After a workmanlike 1-0 victory against Almería and a mediocre showing in their 0-0 draw at the Mestalla against Valencia CF on Saturday, FC Barcelona looked to reverse their form in the Champions League against a supposed weaker team in FK Rubin Kazan. To their credit, Barça did not make any excuses about their performance against Los Che, but they did suffer from the FIFA virus because a vast majority of their players contributed to their respective countries’ national teams across the globe. Pep Guardiola rested Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Lionel Messi flew to and from South America and competed in two crucial and stressful World Cup qualifiers with Argentina, Thierry Henry picked up a thigh injury while playing for Les Bleus, and many others not mentioned here. Before the match, Seydou Keita spoke about their Ukrainian opponents:
“It won’t be an easy game. They will come to the Nou Camp to defend like all they do and we’ll have to go out strong to create chances and score.”
Rubin Kazan also entered this contest without playing at their highest standards. In control of the Russian Premier League through much of the season and with a seven-point lead with eight games to play, the Tatars turned their focus on the Champions League. Fairly inexperienced in juggling domestic and European responsibilities, the distraction of the Champions League led to a dip in form in Russia, which included a draw and two losses before a routine and pedestrian 2-1 win over hapless FC Khimki on Saturday. Spartak Moscow took advantage of a faltering Rubin Kazan and shaved the league deficit to a single point with five rounds remaining. Facing Barcelona at the Camp Nou was one of the last tasks that Rubin Kazan needed.
Rubin Kazan erased any fears of the Catalunyan atmosphere when Aleksandr Ryazantsev delivered a shock thirty-yard strike in the second minute to give the visitors the 0-1 lead. Immediately after a Barça attack that culminated in an unanswered penalty claim, Rafael Márquez misplayed a goal kick from Sergei Ryzhikov. The ball headed in the direction of Ryazantsev, who decided to take the shot first time from a country mile away. His searching effort became one of the goals of the Champions League season as his sweetly struck bullet pierced the top right corner of Victor Valdés’ unsuspecting goal. The Camp Nou faithful were flabbergasted, the Barcelona players were stunned, and most of all, Ryazantsev’s teammates were astonished by both the shot and the sudden lead.
The goal annoyed the blaugrana more than anything, and they continued their assault on the Rubin goal; however, Rubin Kazan’s organization was outstanding, and Barça could not find the breakthrough against this highly disciplined Russian side. When Ibrahimovic equalized early in the second half with a little spin-o-rama magic of his own, the pervasive feeling was that of inevitability. It was not if Barcelona would win but by how many. Apparently, Rubin Kazan did not get the memo, and they continued to persist with their defensive game plan. Rubin would only have three shots for the entire match, but each one was on target, and their third and final shot proved to be the game winner. After another Barcelona giveaway, Alejandro Domínguez sped down the Barça half in a blistering counter-attack. The timing of his through-ball to Gökdeniz Karadeniz was impeccable, and Karadeniz’s one-timer from fifteen yards flashed across the face of goal and bundled the back of the net.
Barcelona’s attempts to make the match all-square were in vain, as two of their efforts hit the frame of the goal and the others handled by Sergei Ryzhikov. The final statistics compare to a video game: twenty-four shots with thirteen on target, 69% of the possession, eleven corners to one, and a mind-boggling 654 passes at an 86% completion rate. With these numbers, Barcelona won 5-0, right? Not on this European night. The streets of Kazan will flood with joyous supporters who will cherish this night as the night when their beloved Tatars slayed the Catalunyan dragon.
The expectations for Barcelona from the media and the team itself are so astronomical that little blips on the radar become immediate crises. After the match, Xavi Hernández was at it again, bemoaning Rubin Kazan’s tactics and overall play to the Spanish sports daily Diario AS:
“It was a very dissatisfying match from the start, conceding a goal into the top corner from thirty yards at the very beginning. Then we had many chances and made it more difficult for them. We played well at times, we opened up the pitch and had spells. But it is difficult to measure a team that only defends, especially if you do not find the final pass. They leave with an undeserved prize.”
Sometimes, humility would be a nice change of pace. While Xavi gave no credit to Rubin Kazan for their gritty display on Tuesday night, plaudits will rain from many media outlets about this fairly unknown team from Russia and their desire and intensity. Well done Rubin and the loyal supporters who traveled many miles to the Camp Nou to witness their small slice of history.
What got lost from Xavi’s remarks is a question many will ask tonight and throughout the season. Did Valencia and Rubin Kazan provide blueprints to earn results against this unrelenting Barça side? Somewhat. If a less technically gifted team goes against Barcelona, follow the Rubin Kazan plan: defensive organization, midfield flooding, and opportunistic counter-attacks. If the team can truly compete with Barcelona’s talent, follow the Valencia plan: keep possession, shackle Dani Alves and Eric Abidal as much as possible, and force Victor Valdés into some contested crosses and shots. Even if all of these principles are followed, as many teams have tried, it will likely be all for naught. That is the beauty of this FC Barcelona outfit. Their single-minded nature to attack and attack and attack eventually crumbles their opposition. When Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich sacked Luiz Felipe Scolari last season, one of the main reasons was that he did not have a plan B if plan A did not work. If Barcelona’s plan A does not work, which happens quite rarely, they execute plan A even harder.
President Joan Laporta and the Barcelona supporters need not worry at this point. Barcelona is on top of La Liga and their congested group in the Champions League. No team will sail through a season without some difficulties, and these recent struggles might be for the best because if Barcelona started to believe in their own accolades, Pep Guardiola will surely point to their performances against Almería, Valencia, and Rubin Kazan. Even when Barcelona was at their best, Guardiola kept them on level ground. The players will listen to him, and they will rise from this temporary setback.
Saques de Esquina:
- With a three-goal lead at Stuttgart, Sevilla FC resorted to time-wasting tactics that an inferior team would do if it could earn a point away from home. Really? Stuttgart did pull a goal back from Élson’s whipping free kick, but Sevilla did not need to act as though they were a Tercera División side in a Copa del Rey tie.
- Hoping to squeak out a last-minute victory over Dynamo Kyiv, Inter Milan manager José Mourinho sent in defender Marco Materazzi as a battering ram forward, similar to what he did at Chelsea when he would use Robert Huth in the same fashion. The thought of Touré Yaya or Federico Fazio acting as emergency strikers should strike fear in the hearts of defenders everywhere.
- Is Jens Lehmann always angry with someone? After Frédéric Kanouté legitimately fell in the penalty box due to a legal sliding challenge from a Stuttgart defender, Lehmann got in Kanouté’s face, likely accusing him of diving. Lehmann seems to thrive in this role, whether he alienates the opposition or his own teammates.