Pam, pam, pam, pam …
The players move, amoeba-like shapes forming and breaking apart, being chased by other players like a schoolyard game of keep away defined by an incessant rhythm.
Pam, pam, pam, pam …
A lunge, a shove and a press to shift play for a bit, an effort met by an anticipatory trot, like a battle in which one opponent has read the other’s plans, and order is restored.
Pam, pam, pam, pam …
That distinctive sound of a boot-clad foot striking a leather sphere, a situation that lives at the intersection of theory and reality, as practice rondos become match day execution.
Pam, pam, pam, pam …
So much has been written about this match that you wonder whether there is anything more to say, even by a maniac who lives and breathes Barça. And yet, there is because there always is. Beauty is inspiring. In a match where FC Barcelona wasn’t supposed to have a chance against the bigger, stronger players of Manchester City, in a stadium where those colossi doth bestride the earth like goal-thwacking Goliaths, beauty and execution had their way, expressed in that beautiful sound that culers have come to love.
Pam, pam, pam, pam …
The worry, the fretting, the doubt. Has there ever been a more talented team surrounded by so much doubt as this one? Every hurdle, every obstacle is greeted by a “Okay. But wait until …” Manchester City at the Etihad was the latest for a team that has heretofore done everything asked of it: won its Champions League group, beat a big rival in a pre-season trophy clash, beat its historic rival at home in a match that wasn’t as close as the scoreline indicated, is leading its domestic league and has reached the final of the domestic club cup. Everything.
But in a world in which everything isn’t enough, where success is defined by a nebulous psychological comfort that nobody can exactly put a finger on the exact form of, there is always uncertainty. The Way of the Culer is paved with pessimism, but doubt and disbelief are new annexes along that path, rooms built in the sad, angry aftermath of a 7-0 demolition.
Let’s face it. That two-legged tie has defined everything since. The reasons behind it – fatigue, injuries, cancer, a damaged superstar – are by now immaterial, seen as silly excuses by people who don’t want to admit how bad this team is. So it’s not at all surprising that everyone, still suffering the psychic damage of that scoreboard thrashing, is reeling, distrustful of anything good that happens. The team won the league. So what? It lost 7-0 to Bayern. They stomped Rayo 6-0? So what, that was Rayo, wait until Manchester City.
When the Champions League draw happened many, including culers, were already thinking that this would be it, a round-of-16 elimination for very logical reasons, it must be said, stark black-and-white assessments that served as evidence that the light at the end of the tunnel was a blue-clad train.
What others dared to mention, in dark corners lit by the sunlight of hope, was that Barça would do well in this tie because it still has a collection of the best players in the world. Let’s think about this for a moment … what other team has a collection of talent in its starting XI as we do? Start from top to bottom, keeper to forward, and list them: Valdes, Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Alba, Busquets, Iniesta, Xavi, Pedro, Sanchez, Messi. And Neymar comes off the bench! Every last one of them doesn’t just start for his national team. They run that team, star for that team, are integral parts of that team. It’s an enviable collection of talent that, prima facie, should inspire complete trust.
The second guessing began even before the match started. “Fabregas isn’t the right choice.” “Alba AND Alves? What is Martino thinking!” “Mascherano is going to let us down.” “Set pieces, oh, my!”
Then the match, and the rhythm began.
Opponents have a lot more faith in our team than its supporters do and Pellegrini, rather than opting for business as usual, sat back in worry, even in light of the Xavi/Fabregas/Iniesta/Busquets midfield that very clearly had a single mission in mind: keep the ball. And as they sat back the ball circulated, from Sanchez to Messi to Xavi to Fabregas to Iniesta to Xavi to Fabregas to Sanchez to Messi as the players passed and probed. Possession stats climbed, an immaterial number except for those who understand how Barça in fact plays defense.
And then, in a sudden explosion of passing, the Manchester City striker, Negredo, had a chance. The defense did its job in forcing a difficult shot that floated wide of goal, and the rhythm resumed. Xavi was playing as if years younger, slicing through balls to attackers and darting toward the box as Iniesta, Busquets and Fabregas had his back. Iniesta floated into the box as if by magic, then, when you figured he was going to shoot, when a normal attacker would indeed have shot, Iniesta’s heart just didn’t allow him to be so mean like the matador who, in the face of the bull in the ring, decided he just couldn’t put the sword in.
The first half ended scoreless, and without any intimate knowledge of his brain, it isn’t that difficult to imagine that Martino was pretty happy with that. The first leg of a knockout tie has a dual advantage for the away team, in that it doesn’t really NEED to win. It just needs a scoring draw because of the power of the away goals rule. And as the ball moved faster and Manchester City’s defenders began to lunge and get stuck in, it was clear that Barça was at some point in the match, going to score.
Social media was fascinating, because the few attacks that City was able to muster showed some purpose. They got a set piece that was calmly dealt with. Then they got another set piece that, thanks to Valdes making a hash of the clearance, was not so calmly dealt with, even as he was surrounded by his defenders until all was well. But in the Twitterverse, a snapshot of the vox populi, the mood was one of doom. Streaming the match via mobile with Twitter in the other window, it wasn’t all that hard to remain immune to the mood because if you had eyes, the balance of the match was clear. But doubt creates need. “Alves was poor.” Not if you watched the match through something other than that doom-colored shades.
Pique and Mascherano made liars of their doubters, Xavi giggled at the people who want to find a spot for him in the pasture and Alba found somebody his own size to pick on.
For observers with a sense of positive as well as negative history, Tata Martino, a man so many allege is clueless about The Way, erected a shrine to the tactical past, a return to tika taka as a way of defense and limiting chances. You don’t have the ball, which means that you don’t have as many chances. When you don’t have as many chances, what you do with those chances begins to press on you. Valdes stops one, Mascherano snuffs out another, Valdes flicks one away, and that’s that. Because you don’t have the ball, and there’s that damnable sound.
Pam, pam, pam, pam …
Water torture breaks you through inevitability. It’s the next drop, drop after drop, the feeling that the drops are going to continue forever and there is only one way to make them stop. Wait … NO! … here comes another drop. And so, pass after pass, as English-centric commentators nattered about ineffectual possession, you could see the cracks. One player in the box, forcing a defensive intervention. Then another player in the box, forcing yet another intervention. Passing lanes were open where suddenly there weren’t any as that sense of inevitability grew and grew.
Tika taka was revealed for what it was during one elegant sequence early in the second half. One defender was a little less vigilant, alerted to another form of danger, which resulted in his teammate being left in the clutches of a vile combo platter of the team’s most dangerous player and its best attacking player on the night. An explosive run dictated the cutting pass, just as the Barça Way demands, and that victim was exposed. The option was to lunge from behind, in false hope that a defender who is good enough at his best tried to stop the best attacker alive.
Three months ago, Dimichelis might make that play on Messi, whose explosiveness and capabilities were blunted by a succession of injuries. But on this night, fit and in form, the result was a red card and a penalty, duly dispatched by Messi for a 0-1 lead.
Some say that the match changed at this point but it didn’t, really. Not for me. Possession didn’t really change, nor did the sense of looming danger and the effectiveness of typical Barça defending, which intervenes more than stops. And as the match progressed and the sense of necessity multiplied in the minds of the Manchester City players, their spines stiffened as they mounted an assault on our end, including a particularly dangerous attack that, for a few seconds, encapsulated all of the objections to Jordi Alba in the starting XI, never mind the excellent match that he had been enjoying to that point as he removed a key component of the City attack, Jesus Navas, from its quiver of arrows. The defense, however, as it did all night, dealt with it, and then a curious thing happened from a not-so-curious moment.
That Neymar was going to be subbed in wasn’t a shock to anyone. That he was subbed for Sanchez was a bit surprising, but even more so was that Neymar promptly stationed himself on the same side of the pitch as Dani Alves, the right side, a double dose of Brazilian “Wheeee” for defenders already struggling with Alves alone, to consider. And as wonderful an attacker as Alexis Sanchez is, as fine a match as he was having doing all that non-attacking stuff, Neymar was Next Level attacker that City didn’t have an answer for.
As with Messi, you don’t really have a list of available options for Neymar. As a defender, you know normal attackers have lapses, weaknesses that make them predictable. Control is lax so you can get them as they rein the ball in. They aren’t quick or fast so you can catch them from behind. They don’t pass and are one-footed, so shade them to a favorite side. Like Messi, Neymar almost always has an answer. Shade left, he shifts to right. Cover the favored foot, he can pass or shoot with the other. And because control is usually absolute, passing lanes that disappear for ordinary players in that instant they wrestling with the ball are visible and gaping to those Next Level attackers. Neymar made that second goal a near certainty. So when he and Alves combined for a Julio Belletti moment that sank the knife into yet another English side in Champions League, the screech of joy was leavened with a little bit of “See, I knew that.”
I have no idea what is going to happen in a few weeks’ time. For all I know City might do to us what we did to Milan last season. But I do know this: the time for doubt has passed for me, not that it ever was that time. I was predicting a 2-2 scoreline yesterday, mostly because I was thinking the match would be more open and attacking. Pellegrini surprised me by being fearful. Of course, he further surprised me by being a Mourinho lite, blaming the official for not only how he called the match, but suggesting that his country of origin had a bearing in his qualification to be part of that match officiating team. It was stupid, shameful and I would hope, in the less-heated aftermath, regrettable.
The final score was 0-2, but it was more than that. It was two away goals by a team that was supposed to be bullied off the pitch. It was redemption for doubting culers who were expecting, and wouldn’t have been surprised by another Bayern-style hammering. It was an affirmation of style, of the power of passing and beauty. Size didn’t matter, magic did.
But it was also just another win in the Champions League by a team that should have, by all rights, been the favorite. Our players have been better than the City players in their previous settings. What made people think that it would somehow be different when you combined all those players? Negredo took many a Liga beating from Barça, as did Navas, and Silva and Dimichelis. Toure Yaya helped administer some of those beatings, so he probably watched that rhythm, that movement and said to himself “Oh, crap … I used to help do this.”
Is it as simple as reducing it all to a batch of parts? No way. They have excellent players, athletes who can score a couple of goals at the Camp Nou just as we did at the Etihad, and they will have their most dangerous attacker back in Sergio Aguero. But at some point, we have to start having faith in this team, even if that faith might be dashed at some point. You have to fall in love again, believe in our sprites, because fit and on form, I firmly believe that our team can beat any team in the world, up to and including Bayern.
Only a fool would suggest that this team doesn’t have needs, that it is far from perfect or even as good as it has the capability of being. But that is stuff for the summer. For now, here and now, there is a delightful night in England. Was this a great match? Nope. Was it a big win? In context, yes, but in consideration of the capabilities of both sides, not really. But football matches always get extra stuff precisely because of the context in which they exist. Past failing as present paranoia. Was a bit of faith restored? Maybe, maybe not. Because after all, belief and faith are odd qualities, reassuring and at the same time, oh so fragile. But to love something to the fullest, they are essential.