We have it, they want it. It was always going to come to this, when you really stop to think about it.
This remarkable team that to date has yet to lose a big match, faces on Sunday one that is immense. Cliches abound: all the marbles, season at stake, etc, etc, but what it really comes down to is that for this wonderful team of ours to have a snowball’s chance in hell of repeating as Liga champions or finishing a comfortable second place, even, it must win against its eternal rival, in that opponent’s house.
A more fitting challenge for this remarkable group of athletes escapes my thinking.
Sid Lowe wrote a lovely piece in which he makes a case for something akin to a fin de siecle, a completion of tenure. Valdes is leaving in the summer, and so is Puyol. Many speculate that Xavi, who always prefers to keep his cards close to the vest, will also be stepping down. This would mean, as Lowe so eloquently posits, that the three captains would all be leaving in the same summer, thus marking the end not of a cycle (which has been over for some time at any rate), but of the tenured Masia influence as embodied in those three giants.
As such, this could be the last Classic for three amazing players. We know it will be the last one for two of them, only one of whom will be taking to the pitch for sure, as Puyol seems to wrestling with the same kind of injury that Eric Abidal had late in his last season.
So it is that when people ask me how I can continue to not be a fan of players, it is matches and moments such as this that illustrate the partially protective nature of my reserve. Like Pep Guardiola, the struggle is with getting too close to them, to having players mean so much … too much, really, that when they leave, get injured, suffer and finally move on it becomes something more than what it is, which is a changing of the guard for a football club that you love.
In a world where we only have so much extraneous love for objects that you can’t hold in your hands or arms even as you can hold them in your heart, the struggle would be to hang on, to read something more into a situation that is simply Time, doing what it does. So even as I sit back and say Puyol, Valdes and Xavi are moving on, it is impossible for this match not to feel final in a weird, abrupt kind of way.
The last Classic.
It is also one of the most confounding, because we don’t really know which Barça will show up, even as we are confident that Big Match Barça will pop in, rather than Whatevs Barça. This is a big match. Win and we are within a single point of the top, piling on the pressure. Lose, and we are seven points adrift and ready to put all of our eggs in the Champions League basket in a season that threatens to shape up in a fashion similar to Guardiola’s final year — the Copa isn’t so bad after all, is it?
And it won’t come down to who wants it more, who had more heart, silly cliches that make me want to throw a shoe at my television set. Both teams want, both teams have vast reserves of talent, both teams cherish the prize at the end of the season.
This match will come down to execution, to staring a moment in the face and holding bedlam at bay by dint of quality. Both teams have players who can do that. Do I like to be consoled by the fact that Barça has a system of play that at its best verges on automatic? Sure, even as I know that they also have a system of attack, even if some people they just run around, pell-mell, toward the opponent’s goal.
Moods and things
The situation for the first home Classic was different. We were rounding into shape and they were still finding their way, without a system to base their behavior on as the team came together. They, like us, had a new coach, but bereft of on-field generals such as Valdes, Xavi and Iniesta, their task was more daunting as they came into our house. The result was a 2-1 scoreline that but for an error, would have been 2-0. This time, things are more even.
They are playing some fine football, pundits tell me. Bale has found his way, Ronaldo is banging goals in and Benzema had rounded into the attacker that his substantial price tag called for. Midfield is solid, and they would seem to be primed to wrest the crown from us with style.
But we have some stuff going on as well, our team that is coming off of a dispatching of Manchester City, a team that was supposed to be our Waterloo, then slamming 7 past our last Liga opponent. More significant than that gaudy scoreline was the fact that for the first time in a very long time, the team played like it didn’t care about Messi. More specifically, it played as if Messi was another player on the team, rather than the player. Yes, Messi notched a hat trick, but the goals flowed out of the overall team play. Nothing was forced, and if a pass wasn’t available to Messi, the team didn’t make it. Pedro got his, Sanchez raised hell, Iniesta was decisive, Xavi was in the box to take potshots at the keeper.
Barça was s TEAM that included the best player alive. That is a team to be feared, no matter the opponent.
With both teams on form, you begin to look at wild cards, things that will decide the match one way or another. Obviously, there’s Messi and Ronaldo, but they are known quantities. This will be the first time this season that RM has seen a fit Messi, rather than the sweating cypher parked on the right wing. If those two cancel each other out as they often do in terms of production, it will come down to the other players.
Lee Roden makes the case for the positions of Bale and Neymar being reversed, with the latter struggling to regain form while the former has found his. Will that be the thing that decides the match in RM’s favor, as Neymar did in the first, scoring a goal and delivering the assist for the other one?
For me, a few things are key:
This will be where the match will be won or lost. Look for Martino to roll out with four mids, almost certainly Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas and Busquets, in an effort to control the match and blunt the effectiveness of their slash-and-burn attacks on goal. Possession will be absolutely essential, with two thoroughbreds who will be itching to take a run at our backpedaling defense. If possession is turned in a dangerous part of the pitch they will be most of the way to our back line, as chasing midfielders try to catch up to the play.
And that ain’t happening. So the ball will need to be controlled and not turned over. But of course, it ain’t like their midfield sucks. Post-mortems on Sunday will, I think, bring it all down to control of this key area.
Limiting them is key for a few reasons, not least of which is the height differential that will make set pieces against almost any team that isn’t Juvenil A a danger. But set pieces will also mean that they have the ball in our end and are presenting danger sufficient to draw fouls or corner kicks. If that is allowed to happen repeatedly, we are in trouble.
The other guys
The reason I am convinced that Neymar will start on Sunday irrespective of form is that he is, next to Messi, the most dangerous 1v1 player we have. His ability to destabilize a back line is significant, and a known quantity. He will also be the one on the pitch least interested in having it become the Messi Show. He is also capable of making it into the Neymar Show. Pedro can’t do that, and neither can Sanchez.
Both Pedro and Sanchez can indeed capitalize on space created by others, but they are too easily walled off so that Pepe and Ramos can focus on keeping Messi from being a difference maker.
For them, Bale, Benzema, Di Maria, Modric are all more than capable of standing a match on its ear, which is what will make possession, and lots of it, imperative. In many ways this argues a bit for Pedro, who is very careful with the ball, more than willing to pass it back to Xavi rather than taking a risk that might result in a break in the other direction.
But Pedro doesn’t inspire fear. Fear from someone other than Messi will be required in this match.
I see an XI of Valdes, Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Alba, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, Messi and Neymar.
As for a predicted scoreline, it’s so tough. It could be a manita in either direction or a scoreless draw. I don’t think there will be a lot goals in this one, as both keepers are too good. If you held my feet to the fire, I will say 2-2, making Atletico the real winner in this contest, assuming they can keep winning their Liga matches.
But I don’t think the 2-2 will be a tight draw, as Martino will have to go for it if he wants to win. Obviously he will anyhow, without question. But risks will need be assumed, risks that will make culers uncomfortable even as they might potentially decide the match in our favor. I worry more about the form of Iniesta and Neymar than Messi, who is always Messi, for lack of a better descriptive.
And culers, do me a favor. Whatever happens, no matter how it happens, be proud of your team. Not arrogant if they win, or filled with recrimination and blame if they lose, but proud. This is and has been an exceptional group of athletes. As the runs of some players end and other prepare to slide into seats that have been kept warm by the backsides of true greats, their efforts are worth celebrating. They are going to give their all for us. If we want to honor them, the best way is to be honorable … and proud.
What a team.