It’s all good. Congratulations to Manchester United for two decisive finishes, one from Nani and Owen each. Both goals were the results of tightly worked counter attacks, beating FC Barcelona’s offside trap. However, there’s also more than a handful of positives that the Barcelona faithfuls can gain from this match, because when you see Guardiola, still all smiles with minutes before the final whistle, there must be something to his satisfied expression, right? Find out more after the jump.
Excitement and boiled anticipation from the crowd were palpable as the football stars emerged from the tunnel. With still an hour before kick off, football fans from the US and her neighbors were filling the FedEx Field. It’s the same story in every stadium, finding your way there is a struggle. There were long lines of cars and everybody was aggressive and driving like a New Yorker. We aimed to be at the stadium at 3 o’ clock in hopes of catching the players and securing our tickets for a decent price. After much leg work, we were finally able to get the tickets. Our hearts pound as the ticket officials checked our tickets one by one. When the anticipated check sign flashed across their gadgets, the air became filled with our screams of joy and sighs of relief. We were finally going to be able to see Barcelona live.
The game itself provided a perfect closure for United’s USA Tour. Owen scored the first and last goal of their tour. They emerged with a perfect record in their friendlies and will no doubt face the tough task ahead which is the League Cup against Aguero’s Manchester City with confidence. The best goal of the night however, was scored by our wonderful crack, Thiago. Receiving a well-played pass from Carmona expertly, Thiago kicked the ball with such effect to curl the ball, and what a curl it was. It was a goal to complement his three others in his last three friendly matches for us. Surely it’s a telling sign for things to come.
Finding our seats was easy enough. We were sitting in the lower level, and it was an experience to remember. The players were really close to the crowd, and when we yelled loudly enough, we were sure they would hear us. Manchester United was the first to come out of the tunnel to do their warm-up while I was busy talking to people around me. Unfortunately, because of the amount of people getting tickets second hand, it was near impossible to have everyone around you cheering for the same team. Valdes and Pinto appeared. How electrifying the effect was, of seeing them so near to me. “Valdes, you’re the best!” I shouted in Spanish after asking around for the translation. He noticed but didn’t wave back, likely maintaining his level of concentration.
After the keepers, Barca’s outfield players entered the pitch. The crowd roared signaling a possible greater Culé presence than Red Devils fans. Seeing Thiago showboat in launching and receiving long passes, and juggling and dribbling the ball comfortably during his warm up also kind of made my day. Some of the young players were playing rondo in the middle, a staple in Barcelona’s training. Guardiola was calm and talking to some of his players as David Villa, Pedro, and Busquets looked like they were sweating but enjoying themselves nonetheless.
The first half line-up made me a bit optimistic. Johnny Evans could be exposed, and the midfield, I thought, could be made to chase the ball given Barcelona’s passing possession. But things would not turn out to be that simple for several reasons. First, David Villa did not getting much direct ball when he was making runs. This, in turn, frustrated him more and more as his competitive nature reared its ugly head, possibly as a result of Sanchez’s signing. This problem also arose when Ibrahimovic was with the club. Barca’s system appears better suited to a striker who gets very near the ball to play simple one touch with others or just make decoy runs. This might be because the success ratio of a direct ball is much less than a short pass in the box. This made the Barca players reluctant to play through balls because if it failed they would have had to recover the ball, thus fatiguing them early. This problem could be systematic and hopefully Guardiola can find a solution soon.
This exposed a second problem in the first half, which was everyone trying to help Villa with his cause, especially Afellay. But in doing so, this made Barcelona’s attack monotonous. Afellay performed better when he took initiative in running straight at the defense, but he looked tired and picked up a hamstring injury soon after a couple of very nice runs. Pedro was invisible in the first half, which made Rafael’s (soon to be replaced by his twin Fabio) and Evra’s jobs a little easier in defending their goal. Afellay’s injury highlighted another key point in Barcelona’s system. A player who is comfortable with running at the defense is crucial as it provides unpredictability to the metronomic tiki-taka passing. Without it, Barca’s play is inefficient against layered zonal marking, which United effectively implemented that night.
Once the game kicked off, it was a competition for fans from both sides. Man United fans tried their best to sing their songs, and in retaliation, Barca fans tried to sing back. It was disappointing to see so much of the Barca fans unable to sing anything from the Barcelona repertoire. Fortunately, not too far from me were two Barcelona fans who knew them. Together we sang, “Fuuuutbol Club Barceloooonaa”. We sang those tunes together and it felt so great. Too bad a failed offside trap gave Nani the chance to score and he succeeded with aplomb.
Despite the problems on the field, it still gave so much joy to see much of the cantera give United and Barca’s first teamers a run for their money. Barca may have lost, but were not outplayed. Pep trusted the cantera, who in turn showed Pep that they understood Barcelona’s system. Barcelona’s identity and integrity showed strong that night. And many of Pep’s experiments appear to be working. Jonathan dos Santos showed his more resilient side. He couldn’t be passed easily and defended and won the ball back from the wingers several times. He was also composed, which allowed Barca to switch to attack from defense better. The Iniesta and Thiago partnership is slowly working. It is such a good combination, and given an in-form Pedro and Villa, they would have been more than enough to see off United’s challenge.
To keep on supporting the team by singing our hearts out for one half is hard enough, more so to do it over two halves. I grew weary as no one around me could really lend vocal support. Although, once Thiago’s goal finally came, I jumped and cheered and got my strength back to cheer Barca on.
Busquets clearly seems to be gaining experience to be a better center back over the preseason. Pep was teaching him to be more responsible, jostling better for aerial balls and timing his tackles better. His reading was as good as ever, but as usual, his lack of pace let him down. Fontás is increasing his composure and experience. Abidal is forging a good partnership with Fontás and Busquets with Piqué, as he is slowly brought back to the team. Carmona provided two assists already in the last two games although he was horrible in Hajduk. Cuenca, Balliu, and Riverola complemented Thiago and JDS well, which likely brought some satisfaction Pep.
All in all, both Barcelona and Manchester United provided a great show for the spectators. Counter attacking football won that night, but we’ll see about that in future official games. Guardiola probably still has plenty of tactical tricks up his sleeves, and it will be very interesting to see what role Alexis Sanchez has yet to play with Barca, as well as what lineup we will see in Spanish Super Cup for Barca’s first official game of the season. Guardiola once said that winning is not everything, and he clearly meant that as we can see that he is only concerned with the big picture for these friendly games. Let’s get ready for a long and exciting season where Barcelona will definitely try to be the first club who wins the European Cup in consecutive season in the modern era. Brace for impact, culés.
Image Credits: Getty Images