Friday, May 08, 2009

Andres Iniesta: Spanish for Lindsay Scott

I was trying to think of another instance of a team being totally dead and buried before snatching victory from the jaws of defeat by scoring in a manner that's a little unorthodox for that team and this was the first game that came to mind...

Lindsay Scott's touchdown is made doubly famous by Larry Munson's call of the play. By the time I'm done watching the Iniesta goal (and I've probably seen it 20 times already), I will have memorized Derek Rae's description...and when the ball flew in, he identified Xavi as the scorer. In Rae's defense, he is the best soccer play-by-play commentator on this side of the pond by some margin. Also, it's not easy to identify one 5'7 Barca midfielder with dark hair as opposed to the other, especially when watching the game in a studio thousands of miles away from the live action. Iniesta's receding hairline isn't that obvious, is it?

Other thoughts on the day after the day after:

1.'s Carlo Garganese positively nails Guus Hiddink's hypocrisy over the officiating. I tried to make this point after the game, but Garganese is much more specific. It's hard to pick a favorite paragraph, but this is mine:

I know what I'm thinking Guus, and it is not conspiracy, but hypocrisy. The regularity and enormity of the events at the 2002 World Cup were more than enough to form a conspiracy theory, yet Hiddink shrugged them off as Italian and Spanish sour grapes. What took place last night at Stamford Bridge was just plain bad officiating that penalised both sides in equal measure.

2. There has been a lot of discussion about Barca looking poor against Chelsea and that this team isn't as good as we previously thought. (I'm looking at you, Steven Cohen.) While I'll be the first to admit that Barca still struggle against organized, defensive EPL sides because of their weakness at shooting from outside the box or heading in crosses from the wings, the criticism of the Blaugrana sell Chelsea short. The Blues are a very good defensive side, especially when they play in a conservative fashion. Any team in the world would struggle to score against a Chelsea side coached by Hiddink and deploying a healthy Essien and a motivated Drogba. (Drogba was essential to Chelsea's conservative strategy because he allowed the Blues to commit their midfield to defense, knowing that they could generate some offense from pumping long balls to Didier.)

The criticism of Leo Messi relative to Cristiano Ronaldo is similarly misplaced. Ronaldo turned in an outstanding performance against Arsenal, but he was playing against a makeshift back four attached to a team that is clearly not on an elite level. In the second leg, he was playing against an opponent that was pushed forward and therefore had acres of space in which to operate. Messi, on the other hand, was playing against an outstanding back line full of international starters, protected by a midfield also full of top players. Every time he got the ball, he was surrounded by excellent adversaries. Messi struggled at times with his final balls and he clearly lacks Ronaldo's ability to shoot from distance, but he also deserves credit for not turning the ball over and exposing his defense, something that Ronaldo did against both Aston Villa and Porto.

Also, Messi isn't a complete and utter prat like Ronaldo.

Barca get criticized for having a suspect defense that succeeds only because the attacking players maintain possession so well. Well, in the same way that Drogba made Chelsea's strategy possible, Messi's supreme ability to keep the ball under pressure from defenders who are trying to bugger him makes Barca's style possible. Yes, the Blaugrana have only scored one goal in their last 360 minutes against EPL sides, but they've only conceded two (both of the wonderstrike variety) and Messi's ability to keep the ball has been critical in maintaining that defensive record.

3. The EPL's Big Four are on top of football right now and Barca have battled them to a standstill. The Blaugrana have played the Big Four in eleven matches since Rijkaard and Ronaldinho ushered in the club's current era. Barca have won four, lost three, and drawn three of those matches. Barca have won three ties and lost three. Barca have scored 12 and conceded 12 in those eleven matches and six ties. These results illustrate that Barca are on par with the Big Four, and they're probably the only club on the Continent that can make that claim at present. As of May 2009, there is a four-team elite in Europe: Barcelona, Chelsea, Liverpool, and Manchester United. I would have hesitated to put Liverpool into that category before 2009, but their new-found abilities to score goals and compete for the EPL title represent a turning of a corner.

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