The question was never going to be about quality. Even before Falcao made his move to play further inland, man for man, Porto wasn’t going to compete with Barcelona in individual quality. But they are a strong team, very well organized, and with a winning pedigree.
They’re a physical team, as Pedro told the Marca reporters prior to the game, and they know how to use it. Five of the six goals Porto scored in official games this season have come from set pieces, which means they’re not only strong, they’re tactically astute.
And it’s one game. Unlike a series, in which the best team almost always prevails, this is one game and anything can happen in one game. Catch the world’s best team on a bad day and even an average team can pull an upset.
Or so the theory goes.
Porto came out strong, taking it to Barcelona from the start. Against Barcelona, it’s a strategy that several coaches have tried. And it makes sense, at a rational level.
The idea being that if Barcelona scores first, they can ride the rest of the game out with their possession and pressure tactics. When a team is chasing a goal, its formation tends to stretch, leaving more space which a team with the precise passing of Barcelona will exploit, creating opportunities for the second goal and so on.
The only real alternative is come out hard, try to overwhelm Barcelona before they have a chance to establish the rhythm of the game, and make the Catalans chase the game.
Or so the theory goes.
Porto had a size and strength advantage. Hulk, the king of the stepovers (and according to one of my colleagues, a guy who looks like Nani on steroids), is quick and Porto earned three free kicks in dangerous positions within the first 21 minutes. But to no avail as they were unable to exploit Barcelona’s defense, which has Pique and Puyol sidelined with injuries.
The first half was played mostly through Porto’s right and Barcelona’s left as the teams moved forward. Hulk ran the right side, turning in on his natural left while Barcelona seemed content to feed David Villa’s day of frustration, only occasionally playing the ball wide right to Pedro, who had an early chip clear Porto’s goalie, Helton, and the goal.
The match was as boggy as the pitch and neither side was as sharp as we’ve seen in other games. At one point, Iniesta dribbled in, around and through Porto’s midfield as if they were cones on practice day, eliciting laughter and applause from the fans.
And then there was another great goal from Messi. In the 38th minute, Porto’s Guarín, under pressure by Barcelona players, attempted to pass the ball back to Helton. Instead, he passed it back to Messi,who faked out Helton and finished beautifully.
A friend who is from Madrid and is a die-hard Madridista watched the match with several others and myself. He tried to downplay the goal. “Anyone could have made that! One on one with the goalie!” he yelled in Castilian.
Truth is, of course, my dear friend can’t even do that on FIFA 11.
Fredy was unlucky with the backpass, no doubt, and he’s a great player, but Messi’s goal was great: the split-moment of pause…that was a thing of beauty. Messi’s consistency of greatness is at a level that we football fans are blessed to see.
With that goal, Messi has now scored in every tournament he’s every played, against an English club, in England, against a Mourinho club, in the Super Cup, he just keeps on ticking them off.
The first half came to a close, 1-0, Barcelona with 70 percent of the possession, and with Xavi completing the most passes for his team, with 55 at a 93 percent completion, and Porto’s Fucile topping his team with 25 and 80 percent, according to UEFA.com
The second half had the same tempo and sharpness as the first. Tactically, Porto didn’t appear to make a change, but Hulk went for large periods of time without getting much time on the ball, which dulled Porto’s attack.
A large part of that was due to Barcelona’s change in tactics, as they began to push the ball out to their right.
Messi started dropping back into his more usual false nine slot in the right midfield, and Alves, who had very few touches going forward in the first half, became a factor in the second as he began his usual overlapping and pushing forward.
Porto had a few breakaway chances and, thanks to a miscommunication between Valdes and Masherano, (as in, it looked liked Valdes didn’t do what a goalie is supposed to do and instruct his defense on how to handle the ball. Valdes had a sketchy night and Barcelona fans should be happy he wasn’t really tested), hope for the Porto faithful remained until Messi, coming in from the newly opened right wing, chipped the ball onto the recently subbed-in Cesc who played the ball off his chest, onto his foot and into the goal.
Even our Madridista had to admit it was a thing of beauty (before he launched into a tirade against Arsenal, but that’s a different story).
With this victory, Barcelona has now won the most European trophies, 15, surpassing AC Milan (thank you, @pedritonumeros), and they have become the team that has won the most titles in Spanish football history, with 76, surpassing Real Madrid’s 75, (thank you, @2010misterchip)
It’s an amazing run, a history-setting run, and with such depth, such unity, and so many options in critical positions, the only real question seems to be, how much can Barcelona accomplish this season?
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