FC Barcelona won a match off a set piece. Ball by Messi, from the right. In the 94th minute. Off a header rebound and a put back by … Sergio Busquets, that goalscoring machine.
If you wanted to draw up a more bizarre ending to a more bizarre day, I would challenge anyone to take that task.
It is facile to say that “Matches such as this one win championships.” What is not at all easy to say is that Barça showed something today. Luis Enrique said they didn’t quit, but it was more than that. For me, there is poetry in artists sometimes tripping over the easel, sending the canvas sprawling and landing in their own paint.
And today’s match was the equivalent of that artist rolling over on the canvas, and the smeared paint creating a work that a patron buys. Because sometimes, success ain’t pretty.
Portents and warnings
In Peter’s excellent preview, he warned us of everything that happened today, from a pressing, aggressive midfield to fast, tricky wingers and a team with gobs of energy who isn’t playing European football. Did we listen? Probably not, because this Barça exists in an abstract world. There aren’t opponents. There are people standing around while our players try to execute what they are trying to do, and shame on our players for not doing so. Shame on them for being tired, off form or distracted. Shame on them for being human.
And it’s easy to forget that great athletes are human, as they tally hundreds of passes, bang in hat tricks and knock off inch-perfect assists. If then, why not now, right?
Barça had to work its butts off to subdue an APOEL side in an away Champions League match on Tuesday. On Sunday, they had a match against a rested, well-drilled Valencia side who played its collective asses off. They hounded, fouled, pressed, harassed, clogged passing lanes, countered like fiends, ran, slid, blocked and did absolutely everything that a team fighting its hearts out at its home stadium is supposed to do. Valencia deserved a point for its spectacular performance today. At least a point which could have been more, were it not for a man of the match performance from Claudio Bravo, the man many didn’t want at Barça. His two brilliant saves not only kept his team in the match but kept it from losing that match and quite possibly, any shot at a Liga championship.
Cometh the moment …
And that magic just adds to it, squares the degree of difficulty of the means of conceiving an event so unlikely, Barça scoring a header rebound putback by Busquets. You can’t plan for that sort of craziness, so Valencia can be forgiven for being as stunned as I was. Its warriors slumped to the turf in disbelief. They did what they had to do, which was everything, like Atleti in last season’s Champions League final, fought as hard as they could, only to be outdone by a moment of brilliance buttressed by sheer effort.
“Messi picks NOW not to be poor,” their coach probably thought as the flawless pass found the oil-slicked dome of Neymar, who blasted a header that Diego Alves somehow parried. It fell to the feet of Busquets, who hit it as hard as he could and had to, because Alves got his hands to that ball as well, but couldn’t keep it out.
And to cap off a bizarre day to a bizarre end of a bizarre match, Messi got a yellow card for complaining to the refs that he was struck in the head with a water bottle. In theory, Messi was booked for time-wasting at the end of a match that was still in the balance, but still …
You can’t make this stuff up.
As the featured Liga match, Barça had the additional pressure of playing after all of its chief rivals, of knowing that they had all won, and to maintain that bridgeable two-point gap to table-topping RM, they had to win. As long as you win, the season, the league championship is in your hands, in your house. Drop points and you need favors, boons that are hopeful at best, foolhardy at worst. So each match is an opportunity for all the doubt to be justified, for all the people wanting the team to fail for the pleasure of being able to say “A-HA!” can have their day as men who used to be heroes are impaled on spikes of supporter fantasy.
Life is hard
It’s tough being Barça right now. In addition to the crushing doubt that permeates everything this team and its coaching staff does, there is a view that everything it does is wrong. A move by one coach is genius, that man not only redrawing the lines, but making the tablet on which they are drawn from scratch. “Brilliant, I tell you. Brilliant!”
The same move from Enrique, and he is a clueless git with pretty much zero idea of what he wants to do, or how. And so his starting XI of Bravo, Alves, Pique, Mathieu, Alba, Mascherano, Busquets, Xavi, Neymar, Suarez, Messi drew howls from the ramparts. And those howls found vindication in the result, without looking at the cause of that result.
Was the midfield a mess because Enrique got the tactics/lineup wrong, or because Valencia were working their asses off, playing like rejuvenated fiends. The latter raises its hand, because of the world in which Barça live, a world occupied by practice dummies and compliant opponents. And wins are suspect. Sevilla played crap. APOEL was shocking. Valencia wasn’t itself, and Barça was crap.
After the match, Enrique said that by and large his team played well, and people snarled. Because it’s easy to ignore that most of the match was played in the Valencia end, that there was a wrongly disallowed goal, and another goal that Luis Suarez wet the bed on. And the defense kept a clean sheet. Even if you presume that the keeper isn’t part of the defense, and the fact that he had to make saves means that the defense still sucks, it’s still a clean sheet.
Enrique is stupid because Messi isn’t touching the ball as much, people snarled, an effect that ignores the reality of Taxicab Messi, the dude who stands around as though waiting for a ride, or a ball to show up. There were times in the match where he didn’t even seem to try, once where he lost a ball and the defender ran right past him as Messi just stood there. After two hat tricks in two matches, all-pitch performances that strain credulity and have his supporters screaming “Suck it, haters,” at those imaginary beings who also kick puppies and hate cake.
Clunk and causes
But it wasn’t just Messi who was seemingly off. All of the forwards were seemingly relieved of the all-pitch duties that so enliven this Barça side and seem to sharpen their games, omnipresence that gives its danger men so many touches of ball and touches on the move, running to unsettle an opponent. But in the reality of a tired team facing a rabid opponent, what are a coach’s options?
The midfield looked a mess because it was missing a link. Busquets was forward, but his midfielder skills are as a mini-Xavi, rather than that bridge between a midfield and its forwards. Xavi needs movement and passing angles. What Xavi doesn’t need is a daisy-fresh opponent who is full of energy, pressing, running and fouling. Because that is what happened, it wasn’t until the inclusion of Rakitic and Rafinha that life and spark came to the attack, because that link was closed. If the forwards won’t come to them, they will go to the forwards, and danger came.
The three subs were Rakitic, Rafinha and Pedro, and two of them were very instrumental in the final result, applying movement, pressure and moving the ball more quickly to take advantage of a tiring Valencia. Enrique might be “clueless,” but he got that decision right, even as the match really came down to that thing that often makes football Darwinian in its harshness:
The big teams have players who can be poor for the entire match, do a single thing up to their customary level, and decide the match. Messi to Neymar slammed home by Busquets. Three of the best players in the world, given one last shot against a tired opponent with its backs to the wall.
Was it an ugly win? I don’t believe in such things. Did the aesthetics of the victory leave something to be desired? Again. Who says? The Messi pass was gorgeous, Neymar’s header was powerful and on target and Busquets knocked the stuffing out of the ball, roofing a quality finish of the type he missed against Chelsea in that fateful Champions League semi-final. Bang, boom, pow! Done.
This win was beautiful. It showed resolve, showed the ability of excellent players to make magic, the power of a team working just as hard as its resolute opponent getting it done. “Quit” is one of those weird words that permeates sport. People use it without knowing what it means, without understanding it. This is true whether we allege someone “quit,” or “didn’t quit.” In either case, how can we know. Fatigue can masquerade as resignation. Nursing an injury can be the guise of a player giving up on a ball. Quitter!
Both teams played to the absolute end of the match because that is what they are supposed to do. It’s more than what they are paid for. Pay isn’t sufficient motivation to make an athlete run until his legs cramp, evince the thousand-yard stare that the Valencia players had as they were being subbed. Pay doesn’t make Busquets run and fight to be in position just in case.
It’s pride. Professional pride. Some players love their clubs. Other players are motivated by their own drive for excellence. Slugfests such as today’s match become about individuals deciding that they will leave everything on the pitch because, simply put, it’s a matter of honor. It’s the little sliver of fear that lurks behind greatness, the player who wonders how he will be able to face his friends and teammates if he didn’t do his absolute best. Fear is the spark that can ignite a transcendent moment. “I haven’t had a great match, but this is my last chance.”
It’s what makes sport so glorious. We love it so because we can celebrate the best in what athletics personify. Through all that, our team won! Right at the end! It’s a glorious feeling.
And that feeling is why I will leave the “buts” and “if onlys” to others, the tactical breakdowns and post-factor snarking about this or that. Because winning is glorious. I understand that matches have to analyzed, that answers have to be found to questions raised by a series of events.
But sometimes, I just like saying, “OMIGOD! Did you just SEE that!?” Then I want to run around the room and scream. Then I want to watch the highlights on the summary shows, and I want to grin all over again, because winning is like a supermodel feeding you chocolate ice cream. If there is a bit of tarnish on the silver spoon, so what?