The bracing, all-encompassing majesty of sport is that the best team doesn’t always win. What sells out stadiums as newly promoted teams face championship sides is precisely that, the belief that on any given day, anything can happen. From back when Goliath didn’t see it coming, looking down to wonder what that little dude was doing, giants have toppled.
And yet, the better team usually wins, and with soul-crushing regularity. Regulars gather in bars and living rooms to console themselves with the almosts and what ifs of the vanquished, the magic of retrospect, because that’s easier sometimes than saying that like death and taxes, the better team is usually going to whip your ass.
Paris St.-Germain understands that now, that what happens every now and again is what needs to happen for a lesser team to beat a better one: mistakes must be made, and the lesser team must play exceptionally well. This occurred in their house, the Parc des Princes, as Barça gave up balls, went to sleep on set pieces and the narrative was born that PSG kicked Barça butt as the latter looked a mess.
Only a few, foolish culers dared to say that despite looking at sixes and sevens for most of match, Barça still managed a couple of goals and it was only a heroic intervention on the PSG doorstep that kept a team that played kinda crappy from walking away with a share of the points.
So when that very same PSG rolled into the Camp Nou as the only unbeaten team in Europe, and with its superstar, Zlatan Ibrahimovic back, it took a certain kind of culer to worry. The others were divided into two camps of the same mind: Barça is going to win. It is going to beat a team that is isn’t supposed to and win a group that it shouldn’t, because what else would happen?
One side based that belief in success on the whimsy of the supporter. Of course my team is going to win, because I always expect it to win. The other side based it on logic, that Barça didn’t play very well in the previous match, didn’t have Luis Suarez, made plenty of errors and further, PSG is less well-equipped to defeat Barça with its talisman in the lineup. Further still a result should be expected because Barça is playing better and better, rounding into shape as gradually as would be expected from a team with a new coach and staff, 8 new players and a passel of doubt to overcome, but it is coming into shape nonetheless, and is a better team than the group that lost to PSG.
But another, equally important group of supporters have to also believe, and that is the athletes. Sport doesn’t leave room for doubt. In the milliseconds that can decide the difference between an outstretched toe poking a ball away and a defender arriving just a smidge too late, there isn’t any room at all for doubt. Doubt is a luxury the desperate can’t afford and make no mistake about it, FC Barcelona is desperate.
After a season at the end of which nothing of import could be reported, a season in which doubt was allowed to rear its head in a statement from a talismanic player, you wonder what really happened to bring the team that handful of goals short. Talent gets you some of the way, but belief gets you the rest.
Wednesday, at the end of 80 minutes, a group of players in blaugrana, stroking the ball around, keeping it away from a team of talented athletes that many expected to bring destruction, at the apogee of each one of those delicate passes was belief.
Barça has a coach in Luis Enrique, who by all accounts isn’t interested in doubt, or what anyone thinks of him. His belief is complete and unwavering. As people wondered whether he was the ideal coach to lead this group of athletes, not many gave any weight to that personal conviction, that ability to make capering millionaires understand that if they do what they are supposed to, the belief that if you follow my system, success will come.
After the match, Pedro’s words percolated with belief. Iniesta said Enrique didn’t allow them to doubt, to not believe, that he knows what he wants. In a world seemingly wracked with doubt and worry, the coach and the players knew, and believed.
So when the starting XI came out today, there was an explosion of sorts, because nobody quite knew what to make of it. Ter Stegen, Bartra, Pique, Mascherano, Mathieu, Busquets, Pedro, Messi, Neymar, Suarez.
–Was Pedro the right back?
–Was Bartra the right back?
–Was this a double pivot?
–Wait, are they going to play a 3-4-3?
Brains hurt as people tried to figure out permutations, while others said this lineup was further evidence that Enrique didn’t know what he was doing. Some media figures suggested that the team didn’t practice with this lineup, based on the scant information they were allowed to gather during their supervised practice session visits — because yes, the team is going to work out its secret plans in front of the press.
Doubt and the necessity to lock Barça into a rigid formation created a carpet of doubt and worry, even as some were excited by the possibilities of a coach who looked at what he had and, whether out of necessity (Dani Alves was suspended) or inspiration, decided to shake things up.
The teams lined up and some screamed 3-4-3! The whistle blew and, because that is what happens when a set of variables is presented with a stimulus, formational rigidity became something like a bowl of marbles. On a team such as Barça, where DMs or CBs bring the ball up and forwards track back to steal and break up attacks, does it really matter what formation it takes before it becomes the inside of a supercollider, except for chalk talks and dudes with telestrators?
What matters to the players is belief and effectiveness. “Play my way, and you will succeed.” So the match started, a pell-mell fury of teams that were purported equals going at each other, but some knew better. Some predicted a Barça win, simply because Barça was the better team. But if you don’t believe that, if your coach, your captain doesn’t believe that, certain things aren’t possible. So when PSG scored an early goal from the precise same kind of mistake that allowed them to win at their house, Enrique calmly pulled aside his on-pitch captain and calmly explained what went wrong. And this time Barça just kept on doing what it was doing, what it was supposed to do, what it believed it could do.
They got chances, we got chances, and when the scuffed, bouncing sort of ball that Suarez will tell his grandchildren was an intentional pass effort fell to the boot of a charging Messi, suddenly it was 1-1. Barça ran even harder, the passes zinged even truer, and the doubt changed shirts. PSG looked increasingly tentative as Barça looked to get fully on the front foot. Possession was higher for Barça, and its players ran and ran. Its star forward ran almost as many kilometers as its hyperactive defensive midfielder. Everyone ran, everyone tried, everyone cleaned up after each other.
After the match, in the words of one seeking solace where it can be found, PSG coach Laurent Blanc suggested that perhaps the new-look Barça lineup confused our players more than his. Of course he chose to ignore the illogic of a team confused by its own taskings putting a 3-1 home beatdown on his team, because seeking solace and logic aren’t always compatible quests.
Belief is a shaky thing. It takes a lot to make it as firm as it needs to be to make a better team understand what it is, and for a purportedly better team to suddenly begin to wonder. Sometimes, it takes as little as a few seconds and a capering Brazilian’s wonder strike to do very different things to belief.
On Sunday, Barça withstood all but a few seconds of a perfect half of football by Espanyol, then a Messi wonder strike changed everything. Espanyol lost a bit of that doubt and suddenly, passes were easier to make, holes easier to find, movement hard to come by.
So it seemed in the aftermath of the Neymar golazo, a dipping piledriver that came at the worst time, just before the half, that PSG slipped a bit as Barça gained a bit. Being a front runner does that, but also looking at the Barça roster and understanding very simple things. They have Ibrahmovic, Barça has Messi, Suarez AND Neymar. They have Luiz and Silva, Barça have Pique and Bartra, home-raised players whose knowledge of how the club plays can bridge an ability gap.
Barça was the better team and played like it. So when the third goal was bundled home by Suarez, PSG almost seemed to accept its fate. It got corner kicks, but rather than the psychic walkabout that allowed celebratory backslapping at the Parc des Princes, alert defenders cleared danger. PSG went on runs, but tackles and interventions thwarted efforts as for some, Barça played exactly as they were expected to play, did exactly what they were expected to do, which was beat a team that they were better than.
Once again, some social media pundits snarled and scoffed at individual brilliance, as if there is a law against being magical, against top-class players doing what they do. There is a memory, a fading bit of burnished illusion that back in the day, magical midgets would pass a ball up the pitch, perfect triangles forming the springboard for an inexorable path toward goal as flawless little dynamos walked yet another goal into the net. That memory makes athletic wonder seem somehow base, beneath the expectations of the game.
But individual brilliance can also buttress a team, make its resolve even firmer as a genius does exactly what he is supposed to do.
The better team won at the Camp Nou today. It won despite sub-par performances from a few key players, including its best player of all. It won because that’s what it believed it would do. It won because its coach knew that it would, because he devised a system that if it was followed as it should be, would ensure victory. It won because its players executed that plan to a level that was not enabled by individual excellence, but enhanced by it.
And for now, the next test awaits as a team rounds into shape and hurdles mountains of doubt, leaping along with just a little more spring in its step because maybe for the first time this season, this is a group of players that is all in. It was as beautiful to watch as it was effective as it quelled doubt in all but the most committed, for a magical yet logical evening.
“Well, duh. That’s what it’s supposed to do.”