*But not really.
Today, FC Barcelona will play an immense match, one of the biggest that the club has played in a looong time. In this Champions League knockout clash against Manchester City, the players return to the scene of a psychological crime, so to speak. Last year a bruised, battered, injured, exhausted team with a broken superstar and a cancer-battling coach got stomped by a German juggernaut, a hiding so decisive that it’s a wonder the club didn’t sell everyone and start over.
Fin de siecle!
Tika taka is crap, Xavi is past it, Barça can’t compete physically, need a Plan A, never mind a Plan B, the False 9 is dead, the defense sucks …
Over the course of two matches, a group of players about whom there previously was no doubt morphed into a bungling, inept passel of buffoons who were one set piece away from imploding and dissolving into dust.
And now, somehow, unfathomably, this team is leading its more difficult than ever domestic league, has made the Copa del Reig final and won its Champions League group to set up a knockout tie with a team of Goliaths from England.
This is the biggest match EVAH because nothing that this wonderful team has done or can do really matters to culers, prognosticators, journalists and assorted dimwits who are practically gibbering with pie-eyed relish at the opportunity to spit on this team’s grave. The ghost chains rattle and a spectral moan cuts through the Catalan skies: Bayyyerrrrrnnnnn!
There is an opportunity for redemption, for this team to say “Hey, we’re fit this year, our coach is healthy, and last year was an aberration of circumstances, just like we told you fools it was.”
The pressure must be insane … heavy … so weighty it’s a wonder they don’t all just curl into a ball, whimpering and clutching Barça binkies. “It’s okay, little Andres … Mommy will be here in a moment. We’ll call those big kids from Manchester and tell them we aren’t going to show up.”
And yet, in the bright, shining visage of a rotund, bespectacled little man who owns but two sportcoats, there is salvation. Why? Because Tata Martino doesn’t care.
He has a football team to lead. He doesn’t care about narratives, pessimistic culers or journalists. He doesn’t care about people who if his team wins 10-0 today would say “Well, City really isn’t that good, not as good as they were, wait til they play a real team or … Baaaaayyyerrrrrnnnn!”
What’s more he can’t care, because here is what today’s football match really is: a round of 16 knockout tie first leg, an away leg in this year’s Champions League. Last year is over, this year is here and Martino, who is as pragmatic as any coach you will encounter, will play this match for precisely what it is … a stage-setter for the return leg.
Tata Martino doesn’t care because he knows better than anyone blabbering about what tactics he needs to use or he’s an idiot, what players he shouldn’t play or he’s an idiot, what formation he shouldn’t employ or he’s an idiot. He knows who is in form, he knows what Manchester City will most likely do, and he has expectations of the players he is going to start today. Like most disciples of Bielsabub, he has analyzed, worried, played out and tried to think of everything even as he knows that in a second, all of the plans can go haywire.
Today, Tata Martino has one of the worst jobs in the world because almost no matter what happens, he will be wrong.
And facing that mountain of doubt, worry, vicarious living through a couple dozen pint-sized millionaires, it is pointless for Tata Martino to care, because he has a tie to win. No, not a match to win, though if circumstances allowed such a thing, he would gladly take it. No, he has a two-match tie to win, and he has an idea of how to do it.
He rested Xavi on the weekend, so we can speculate that even though the old man is past it and should have been put out to pasture years ago, can’t defend, can’t deliver through balls, can’t really do much of anything except backpass or slide the ball laterally, Tata Martino will start Xavi because he knows the people who say such things are rather silly.
Martino, in yesterday’s presser, stressed possession. Possession is how Barça defend ultimately, and possession means Xavi. Possession will probably mean Pedro, even as culers snarl when he makes a little run at a defender then passes the ball back to midfield. He does that because that is the right thing to do in the context of sustaining match control. It will assuredly mean Busquets and Iniesta, men who can keep control of the ball in a hurricane.
It will probably also mean that the team will come out and play in a way that will inspire shrieking, accusations, whining and speculative bollocks as the match progresses. And though it all, Tata Martino won’t care, because he has a job to do: play today’s match and hope his plans work in a way that make the tie winnable, that set everything up for that return leg at home. Period.
Tata Martino isn’t a fool. He understands what has gone before, the pressure, the expectations of people who say that Manchester City will destroy Barça just as Bayern did, the people who actually NEED that to happen because it makes everything so much easier. He gets all of that.
But he is the perfect man for this team, and this job today precisely because he doesn’t care.