This is a guest post by Lev.
I live in South America. One of the many charms of my chosen stomping grounds are the many camionetas clogging our streets, avenues and highways. Taking their cue from this continent and its people they come in a wide assortment of colors, with black fumes blowing out of their tail pipes and from under their hoods and with reggeaton invariably blasting out of pimp-my-ride style speakers that are strategically placed from the driver seat all the way to the back of the bus.
They are filled with street (or should I say bus) vendors that try to sell you anything from toasted plantain chips to facial cream to books that teetch inglés, rappers free-styling for loose change, beggars that threaten to rob you, robbers that threaten to kill you and, somewhat less exciting but definitely the majority, your usual assortment of people like you and me that go to work in the morning and strive to get back home in a (often disappointingly un-) timely fashion – whether it takes sitting on the floor instead of a seat, standing in the aisle staring into some fat lady’s sweating arm pit or hanging out of the door going 120 on a potholed freeway.
As you can imagine, throughout the years I have learned a thing or two about buses, of which the most relevant to our club are the following:
2. Buses are bound to break
Our line-up was Valdés, Adriano, Mascherano, Bartra, Alba, Song, Xavi, Iniesta, Pedro, Messi, Sanchez. We went into Tuesday night’s encounter without Busquets, who served the first of a two game suspension after his red card against Benfica, and without our four first choice defenders. This meant that Song got to play in his natural position as a holding midfielder and also that, some will say finally, Bartra got his first start in an official game.
Barça gained possession almost immediately after Celtic kicked off, tiki-taka’d the ball around for a minute or two when Iniesta put Alexis in front of the keeper with an inch-perfect pass. It was at that precise moment that Mr. Sanchez started a collective effort at making the game infinitely more complicated than it should have been by squandering his one-on-one, finessing the shot just left of the goal post.
I don’t like it when we miss such a clear cut scoring chance within the opening minutes in the exact same way that I don’t like it when right when I am about to take the well-anticipated first bite of my deliciously prepared turkey and mayo sandwich it slips out of my hands and falls on the floor. An ominous omen of things to come, some might say. A definite sign that today is not going to be my day, according to others. Up against a conspiring universe, this game is not going to be our game.
And sure enough, up steps Mascherano. Wait. Rewind. It is not fair to blame our little boss for what happened. Xavi’s corner finds Messi, who controls the ball and who you know is looking for one of those diagonal passes that is both a lob and a through ball at the same time that he has damn near patented. He finds it. Zoom to Ghostface, who one-touches it to Bartra, whose header is stopped by Forster, the Celtic goalkeeper who is not having it today, not at all. A finger licking combination, for sure. Or more elegantly, in the words of Xavi Hernandez, ¡Que puta jugada!* And BOOM – Celtic rush forward for what seems like the first time in 17 minutes. All of a sudden it is three on three and looking dangerous when thankfully Adriano intercepts to snuff out the danger. However, as if he is guilt-stricken by killing off the first Scottish attack of the game he gives the ball away like a headless chicken running straight back into the hands of farmer Jones on Thanksgiving morning.
We resort to a foul and give them a free shot at our Achilles heel: the set-piece. Hide your children and fire at will.
The ball is swung into the box, Samaras gives it a nudge, upon which the ball deflects off of Mascherano and into the goal. Celtic fans worldwide go ballistics, thoughts of beating the world’s best team (yes, I said it) rising in their minds like Guiness stout. It is important to note here that our tackling Argentine terrier was, in this case, really unfortunate. The poor guy now has two own goals behind his name while not having scored in the proper net for more than two seasons, which must be some kind of record – at least for an F.C. Barcelona player. More pertinently we suck at defending set pieces. More accurately it’s an open secret that we have sucked at defending set pieces for years and without Puyol, Pique and Abidal to hold the fort against a gang of giant leprechauns, well…Let’s just say I did not come here to sing the blues. At 0-1 for the white and greens we still have more than 70 minutes to go. Not my day? Hmmpf! Not our game? We’ll see about that.
For the rest of the first half we are in complete control. Celtic defends with 9 players. Cowardly, according to some. Bravely, according to others. Besides the point, according to me, because either way we know that we are trying to steer our Ferrari around a parked bus, the parking of which admittedly from the bus driver’s point of view is a better strategy than trying to race us on foreign grounds.
We continue like it ain’t no thing. Our new free kick specialist narrowly misses two free kicks. Forster saves a long range effort from Adriano. Bartra, nodding wide another wide open header, fails his second attempt of scoring on his debut as a starter and by doing so also fails to make my day and probably that of a whole host of culés rooting for him (raise your hands, I know you’re there). Celtic keeps defending. They don’t even threaten to threaten and just when the lack of action
gets to the point of where you might start to get antsy, when the first half is almost about to finish, when hope of going into the break even Steven is faltering, when you start thinking “uhmmmm, errrrrrrr, aaaaargh, maybe this isn’t our game”, Messi sets up Xaviniesta to combine for a goal that most teams can’t pull off against practice cones. Jefecito 1 – Don Andrés 1. Patience. Buses are bound to break.
Half time is spent happily talking about the game at the Riazor just three days earlier. We know what is coming in the second half. We are up against a sturdy, green and white bus that came to our house and, apart from the occasional forward spurt, is only too proud to sit on our lawn for 90 minutes. We have to stay patient. And we have to pass, get open, tiki, taka, up the tempo, play our game, stay sharp and keep an eye on the counter attack. Thank God today we don’t have to score another goal today. This is the Champion’s League group stage and we are on top of the table. It
is not a must-win scenario. We can relax and enjoy the game, which, in an era of frenzied Madrid-Barça hatred rivalry where we can’t drop points in the Liga games, is fine by me.
But it hurts to lose, so when we give up an uncontested header that is only narrowly missed, again from a set piece (!), I can’t help but scream a little. Patience. We dominate possession and create plenty of chances. Leo lobs the ball just over. Iniesta and Adriano try from outside the box. Forster channels his inner Cech and blocks two close range efforts of Messi (total surprise) and another one from Sanchez (complete lack of surprise). With 10 minutes to go Doctor Vilanova inserts Tello and Villa, taking out Lexis and Pedrito. It’s the first time this season that he does not switch to a 3-4-3 formation in order to win the game – maybe because of our makeshift defense or possibly because it is clearly ok to draw this one. We don’t need the points. However, if there is one thing we have learned so far this season it is that we definitely want the wins, so we keep pressing the bhoys so far back it seems they are defending with almost 10 players in the box.
Buses are bound to break. Time is ticking, but you know the goal is going to come, you can feel it, you can sense it. We are getting closer and closer. And then it happens. Iniesta gets the ball to Villa. One of the greatest decisions of the 21st century has been to not feed el Guaje regularly over the summer of 2012 because now that he is back he’s hungrier than ever. Tightly guarded he receives the ball, and yet without a fraction of a doubt he blasts an unstoppable shot to the bottom right corner that leaves Forster totally, completely and utterly chanceless… Right on the post! That was the one! That was the one that got away. ¡Eso era el gol! people scream from behind me, and not for the first time either this second half.
Because that’s the way the game goes. After having the ball 82% of the time. After 27 shots against 6, according to the stats (I counted 3, but I’m probably wrong and the stats are probably right). After 15 times as many corners as our opponent. After all of this, victory is not guaranteed. Not even a draw is. Because unless your team is Deportivo de la Coruña, goals guarantee victories, and you can’t miss a plethora of wide open scoring opportunities and expect to walk away with three points. We know that Celtic, or any other team for that matter, can score against us, can beat us, can shut us out. This is football. This is our game, and it’s the one we love and this is Barça, our team, the one we love perhaps more than the game itself. We are not infallible. We are the best team in the world, but not on any given day. In football you can actually be the best team on any given day and still draw or even lose the game. When that happens, all that remains is to smile that bittersweet smile, knowing that though we might walk away empty-handed our hearts are filled with pride.**
Last season that would have been the last paragraph. Some things are just not meant to be, and you often feel it coming at the start. Call it the dropped sandwich theory if you will, but it’s still just a theory. In reality we had one more shot. We were patient, we never gave up, and in the 94th minute Jordi Alba, who ran up and down the pitch relentlessly for the whole game, got his toes on an Adriano cross and willed the 28th shot into the goal.
What this means, I don’t know. It could be luck. Only 6 months ago we came up against a blue double-decker from London for two games not unlike this one, in which we played well and repeatedly found plenty of cracks that we failed to exploit, which I felt then and feel now was a lack of luck. What I do know is that we have a group of players a lot of whom are culés just like us or, truth be told, more than us actually, and that are determined to win games. Determined to make
their own luck. Who die hard like Bruce Willis. Who have mostly won everything there is to win but seem hungrier than ever. Thanks to whom I took my bus home with a smile on my face on Tuesday. For that I am grateful, and I would like to leave you with two quotes:
Zubizarreta: “When Villa hits the post and you look at your watch, you think: that’s it. But this team has always something left.”
Vilanova: “I admit I wouldn’t mind having a calm game one day.”***
*Xavi might not have actually said that
**I don’t always smile the bittersweet smile. Depending on the importance of the game I am also
known to pout the boyish pout or even grimace the bitter grimace.
***If it continues like this he will age faster than Pep.