Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you the most important player in this Sunday’s El Clasic ….
No, not the one in the foreground, the one in the background, leaning forward as if to say “Who, me?” Yes, you, Cesc Fabregas. Isaiah will be in the house later with a proper preview. But here are a few thoughts to tide you over, and maybe winnow their way into your brain pan like one of those awful pop songs.
For me, this is a great image because it depicts the world exactly as all of our opponents see it: Messi, with everyone else in soft focus, in the background. Which is, for us, a good thing. For me, Fabregas will be the most important player on the pitch Sunday because, even more than Pedro!, he is our Random Chaos Generator. He’s in the box, he’s in midfield, he’s working give/gos from the wing, he’s everywhere, even as he is all too often nowhere. He’s an at-times frustrating player who is enjoying a marvelous run of form right now.
He is also a player who benefits from the exertions of others, whether it’s a perfect pass, or latching onto a wayward or deflected ball. In many ways this is good, because the less Fabregas thinks, the better he is. And make no mistake, this Clasic will, as so many other have, be decided by instinct — reactions of great players at times where there is no time to react. Shoot first, think later.
Today’s Barca is more like the championship Chicago Bulls than ever before, even down to the Jordan/Messi rules. Foul him if you have to, just don’t let him kill you. No layups/tap-ins. Make the other players beat you. There was that first remarkable year in which the Bulls coalesced; Scottie Pippen played defense and made key shots, Horace Grant claimed every rebound, so that Michael Jordan didn’t have to do that as well, John Paxson and B.J. Armstrong ran the attack, to give Jordan time without the ball, and Jordan’s stats decreased even as the Bulls became an infinitely more dangerous team.
The winning goal, in the club’s last three matches, hasn’t been scored by Messi, which is a glorious thing. I can’t begin to imagine the headaches that Mou Mou is dealing with right now, because Sanchez scored in the last match, as did Fabregas. Villa killed Sevilla, and Pedro! is always there, ready to pounce. Last season at the Camp Nou, Sanchez was just coming back from yet another injury, Pedro! was still pedro, Villa was knocked and Fabregas was mired in a funk. We were easy to play. “Stop that little dude.”
What makes Fabregas so huge? He will be the one plying the margins, nibbling at the edges of the spaces left by a team determined to fall on the grenade that is Messi. And there will be opportunities for him, as there have always been. Of late, he has been converting them, as he did in the first part of last season. His conversion will be crucial, as Jose Mourinho has determined, as has every other coach scheduled to play FCB for as long as the present No. 10 is doing his thing, that Lionel Messi is not going to kill my club.
It is this determination that makes Fabregas become The Thing.
Xavi in Friday’s presser: “Nosotros representamos al Barça, que a su vez representa a Catalunya y estaremos al lado de lo que los catalanes quieran” (“We represent the club, which in turn represents Catalunya, and we stand behind what Catalans want.”
Now, at that same presser, Xavi said: “Intentarem aïllar-nos de temes extraesportius. La gent que s’expressi com vulgui. Vivim en una democràcia.” (We will try to stay clear of issues extraneous to the match. But people express themselves as they wish. We live in a democracy.”
These two statements fascinate the hell out of me, responses to questions rooted in the simple reality that this Clasic is mes que un match, suddenly.
Clasics are a lot of things, and yes, there is always an undercurrent of politics in them, rooted in the legacies of both clubs. But this is the most overtly political Clasic that I can remember in a long time. Independencia has taken real root, spurred by a very difficult economic situation. Calls have gone up for demonstrations during the match, and the club will use the above mosaic, which will mean a great many things to a great many people: Independencia!, Catalunya is not Spain, the club is for us, a REAL return to Mes Que Un Club-ness, or insert your own meaning.
Xavi, in replying to two questions about the matter, made his views clear. No, every teammate doesn’t feel the same way. It’s a pretty safe bet that among non-Catalans, sentiment varies in importance and intensity. This is probably true even among the Catalan players. But make no mistake, there will be extra spice in the match Sunday, as the white-clad Imperial storm troopers storm the Nou System to take on the Rebel Alliance.
It’s this kind of match: I already have my clothes planned for Sunday’s viewing with the Chicago Penya: Catalunya home shirt, bronze soci pin centered at the breastbone, and Barca scarf.
Yes, this match is only 3 points, as Mourinho said, and as he has always said. And he’s right, even as his breakdown reduces things to their most simplistic. Yes, unless RFEF does math in the same way they ajudicate red-card appeals (two-match ban for Medel, even as they found that there was no head butt), a win or loss is only 3 points.
But there is a LOT riding on this match. You can only imagine how fierce the celebrations will be if we win (which I believe we will, but I always do), how despondent the post-mortems will be if we lose.
Mou Mou came to the Lair of Evil as much to beat Pep Guardiola as to beat FCB. And that was any way that he could: fouling, stifling, mucking up, anything. And last season, he got his wish, not only winning but watching his rival leave the field of battle. Whether this will mean a less-intense Clasic remains to be seen, but there just isn’t the same animus, the same notion of an unholy war with Tito Vilanova. How that lack of personal spice/animus will manifest itself on the pitch is still to be seen. The SuperCopas were rather different, but they didn’t really count for much.
Does this match? Yes. 3 points. On Monday morning, we will either be 11 points ahead of them, or 5 points ahead. 3 points that, in the context of this titanic match, mean so much and so little.