It isn’t the exact midway point of the season, but it’s close enough where we can start to examine some things, look forward and look back with anger, sadness, happiness and any other emotion you can think of.
Obviously, the most dominant thing this season has been Broken Messi. He first picked up the injury against Paris St.-Germain on their potato field last season, re-aggravated it, then re-re aggravated it. Finally, it tweaked a good one, and Messi took 8 weeks off to rehab a hamstring that didn’t take 8 weeks to heal. So what the hell?
It was more than Messi’s hamstring that was broken. Longtime Barça watchers could see that something was missing in Messi, and had been since the Milan remundada of last season. What that was, it was and is impossible to say, but the joy was absent, the fire and spark that made him not only a remarkable player, but a joyful one.
We do know that it doesn’t take 8 weeks to heal a hamstring, unless somehow the muscle tears itself away from the bone. This, of course, leads to speculation about what is really wrong with Messi. For me, it’s nothing that rest … real rest, and a proper pre-season couldn’t cure. And that, my friends, is what takes 8 weeks. No jetting around on moneygrubbing junkets to Asia and other countries, no Messi and Friends charity matches and more jetting around. Just home cooking, familiar trainers and a gradual relighting of the wick.
Some speculate that this break was part of a pre-arrangement between Messi and the club, that in looking at the calendar of matches, the 8 or so that would occur during his break period were matches that could be managed without him. People who suggest this point to the fact that he didn’t really look at all stressed or impaired when he came off when he was last injured. Who knows? What I know is that for the first time in a long time, we have a fully rested, refreshed Lionel Messi, ready to come back for his club.
And yes, let’s not kid ourselves. Messi wants to win a World Cup. Badly. This break is well timed in that he returns daisy-fresh, will play his way into fitness, looking at the summer as well as the rest of the season, as part of his preparations. I do know one thing … I don’t want to be the opponent that will be facing this Messi. Can’t wait.
Psychologically, this season has been a mess. It began with a cherished player, Eric Abidal, being jettisoned, amid tears and eventual recriminations. Then there was the decision not to replace, or add to the defense at all, counting on the return of Carles Puyol from his elevendyteenth surgery on something or other. But we weren’t finished. Then came the Neymar signing and the speculation/late-night drama/funny money, the Tito Vilanova relapse, resignation and the installation of Tata Martino (WHO??!!) as the coach of Barça.
While Martino was getting ready, Jordi Roura was leading the club on its money-grabbing, frequent flier mile building pre-season.
Then the season began and instead of things calming down, they got crazier. Trainers left, other trainers were promoted and wee Iniestas weren’t happy, manifesting itself in the player talking about a missing “feeling” that was affecting the pace and his willingness to sign a renewal deal.
Messi was re-knocked, and the talk started about things not being the same, the physios were slacking, Martino was slacking, everybody was slacking. Then the Messi camp had to issue a statement about how everything was the same, and shit just happens, so shut up. That this was something that the club should have said, probably was part of the later furor, as ire over a slight began to fester.
Then came more injuries, including Alves, Xavi, Valdes, Puyol and residual knee pain, Alba, etc, etc. And everyone began to wonder if this season was going to be like last season, derailed by physical infirmity. But there was plenty to distract, as for the first time since the pyramids of Egypt were built, Barça lost the possession stats battle to an opponent. Yes, the club won 4-1, but that wasn’t the point. What was that new coach doing? The talk began: end of a era, club that lost its way, clueless coach not ready for big stage, etc, etc.
Meanwhile the club was winning, setting and breaking records, leading the Liga and all that stuff. But none of it mattered, because things were different. Then came a loss, in a fundamentally meaningless match at Ajax, and the talk began. Then the next Liga match, against Athletic, resulted in another loss, and the world stopped spinning as the long knives came out.
And that wasn’t even the fun part, which came as Javier Faus, a member of the Barça board, was asked about Messi no longer being the best paid footballer in the world. Faus replied that essentially, the club shouldn’t have to review contracts that were just signed for an employee.
Then came the story, from a couple of hacks for a Madrid-based entity, that Messi’s father, Jorge, might possibly maybe allegedly (wink, wink!) be under investigation for laundering drug money as part of some shady ticket sales from charity football matches. The club was silent. And while Messi was off in Argentina, recovering from whatever he was recovering from, stuff was about to get real as the oral phase of Messi’s rehabilitation began.
The salvo came, with all barrels blazing, as Messi said in a radio interview that Faus doesn’t know football and tries to run the club like a business, and the best club in the world deserves a board of the same quality, that the club is trying to say I’m greedy when nobody in my camp asked for a raise of any kind. Ka-BOOM!
Faus has been quiet since then, but the board is showing that it has learned. Rosell called BS on the Messi family allegations. Other board members said “By cracky, we won’t sit still while the integrity of our meal ticket is being impugned,” and Rosell said, basically, that Messi can have all the money he wants, that he will be The Man for as long as I am president, blablabla.
Shortly after that, Jorge Messi came out to say that his son loves Barça, is tied to the club in a way that mere mortals could never envision, and he isn’t going anywhere. And that is all we will have to say about that.
If someone had told me, after all of this, the injuries, the failure to secure a quality replacement for lost quality in Abidal (and Puyol), that the club would be topping the Liga, still in contention for Copa glory and tops in its Champions League group, I would have laughed so hard that I would have needed hospitalization.
And yet, this is what has happened.
There are two ways of looking at the present state of things: We’re doomed! This is the culer way. Others are saying, “Lordy, if them there boys went through all that, and are still in the position they are in, and just whomped their last opponent 2-5, sky’s the limit. Because what the hell ELSE could go wrong?”
While we have been squabbling about stadiums, root causes of Messi’s injury, Faus comments and broadsides from geniuses, a coach who was allegedly not ready to coach at the top level, has been doing a wonderful job, for so many reasons:
— Injuries and distractions
— Inadequate roster
— Learning as he went along
— Needing to rotate because of the roster inadequacies
In the 17 different Liga matches, there have been 17 different lineups. There has been that rare beast, rotation. And real rotation, as Martino simply leaves players who are on rotation, out of the roster. Rest. Real rest. The team has also been experimenting with new ways to play and win matches. Almost all of them have worked, even as there have been glitches, which people have chosen to focus on, more than the result. And in a kind of “wait til your father gets home” worldview, the NEXT opponent has always been the one.
“Yeah, they were supposed to beat Levante. Wait til Champions League starts. Well, they’re doing okay, but wait til they play Celtic. Well, they won, but wait until the Classic, THEN we’ll see. Well, RM is in a down cycle, and not themselves, wait until … AHA! Manchester City?”
Meanwhile, the club moves toward the second half of the season in exceptional shape. Players are rested, discord is dissolving and its best player is fresh, healed and raring to go. Two young players, in Neymar and Marc Bartra, have been brought along perfectly. Both are ready to assume their roles as present and future. The team has filtered out the noise and has joined ranks, as players have said “There are attacks from outside that are trying to mess with this team. We can’t allow it, and we don’t like it.”
Statements such as these means that the club not only has talent and quality, but it has a purpose, a reason to unite against a common enemy: the world. From press to pundits ready to bury them to opponents such as Toure Yaya who spout bollocks about Barça being afraid of Manchester City.”
To my view, this club is ready to start kicking the hell out of some people. Pedro typified the attitude on Sunday. Two early goals against sent social media into a tizzy, as people who should know better were already chalking up a loss. Meanwhile, Pedro scored a lovely goal, ran to retrieve the ball with a face and actions that said quite clearly, “Yeah, whatever … we have more work to do.” And the team proceeded to score four more without conceding another, and that was that.
Into that team that has coalesced into a fist, comes the best keeper in the world and the best attacking player in the world. Even as culers, who have mastered the art of pessimism, clutch worry beads and see portents of doom, the only portents I see are of a club that is going to round itself into shape, and then we will see what we have.
If Messi returns, the team gets lazy and returns to business as usual, passing the ball to Messi and hoping for the best, the aftershocks from my facepalm will verge on seismic. This team has a fight on its hands. Atleti isn’t going to go away, and RM is there in third place, ready to pounce on any error. Meanwhile, an immense test is coming up in Champions League. This has been, and will be a difficult season, and no time for business as usual.
YouTube sensation, Nikemar, Robinho II, you name it … the 57 million signing had some big hurdles to leap before he would be anything except scoffed at by many. Didn’t need him, wrong signing, too expensive, should have used that money for a defender went the cries.
And Martino brought him along slowly, with substitute roles that allowed him to watch how the team played, to understand that Barça isn’t the Brazil NT, that he isn’t The Man here but part of a team of champions. And as he played more, he went from “whoa!” to electric to incendiary, from making mountains out of contact molehills to leaping to his feet and getting on with it, from a YouTube sensation to one of the stars on what for many is still the best team in the world. … And he isn’t even fully integrated yet, as the rapport that was building between he and Messi was derailed by the latter’s injury.
Martino intimates that we haven’t even seen the best of Neymar, that we have been seeing a tired, beat-up player because of the Confederations Cup, all the travel with Brazil and other stuff.
My view on Neymar was always let’s wait and see but potentially, he is exactly the kind of signing that we need, because Messi needed help, because being the best player in the world wasn’t enough any longer, because teams had learned that only Messi was going to beat them. In Neymar, that destructive force in an area where such a force was needed, on the left side, is exactly what the doctor ordered.
I absolutely love this picture of Busquets, and not just because he is doing to Van Persie what so many of us would like to. It shows a player who is evil, who will do anything to win. Dude is naaaasty. So when you take that mentality, and couple with an astounding skill set, what you have is a player who is arguably the best in the world at his position, even as he has no analog.
I would have to call this year Annus Busquetus, in that it’s the year that the world came around to what a remarkable player he is. Some had been saying it all along, but this year, the tributes, articles and videos are coming like wildfire. To the player’s credit, he has improved and grown in stature under Martino, as the coach understands that the roles of Xavi and Iniesta need to change in the face of how the team is being attacked. So Busquets has gone from octopus and reset button to another midfield attacker. People who said “Busquets would be amazing if he started passing the ball forward,” were right.
Who doesn’t remember the furor when Toure Yaya was sold to make Busquets the one. What was crazy then is genius now.
That said …
The failure of our team’s technical staff to reinforce the defense in a meaningful way verges on criminal. People, including me, said “If the team presses in the right way, defenders become less important.” We, I, was wrong, mostly because of a simple oversight: Eric Abidal made everything possible. Alves could get caught out of position, Pique could go on psychic walkabout, Puyol could fireman his way into trouble, because Abidal was human white out. “What error? I fixed it.” From sideline to sideline, he just fixed stuff. The loss of that created problems that haven’t been solved, problems that can’t be solved with a press because the defense no longer has that eraser.
Complicating matters is that Puyol returned from his knee rehab, ready for his gold watch. Our Capita was left out of the Getafe squad for “technical reasons.” We all know what that means, and it’s sad. It also creates another hole in our defense, and that’s just the physical hole.
Psychologically, Pique has become the elder statesman, but he needs competition. Neymar made Pedro better, made Sanchez better, as they have to play for a spot in the XI. Iniesta will have to raise his game, and is showing signs of returning to his brilliant self. Competition improves the breed. That Pique is our best CB is a problem, because he seems to be a player who needs pressure. All coaches, including ours, talk about pressure from equals as an improvement program. Look at what Jordi Alba did for Adriano, by way of another example.
It will be a significant error if the club does not add a quality defender to the roster in January. Board members have said that barring a significant injury, the club plans to sign no one. I wonder if the injury to the pride of lion counts as significant? If the board doesn’t sign anyone, and our Capita can find it in his legs to get through the next half-season with something approaching the quality that we know from him, the board will look like they got it right. If not, they will look stupid, even more stupid than it did in the summer. It will also create a potential frailty that could cost the team on the biggest stages.
Here’s hoping, and here’s looking forward.