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On Messi’s off day, Xavi rescues Barcelona

Xavi Hernandez

FC Barcelona’s Xavi Hernandez reacts after scoring against against Granada during a Spanish La Liga soccer match at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain, Saturday, Sept. 22, 2012. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)


After being battered all day, Granada had a chance to steal three points from the Nou Camp. They had only seen the ball for one our of every four minutes, but after 83 minutes, the score hadn’t chanced. Barcelona had been held scoreless at home by the 18th-placed them in La Liga.

Tito Vilanova, going for full points, went from four defenders to three, trusting a back line of (left-to-right) Javier Mascherano, Alex Song, and Dani Alves to keep Granada off the board. But in the 84th minute, Mascherano was lax recovering on a counter. Granada attacker Youssef El-Arabi found teammate Fabián Orellana streaking to the middle of Barça’s area. Victor Valdes had to make a point blank stop to keep Barcelona even.

With Barcelona so close to going one down, Real Madrid came to mind. Last week, Los Blancos gave up an early goal in Seville. It was one of Sevilla’s few threats, but it held up. Real lost 1-0, leaving them eight points behind Barcelona. This week, Barça could have suffered a much more embarrassing defeat. Given how slack their defending became, Barcelona was ripe for the upset. But it never came. Barcelona won, 2-0. After five rounds, the Catalans stay perfect thanks to a performance worth three points more than Real Madrid’s effort in Seville.

That’s the cynical way to look at Saturday’s match - focusing on the final minutes. To that point, Barcelona had been dominant, with Granada goalkeeper Toño making more big saves than his team had a right to expect. The most memorable ones came late: getting back to cover an empty goal against Xavi in the 79th minute; later denying Messi as Barcelona countered after Orellana’s chance.

Ultimately, Xavi broke through with something unstoppable, a goal that would be this weekend’s best were it not for Jackson Martínez:

Xavi began the match on the bench, playing only the final 36 minutes after starting mid-week in Champions League. Barcelona had nine shots and no goals before he came on, 11 shots and two goals after. Much of that may have been the teams’ tactics, but Xavi’s numbers are still telling. He completed 60 of 61 attempted passes, a rate of 150 successful passes per 90 minutes (Dani Alves’s 84 was the game-high).

Hernández turns 32 in January, and having racked up a lot of miles as the driving force for both Barcelona and Spain, he may have been pushed into the final phase of his career. His workload needs to be monitored. An heir needs to be identified. But with Andrés Iniesta injured (expected back next week), Barcelona has nobody else that can push them in circumstances like today’s.

By the second half, Granada playing their highest man at the edge of their defensive third. Barcelona needed somebody who could quickly work the ball around, kneading the opposition, knowing when to switch a ball to take advantage of a stretched defense. None of Thiago Alcantera, Sergio Busquets, or Cesc Fábregas were providing that.

The whole situation had Lionel Messi in a bad mood. After scoring two key goals on Wednesday, Messi was shut out on Saturday. In the first half, he had trouble syncing up with his midfield and fellow attacker David Villa, verbally showing his displeasure with each. Messi also got into multiple altercations with Granada defenders. He came close to a goal numerous times (and played the ball that forced a second, own goal), but Messi was just as likely to hold the ball too long amongst multiple defenders as he tried to force action in the second half.

Both in performance and personality, this wasn’t Lionel Messi. The sharpness with which he attacked both teammates and opponents hints something may be changing. Two, three years ago, we wouldn’t have seen those outbursts, and while they were mild compared to some of the game’s worst personalities, Messi’s words were sharp enough to create confrontations with Villa and Granada defender Iñigo López.

Perhaps Barcelona’s success has raised his expectations. Perhaps that same success has created frustration with how he’s typically defended. Regardless, Messi’s attitude ran counter to our perceptions. Now 25 years old, perhaps Messi’s developed into more than a soft-spoken superstar.