El Pivote: Heightened Expectations

El Pivote: Heightened Expectations

El Pivote (or The Pivot) is a weekly totalBarça column by Anoop Jethwa about the trials and tribulations of FC Barcelona. From the positives to the negatives, this piece will dive deep into the living fabric that is blaugrana. We welcome your thoughts and feedback in the comments section.

El Pivote returns for the new year with a discussion about expectations for the second half of the season and we comment on a few players, some of which is fallout from Monday’s Ballon d’Or awards.

Expectations leading into 2013

The first game of 2012 was against Espanyol. At their ground, Fàbregas got one of his last goals of the season in a sloppy 1-1 draw, Guardiola was said to be improving the team mechanics of the 3-4-3 and Barcelona were coming off of beating Madrid at the Bernabeu and being crowned FIFA Club World Cup champions in the previous month. Still though, there remained a tiny bit of unease surrounding the side, mainly due to louder cries from close sources that Guardiola would not be renewing his contract. Having only signed contracts lasting until the end of the next season, there was always speculation regarding his future, but as last season progressed it was getting clearer that the reign of Pep was no longer secure.

The first game of 2013 was also against Espanyol. At our ground, Fàbregas was instrumental in creating Pedro’s goal and won the penalty which Messi converted. He should have been given another assist to Pedro, but for an incorrect offside decision. However, it was clear that the team unity, especially with the manager, was only growing stronger. Vilanova showed massive strength in character and human quality to even be there, and this fact signifies the true belief in his work that promotes the core team ethics of the club, the distribution of satisfaction to lovers of the beautiful game across the world and, last but not least, happiness.

I firmly believe that had El Clasico not been in between the Champions League semi finals, the players would have had a sharper edge to finish off their respective opponents and we could have been looking at a higher quality final, backed up by the selection of an all La Liga FIFPro team. Yet it wasn’t to be and whilst fitness and freshness needed to be injected into both teams, it was Barcelona who did so and Madrid who continued with their worldwide tours. The effects are there for all to see. The sharpness in physicality and attitude is still spot on from our players, even though our players had a tiny bit longer of a Christmas break. Madrid have players out injured and in need of recuperation, and Modric, without any proper pre-season is clearly struggling.

However, although we can proceed with confidence that the league title should be ours, barring a catastrophe, the Champions League is now the coveted trophy to where our attention may turn. Before crucial ties, we can now afford to rest certain key players. Against Espanyol, Xavi and Cesc only played two thirds of the game. A bench full of hungry, determined players like Thiago, Villa, Sanchez, Mascherano, Montoya and Song all have something to personally play for; whether it be justifying a transfer fee, breaking into the first team as a young player, coming back from injury, or simply trying to recapture form. The mentality we have is of a team that wants to win back the trophies that it no longer owns. Caution comes in the way of Madrid, with the siege mentality that Mourinho is adopting at this moment in time, which is what he also did with Inter. It’s very likely to be his last season at Madrid and he’s either got everything under control as he wants it, or he has lost control completely. The fans were booing him, but let’s not forget that at this time last year, Ronaldo was being booed by those same fans causing him not to celebrate his goal against Granada. However much I do not like talking about Madrid on here, they must be respected as a rival for the Champions League, unless Manchester United have it their way. All in all, expectations and excitement levels are justifiably high for the ‘business’ half of the season.

Pedro’s Renaissance

When Iniesta looked up to find Xavi in the box against Espanyol, Messi was a good 10 yards outside of the box. The Espanyol defence found it so difficult all game to decide whether to step up when Messi dropped deep or simply stay deep and deny the space. They, logically, thought of Messi as the larger of their worries and it was up to Pedro to exploit the space that had been left in behind. Xavi showed the way with the first goal, and with the second goal a similar pattern emerged. Messi was 10 yards outside of the box when he played it wide to Cesc, whilst Pedro was making a dash into the six yard box. Dani Alves found himself available to make the same run that Xavi did, but instead dropped off, allowing Messi to recapture the central striker space. But as against Valladolid after the spectacular one-two’s from the right-hand side of the pitch, Pedro had the determination and poise to choose the times when he stretched wide, creating even more space for Messi, and the times when he got right in front of the keeper. This is the Pedro of old. Some will point out the fortune for this goal, others will correctly identify his work rate, anticipation, and positioning.

Busquets must be applauded for his fabulous pass along the ground having spotted Pedro’s run in behind for the second goal, but the miniscule difference from this Pedro was reminiscent of the goal he scored at the Bernabeu in the 2-0 win in 2010. The off the ball movement has always been there from Pedro, but this movement with the intent of scoring has been a tiny bit hesitant in the last few months, mainly due to not wanting to encroach into Messi’s space. Pedro has scored more goals for Spain this season and it’s no surprise since he has space to attack as Del Bosque generally plays without a striker.

For the first incorrectly disallowed goal in the 65th minute where Messi played it through to Cesc, who crossed for Pedro, Messi had no intention of catching up to the play because he knew Pedro was attacking that space. The second one , eight minutes later was different, where Messi did attack the space, but Pedro was already in that central striker position. All of the above is enough to warrant calling the last game Pedro’s renaissance, as evidenced by our readers in the totalBarca MotM poll.

Ballon d’Or aftermath

Messi did say he didn’t have his best year in 2012 and although his goal tally was superb to say the least, the lack of major honours meant that it wasn’t as glorious a year as it could have been for the team. Could Pedro’s recapturing of goalscoring determination rather than serving Messi be proof that Barcelona were playing to help Messi get his goal tally? Well it’s probably not true, but Messi certainly concentrated on getting his teammates into attacking positions against Espanyol.

There can be no complaint that Messi is the worthy winner of the Ballon d’Or. The way I justify that is by looking at all of Cristiano Ronaldo’s antics in the past year. Whilst I am not going to get into all of that, the one thing that should be mentioned is the comical reasoning of Ronaldo, the Portuguese captain, to relinquish his captaincy for the time of voting for the best player in the world just so that his vice-captain could come in and give Ronaldo a first place vote. Is this the action of someone who believes they should win, or the action of someone who knows there is someone better and has to do everything in his power to swing as many votes as possible? I am a coach obsessed by technique at any level, and I always give Ronaldo credit where credit is due. In the interest of consistency, this act is one of someone who is so fixated on his rival. If he is going to leave Madrid at the end of the season with Mourinho, I wouldn’t be surprised if he tries to boot Messi up in the air in the upcoming Clasico(s). He has truly been defeated on an individual level.

Criticism has also come the way of Dani Alves and Gerard Piqué, as they were selected by their fellow professionals for the FIFPro World XI team. On one hand, I know where some people are coming from. Piqué did not enjoy the best first half of the year, and the form of Dani Alves fluctuated several times during the season. On the other hand, I can remember Sergio Ramos making a huge mistake against Balotelli in the European Championships and then recovering to make a brilliant challenge. I don’t remember Piqué making any mistakes and his passing out from the back was superb. After his injury at the beginning of the season, he has been nothing less than superb for club and country as well. As for Dani Alves, one could argue that the 3-4-3 formation meant that he was slightly unsettled as it meant Guardiola was sacrificing him to accommodate Cesc, and his form has certainly been matched by Adriano and Montoya at times this season. However, the reality is that Dani Alves has been playing at such a high level for years that a slight drop in form doesn’t push him down the pecking order of right backs in the world. Before he was the outstanding candidate, for 2012 he was one of several extremely good right backs, but opinion of professionals is that he still was the pick at that position. I can’t think of too many right backs that have the technical ability to play those super fast one-two’s that Dani Alves does. At the end of the day though, what is of the utmost importance is team trophies, and as long as he uses competition from Adriano and Montoya to get back to his best, every Barcelona fan will be happy.

Until next time…Visca Barça. El Pivote.

Source: Jasper Juinen/Getty Images