I believe Jordi Alba was the reason we won the Champions League game last night – and I had decided that long before he took off on his long-busting run down the field to score Barça’s fourth. He was not the best player on the pitch, but he was by far the most important in achieving that elusive “0” on Milan’s side of the scoreboard.
Alba has widely been heralded as La Liga’s signing of the season, but this has largely been for the attacking threat the ex-Valencia man has offered. Part left back, part winger, all speed and stamina, Alba’s ability to single-handedly control the left flank has made him an invaluable asset to the team this season, giving Barça the versatility to play with Iniesta on the left as a false winger without sacrificing speed and width in attack. The diminutive speedster’s attacking output has been prodigious as well: two goals and five assists in the league, and now two key goals in the Champions League against Celtic and Milan.
But there was also much criticism of Alba’s play – if not the individual, then the tactical changes his place in the starting lineup had come to symbolize. Alves and Alba were too similar, it was said, and they were leaving the team defensively exposed. In Barça’s string of 13 consecutive games without keeping a clean sheet, many of those goals conceded came from wide positions, and not just because the fullbacks were caught too far forward on counterattacks. Sometimes it was poor positioning as Alves let a man sneak in far post, other times it was Alba’s failure to close down an opponent before they delivered a cross. I began to think that maybe Barça’s habit of converting midfielders into defenders was finally catching up with it, as the fullbacks seemed to just lack that constant vigilance that all true defenders need.
Before last night, I was convinced Alba had to sit on the bench. Alves was in too great a run of form to be left on the bench, but we needed discipline on the left side, someone quick to play alongside the center-backs as a third defender – we could not afford to be exposed 2 v 2 as happened several times in the first leg at the San Siro. I hoped Mascherano or Adriano would start as the third man, and longed for the powerful play of Eric Abidal: fast, strong, always sweeping in behind to cover for slower center-backs, and providing an outlet in attack when needed.
And that was exactly what we got – but instead of a 6’1″ Frenchman, it was a 5’7″ Catalan who proved the most versatile man on the pitch time and time again. I was wary of his selection, and every time we began to attack down the right I grew nervous, suspecting Alba was inching his way up out of view of the camera and leaving us exposed. Milan got the ball, switched play to the left – and there was Alba, waiting at the halfway line to nip out and steal the ball away cool as you like. Or they launched a ball over the top, and I held my breath as Niang sprinted past Pique and Mascherano, only to smile as Jordi sped out of the shadows to reach the ball first and get it to safety.
It may sound simple – a defender being told to stay back and defend – but what Jordi Alba did last night was a huge development for Barcelona, exactly what we needed, and exactly what Eric Abidal did for us every day before his illness. He cleaned up through balls, made goal-saving interceptions on crosses into the box, never allowed the opposing wingers time on the ball, and battled as fiercely as any on the field to tackle and win possession back. And after all his hard work, after matching Niang, Robinho, and Ignazio Abate pace for pace for 92 minutes, Jordi Alba still had the speed and energy to run 70 yards in seven seconds and seal the win for Barcelona. Barcelona has been criticized for lacking athleticism and intensity lately, and players like Yaya Toure, Henry, Eto’o, and Abidal have all been recalled wistfully. But last night, under the Camp Nou floodlights, Jordi Alba cast a shadow that loomed larger than any of those four, a shadow that points in a very promising direction for the future of Barcelona’s defense.
Image Credits: Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images, David Ramos/Getty Images