We are living in a rare and glorious time, one in which cules who have suffered through lean years, various funkiness and close but no cigar kinds of seasons, can bask in the amazing glow of 6, count ’em six trophies in less than 12 months.
Staggering. But even in that time, there have been highlights. Here are my Top Ten:
10. Grinderball. Last season was all about flash, dash and champagne football gaudy scorelines and giggles all ’round. This year, we are getting every team’s best match, and we’ve learned to just win, baby. Because sometimes, this game is about the strategy, the not letting the other side score and working out some way, any way, to get a goal. Last season, it was pretty easy to coach. Just turn the horses loose. This year is hard. And still, we win.
9. Keiteeee!. When we signed the Mali international from Sevilla at roughly the same time that we signed Dani Alves, there was a lot of head scratching, because at the time we had a jam-packed midfield. And the man who I nicknamed “Huh? What?” for the perpetually startled expression on his face, didn’t really do a ton to alleviate the itchy noggins. But this year, he has become the box-to-box destroyer, the dude who pops up in the oddest places, even grabbing a hat trick this season, and scoring key goals. Our midfield became less busy, and players such as Aleksaner Hleb and Eidur Gudjohnsen said farewell to the Camp Nou. And people wondered about our depth, wondered where the goals would come from, forgetting that Monument and Hlebster weren’t exactly pouring them in. Keita has made his name this season, and become the player that now makes it very clear, usually every time that he plays, precisely why we signed him.
8. Heigh ho, silver!. We ground out a hard-fought win against a determined Shakhtar Donetsk, in a UEFA SuperCup final that showed what we would be facing all season: A club that dug in to defend, ready to take counterattacking chances whenever it could, clogging up the midfield and making rushes up the wings. Still, we persevered, and grabbed our second piece of significant silverware of the season.
7. Barca conquers Spain. I actually rate the Spanish SuperCup a position higher than the UEFA SuperCup, not because it was a foregone conclusion that we were going to defeat Athletic Bilbao (we did). But it was the way in which we did it, a performance that showed grit, determination and the kind of willingness to go to war for what we wanted. Bilbao didn’t have to roll over, and they didn’t. But none of that mattered, as we took care of business in a very workmanlike way. The deciding leg was defined by The Walk, as Bojan Krkic rounded the Bilbao keeper and, cheeky grin in place, strolled the ball into the Bilbao net. The two legs were a bit more difficult than the final scorelines let on, and because there were doubts about our club and how it was going to play, it made this first award of the season all the more delightful to grab. It was a sign of things to come, and a clear answer to those who doubted this club’s resolve to pick up where it left off.
6. The full flower of Xavi. We saw signs of it last season, and over the summer’s Confederation Cup, a tournament that, though it didn’t result in the expected victory for Spain, solidified the position of Xavi as, for many, the best player in the world. This season, he’s had it more difficult than ever, as teams have decided that the way to defeat us is to control Xavi. He’s been man marked, double teamed, fouled, and had players just stand in front of him, to not only cut off passing angles, but deny their very existence. Through it all, he’s been the glue that has held the incessant, inexorable attack together, with slide rule balls that find the feet of those who worship at the altar of Tika-Taka. He’s had off matches, and hasn’t been as dominant as he was last season. But even without Iniesta in full flower, he’s played like the man who many believed should have been world player of the year.
5. Messi became a leader. Talk about Messidependence all you like, but when Guardiola threw down a gauntlet, saying to our Petit General “This is your club, now what are you going to do with it,” he responded by returning early, ready to roll, and throwing down. He gets fouled more than any other player in the Liga, and usually gets up and keeps on going, because that’s the only way that he knows how to play. He’s essentially a little thug, who bullies with grace, control, balance and a desire to beat you, any way that he can, even headers, or a chested ball.
4. The emergence of Pedro!. That exclamation point ain’t for fun, kids. In a season in which Henry has been plagued with the shits, we needed a difference maker, someone to take advantage of the space created by the spearhead of our attack. Not only has Pedro! done that, but he has scored a goal in every major competition in which we’ve played, and HUGE ones. He had the winner in the UEFA SuperCup, and the match tying goal in the Club World Championship. P! is magic.
3. Club World Champions. We were two minutes away from going down to a determined, hard-fighting Estudiantes, and then a lucky bounce and a Pedro! lofted header later, it was tied. Then, toward the end of the second extra time period, a perfect Alves long pass found the chest of Messi, and it was jubilation. We wept with Pep Guardiola, and celebrated this club’s spot in history as one of the greatest of all time. 6 major trophies. His chest?? No way.
2. The signing of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The debate in this space was vehement and at times, vicious. We sent Samuel Eto’o and a pigpile of Euro notes to Milan, for Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Oodles of goals for scads of potential. And for the record, I am a non-violent Buddhist, but I will take anybody on in a cage match over my contention that this was a good deal. His talent staggers, as a strong, flexible giant with ball control and passing skills like a midfielder. He’s already done some absurd tricks, made some astounding plays and scored some key goals. And he’s just finding his way. Any cule in his right mind who doesn’t love and respect what Eto’o did for the club is not in his right mind. But Ibrahimovic is, for my money, a completely different animal, because his talent and creativity match those of our attacking brain trust. And the impossible isn’t any longer.
1. El Clasic, 29 November, 2009. And not just because I was there. The Evil Empire went out and purchased an array of talent, spending north of 300 million to secure a team that would upset us. And with a strike that you could hear throughout the stadium, and a man-style performance from our defense, we tore up that limitless line of credit, and scattered it to the Catalan winds. A perfect pass met a perfect strike, then we closed out the match with a note. “Next time, spend a bit more money.”
So there you have it, my Top 10 things of the season so far. Will there be more? I’m betting on it, as there are more trophies to be won, more legends to be had. Now let’s hear it from you, folks. It’s Go Time.