming body language and lack of proper plan B: it was even harder. Already in the first half, players like Bale and Isco have managed to ignore Cristiano Ronaldo’s presence couple of times, when the Portuguese star seemed like the easiest option to pass to. CR7 remained anonymous until late in the game, when he stuck to taking rather hazardous long-shots – of no avail. In this game, Cristiano was about as far from the man we’ve seen in his recent biopic as you can possibly imagine: isolated, lackluster, timid. Can he really be out of fuel by now?

 

Once Llorente’s goal went in, I don’t think anyone was surprised. Of what use is having the ball if your opponent’s counters are twice as dangerous as your slow build-ups? Prior to SFC’s last goal, Konoplyanka has bamboozled Danilo again – and that should’ve been a tap-in right there, without the need for Mariano to put in another cross into the box. The Ukrainian bossed this game out wide – while, at the same time, Krychowiak and Banega had it easier and easier against Real’s midfielders, the longer the game went. Benítez countered by putting James Rodríguez in. The Colombian at least took the responsibility by trying out few risky key passes and shots – but stopping the team from going downhill was beyond his powers. One good moment in the end, crowned by a 2-3 goal doesn’t change the fact that Real were toothless that day; toothless and out of depth.

It surely is a chance for Atletico now. With Benzema facing nasty legal consequences for blackmail, with Ronaldo frustrated by a slight decline of form, with Bale not back in shape yet – the team doesn’t necessarily have to overcome their solid local rivals. Especially with Benítez in charge. Guy might be a good manager, true. Still, for a team so stacked with great wingers and strikers, appointing the boss who’s defensive-minded, control-obsessed tactician is a dubious thing to do. It will take the next six months to see whether Los Blancos were the master of their own demise by choosing Rafa. Or, perhaps… less than six months.

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