So much doubt, so much worry, so much anguish all at the roots of a moment of collective human frailty. When Barça lost to Valladolid this weekend past, it was more than a loss. It was like the starting pistol in a race to establish culpability. Something is wrong, whose fault is it. And we know something is wrong, because a history-making football club lost to a relegation side.
Whose fault is it, and oh my, Manchester City is coming to down with “only” a two-goal lead to overcome. By cracky, they can do that in their sleep, especially with Aguero back to fitness and in the lineup. Oh, my!
FC Barcelona messed all that up by doing the expected and advancing to the quarterfinals of the UEFA Champions League. “Barça is back,” say some, an impossibility because Barça never went away. It is a team of great players that has always been there, players who did their job. And it almost certainly felt weird for Toure Yaya and Txiki B being at the Camp Nou, with that familiar feeling of seeing small, technically gifted players do what they do but having it done to, rather than for you. And Manchester City went down.
Some observers seemed almost surprised at this, but I confess to being surprised by their surprise because for me, the better team advanced, just as it was supposed to. And no, it isn’t smug or overconfident to say that. Barça can roll out an XI of some of the best players in the world, and the best players in the world at key positions.
When you compare that to Manchester City, it is an expensive team that was assembled with a fat checkbook. But those players were, in many instances, players who are already used to being beaten by Barça. Silva, Aguero — Toure Yaya used to be part of the Barça wrecking crew, so he understands. Jesus Navas came in late to his team losing the tie to Barcelona, and it almost certainly felt like home. Argan Oil
The better team won, so it’s kind of absurd the doubt and worry that permeated the air running up to this tie. Two goals wasn’t big enough, City will have Aguero back in the lineup and they can score two goals easy and Barça will be in trouble. They lost to Valladolid, after all, a team battling against relegation. And they didn’t just lose, they lost ugly — desultory, aimless football that found them unable to string a passel of passes together.
That team was supposed to be in trouble today, just as that team, even before any debacles, was supposed to be in trouble from the moment that it drew Manchester City. Rightly so, it was the most difficult draw in the round of 16, against a team that many believed had the equipment to find every weakness in a weakened Barça. Doom beckoned.
But in this tie and on this night, it was apparent that form is temporary and class is permanent. Barça has class. Despite what so many of the team’s supporters don’t believe, and doubt every chance they get, the team has class, even more class than doubt, as astounding as that might seem. And everybody who was supposed to be bad, who routinely earn the ire of culers, was good, from Pique to Alba.
Tata Martino started what is probably his gala XI: Valdes, Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Alba, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Fabregas, Neymar.
And there were many ways of looking at that lineup. “Well, they have to play four mids to retain match control, given the limitations of the team.”
One astute observer said that Barça was going with its best 1-v-1 players. Another astute observer said that Barça had to rely on individual excellence to get a result. All were right, and what’s wrong with that? In a match in which Martino figured that City was going to press, bully and harass, the absolute right call was to line up players with brilliant individual skills on the ball. It isn’t a sin to have great individual players, or to rely on the talents of those players to win matches for you. Individual golazos count as much as 30+pass team goals. Both win matches.
Messi worked his way loose against Lescott time and again with individual brilliance. Neymar flicked, snaked and worked his way into a couple of very good changes with individual brilliance. It isn’t cheating, or the sign of a flaw. You acquire those players for that precise reason, so that when the team football doesn’t work, the best player alive can fake somebody out of their boots and make magic happen. It is supposed to work like that.
But today, there were three key differences from the Valladolid mess: Iniesta, Messi and urgency, that 12th man we really haven’t seen since the last time Barça played Manchester City. It is a single-minded focus that allows the team to play with greater effectiveness, to eschew nonsense. Fouls came, they got up and played on. A clear penalty shout came early in the first half, with no whining or swarming the ref.
Barça was sharp, alert and aggressive. and they were bullies. Lescott was identified as the weak link in that City back line, so players with absurd ball skills ran at him. Messi. Neymar. Alves. Time and again, and time and again he was found wanting. City got a set piece in the first half that was cleared with no drama. In another instance, a foul was earned as the smaller Barça player got into the space of the larger City attacker, so that the only option was to foul. Urgency and focus. Suddenly, they can defend set pieces. Imagine that.
It has been said time and again that the people who are going to solve that “crisis” was the players, and they could do it simply, by being the players that they are. Jordi Alba, for one of the first matches in a long time, showed exactly why he was purchased as the team’s left back. He wasn’t Abidal, but his range and absurd pace cast a massive shadow. Any loose pass, any bit of slop was pounced on.
Iniesta was absurd in the aftermath of heartbreak, as essential a player for Barça as Messi was, because of his role as that bridge between midfield and attackers. He makes Messi’s life easier, even as he knows that he is going to take a series of fouls in every match.
Xavi ran and capered about, helping the team exert control along with Fabregas, who wasn’t rated by many because he was for most of the time doing a Keita, almost invisibly exerting influence through movement and the right pass at the right time.
Pique was locked down, and Mascherano kept Aguero in his pocket. The entire team understood what the situation was, and it was magical to see them rise to occasion, even as it was expected for me that they would. Because it wasn’t rising to any occasion. It was doing their jobs, a presumption of professionalism that dictated only a fool would assume that the Valladolid Barça was going to show up today in a match this crucial, or that the Manchester City side that lost to a second-division side on the weekend was going to show up.
City came to play and was serious about wanting to win this match. The side came out to play because they had to, just as Barça had to deal with a larger, more physical team who like every opponent with intent this season, got in the players’ faces, pressed, harassed and fouled. But Valladolid did the same thing, yet City is a much better team than Valladolid. So why is there a comfortable win on Wednesday, and a most decidedly UNcomfortable loss on Saturday?
Urgency, and Messi.
Nothing sparks a debate by calling into question Messi’s work rate in matches, and everybody has a reason for why. He isn’t the player he once was. He must conserve himself so that he is ready to score goals. Even standing around, he is still occupying defenders. He will injure himself again if he tracks back, and shame on anyone who expects the best alive to do donkey work. Debates roil, and people like me are called a “hater.”
Then Messi plays a match such as he played today and makes a fool out of everyone because is it That Messi who messes it up for the Other Messi.
In the examination of what is wrong with a team that doesn’t really have all that much wrong with it, a few brave journalists were noting as a symptom of the malaise, Messi walking around the pitch, head down as if looking for lost change. Solo runs would result in lost balls as he watched the opponent run in the other direction.
Today, he laughed at us all, as Kun Aguero darted off on a run that would have put the defense in trouble but Messi, from the other end of the pitch, chased Aguero down, stole the ball and began a pell-mell run in the other direction. He trotted, ran around and moved, head up, keeping constant watch on his midfield in an effort to always be available for a pass. He got the ball more, closer to the Manchester City box. He made passes, made runs, had shots at goal. He was intense, focused and ready to play, energized by a big match and a big opponent.
A great player raises his game in the presence of a wannabe. Michael Jordan raised him game against Clyde Drexler in that famous “shrug” game, saying to Drexler, “You are a very good player, but I am a great player.” Messi chased Aguero down and took the ball not only because that was what he was supposed to do. It sent a very clear message to City and his teammates that this match is real, that the best player alive has come to play.
Foolish people like me stand on soapboxes and say “this isn’t FC Messi,” and we’re sort of right. But the way That Messi energizes and demands the best from his teammates also makes liars out of us. This is Messi’s team, and it responds to him. We saw it against AC Milan, we saw it against Paris St.-Germain, the electrifying capability that Messi has to elevate his team when he leads by example.
After the match a journalist said that the difference was simple, that when Messi’s teammates play better, Messi plays better, a notion that struck me as hooey. When Messi plays better, it elevates his teammates, even as we acknowledge those occasions when his teammates are engaged and getting it done in spite of his seeming lack of full involvement. Messi drives this team — with passes, with runs, with urgency, with competitiveness that makes him chase down the opponent’s best attacker. It isn’t want, because a team wants to win every match. It’s urgency, that sense of Now that allows great players to focus just a little bit more and play to their full potential.
It is when That Messi shows up that the presence of the Other Messi becomes so glaring, so noticeable. No, That Messi can’t show up every match. But when people take a match like this and scoff at anyone who dares question the times Other Messi shows up, it’s a tough sell because the difference is so clear.
So it was fitting that when the goal came it would not only come from the feet of Messi, but would be the kind of goal that he scores so capably, a goal that comes from movement and anticipation, running because of the possibility that something might happen. So he made the run, and was in the perfect spot to capitalize on a defender’s error to put the tie effectively out of reach. Done.
More elegantly it was done not by some absurd, jaw-dropping bit of magic but instead by work, by running, by being in the right place at the right time that comes from a magical player somehow just knowing. Fair? Nope. The most handsome guy in the class is also the smartest, and the nicest and the most helpful. Deal with it. But on days when that handsome guy is in a bad mood, it strains credulity when people make excuses for that mood.
Messi can’t be that player all the time. But when he is that player it is so astonishing that greedy, selfish football fans that we are, we want to see that player all the time even as we know that we can’t because the game is played by human beings.
But human beings sometimes take the form of great players. And when those great players decide that tonight is the night, that a message must be sent, it is something extraordinary. When you take a collection of great players and there is one who is transcendent, it is those moments that elevate the game from something played by humans to the province of seeming deities.