A wise man once said that every disadvantage gives you an advantage.
Your laptop stopped working? Go get that Macbook you always wanted! Got a head-crunching hangover after spending the whole night drinking? The perfect excuse to miss Sunday mass! Your wife is filing for divorce? Now you can finally hook up with that hot cousin of hers!
It had to happen some day. We were bound to lose eventually. And where else than La Anoeta, the ground where we haven’t won in more than five years. Not even Pep Guardiola, the most victorious manager in the history of our club, conqueror of worlds and slayer of enemies, the man who kicked butt from Rome to Tokyo, had ever left San Sebastian with three points in his pocket.
Doomsayer Tito, he who repeatedly warned us the team would lose sooner rather than later, looked to the skies. VV, Dani Alves, Piqué, Puyol, Busquets, Xavi, Cesc, Pedro, Messi and Iniesta were the stars he favored most. They indeed shone brightly for a good forty minutes, making any other outcome than a win seem unlikely.
So unlikely that when Gonzalo Castro scored to narrow the lead, the first thought that popped in my head was not, “what the hell is our defense playing at?”, but, “good, at least the second half won’t be boring.” Funny how things turn out. We quickly broke out with a beautiful attack that ended with Messi volleying straight at the keeper. It was to be our last shot on goal.
The players who came out of the dressing room were the same as the ones who went in, but their game wasn’t. There was no creativity, no spark and no hunger. While our hosts started the half with something to prove we were seemingly content to go through the motions. After Piqué was sent off upon collecting his second yellow*, Tito called upon Mascherano to fortify the defense, but the dynamics of the game had already changed. Real Sociedad smelled their chance and pounced on it.
Within minutes Busquets prevented a close-ranged shot. Then Victor saved another one. It proved to be only a short delay for an equalizer that was well on its way. Soon “El Chory” Gonzalez was buried underneath his teammates for having scored his second goal of the day. Newly subbed Mascherano took the deflection that Valdés arguably should have done better to save.
Tied at two goals each, with a short half hour left to go for the win. Real Sociedad waited until the last minute to do just that.
We all knew it was coming. Yet no-one saw it coming.
No-one except one. Rewind to the start of the match. Not even a minute had passed and he was already gesticulating wildly and yelling at his defenders, the back of his head still wet from the volley that splashed behind his goal. How ironic that the one screaming his teammates into focus was Victor Valdes.
So what? We are the best team in the Milky Way. We snack on Spaniards and have Basques for breakfast. Done and dusted in forty-five, take a break and come back for rondos. Five minutes after kick-off Messi was alone with the goalkeeper. Four balons d’or are nice, but a Golden Globe is even better. Leo showed off his acting chops by aiming his shot well wide of the goal. The resemblance to Alexis Sanchez was uncanny.
Two minutes later he was back to his modest ways and scored the game’s opener. Cesc’s fabulous step over wrong footed the defense and upon receiving Iniesta’s pass our number 10 showed no forgiveness. 1-0. It was Messi’s first away goal against Real Sociedad, having scored his previous hundred-ninety-seven league goals anywhere but in La Anoeta. A bad omen for the fans clad in white shirts with blue stripes, hoping to keep their undefeated home streak against the blaugrana intact.
Further encouragement came in the form of Pedro, who keeps showing signs of having finally shaken off his goalophobia. First he let off a rocket that exploded on the post, leaving the keeper for dead and several defenders wounded. He then put himself in the right place at the right time to tap in a Dani Alves cross. Up two goals to none after twenty-five minutes.
On any given day against any given team that would have decided the match right then and there. And on this day, against this team, we should have killed any chance they had to get back in to the game. We certainly came close. We jumped up from our bar stools cheering in anticipation when Messi lobbed the keeper. But ooohs turned to aaahs as the ball hit the post, after which it spinned towards crossing the goal line so gently the defenders were almost embarassed to clear it.
Carnaval almost came early when Pedrinho danced through the defense with a sombrero that would have made Ronnie proud. Unfortunately he was denied the chance to finish the move by none other than his own captain, who blasted the ball into the stands. As it turned out, there were three more goals to be scored. Just not where by the team we expected it.
So why did we lose? Why does the same group of players we have seen run their lungs out in order to try to score the fifth goal in the dying minutes of a route, play so lethargically in the last forty-five minutes of a game they are not winning? Have the many games won stilled our hunger? Did our goalkeeper’s announcement that he no longer wants to continue at the Camp Nou effect his teammates’ focus?
Was this a one-off? It seemed that when you have been undefeated for so long, a loss raises so many questions. One week ago I wondered if we had reached our peak. I argued we could still improve. We then played a bad second half against the very same team we dominated a couple of days earlier and we now conceded three consecutive goals for the first time since back in Rijkaard’s days**… Was I wrong? Have we started too well, and are we now on the way down? Are we actually overestimating our team?
Is Bojanuary the new Hlebuary?!?!?
Note to self: calm down. We are still sitting comfortably on top of the league. We are still in both the Copa del Rey and the Champion’s League. We are still the most beautiful football team in the world. We knew we would lose some day. Just not right now, not just yet.
A wise man once said that every disadvantage has its advantage. Maybe losing this game is the best thing that could happen to us. A timely wake up call to remind us not to take every victory for granted. To push the players to the fullfill their incredible potential as we start the second half of the season. To alert our technical staff to our weaknesses. For our team to keep winning, and for us to appreciate when they do, one must never forget that bitter taste of loss. All credit to Real Sociedad for serving us just what we needed.
“Elk nadeel heb z’n voordeel”
Hendrik Johannes Cruijff***
*Gerard Piqué has committed 7 fouls this season and has received 5 yellow cards. Rarely does he receive an unjustifiable yellow, but they are almost always soft and he is never forgiven. Whereas the vast majority of defenders get away with murder, Gerard is one of the cleanest in the game. Still referees just love to book him.
** Theory proved unfounded by resident know-it-all nzm in the comment section below. You go girl!
***a wise man