In retrospect, we all should have seen this coming.
The vileness, infighting, backbiting, rumors, nastiness and savagery, a fanbase turned on itself in seeking something or other all conspired to create something extraordinary, something that to repeat, we honestly should have seen coming. In a post from earlier today, I wondered which team would show up and I guess it was the latter, a unified, angry bunch who will for the first time this season face the team that kept them from so much last year.
As a team comes together a lot of things have to happen, from players understanding what their coach wants to the coach understanding how to deal with the players under his command. Through it all, supporters need patience, the kind of patience that has been sorely lacking in every way. #LuchoOut hashtags fly around Twitter, people express vehemence about notions of Enrique staying on as FC Barcelona coach, saying that he is over his head, fit for a mid-table side, etc, etc. Some even said that they wanted Barça to lose today, to force the departure of Enrique.
What all of the stuff, all of the … crap … seemed to do was unite a football club in that “us against the world way” that in this case is actually true. It isn’t just the Madrid-based media that is turning on Barça. It’s also the Barcelona-based media, club supporters, everything that comprises a vile entorno that wants to rip and tear at this football team. Sprites can only take so much, after all.
There were lots of beliefs about this match, that Torres was going to score, that after RM beat Barça 3-1 and then Atleti handled them 2-0 in the Copa with a squad of many reserves, what chance did we have against their fresh, rested team?
For me, it’s simple, really: a group of athletes that has done so much to bring me so much joy, deserves my faith and belief. There’s nothing logical in that. There isn’t even anything objective that anyone could point to that might suggest the team was going to pick this match to show what it was capable of. Pessimists were, on evidence, right. But faith isn’t like that, though. It doesn’t need anything sensible. It just needs itself. And ultimately, Atleti picked the wrong time to hit town.
Any other time, any other week, the dire predictions might well have come to pass. But today, after this week, whoever came to town was getting a beatdown and make no mistake, today’s match was a beatdown in which the defending Liga champions were often reduced to wrestling goons, pushing and shoving. They, as many teams do, decided that Neymar, not Messi, is the one to beat on, the catalyst that drives the unpredictability of the attack.
They fouled him, shoved him, made his ankle actually gush blood. They finished the match with 6 yellow cards when it could have been many more, and Barça didn’t care, because it had work to do. People wondered what was “wrong” with Atleti, because the match went against expectations: Barça finding playing space, scoring goals from places that heretofore they weren’t even allowed to stand. It wasn’t anything they did, but something the opponent was not. And that makes more sense, really.
And yet everything happened, ultimately, pretty much as it was supposed to in the minds of folks who sat down to actually analyze the possibilities. The presence of a 9 in Suarez created instability in the Atleti back line that Neymar and Messi could take advantage of. Alves was more defensive, which released Rakitic from the duties of having to mind Alves. Iniesta fluffed his feathers, making a liar out of dummies like me who suggested he might be finished, taking to that modified Xavi role with aplomb as that link between midfield and the attackers.
Tactically, putting Messi on the right wing works for many reasons, but it takes an overall attack that is working to make it truly effective. That happened today. Iniesta feeds Neymar, Alba is running around while Suarez backs down on the defense. Atop all that, there’s Messi, coming in not from the center but from the right, forcing the entire defense to shift. Too many threats, too many possibilities.
It all worked exactly as it was supposed to today, physically and psychologically as the team purged a demon of sorts in making the team that stood like a brick wall between them and success last season, look like so many angry pylons.
We can only speculate that work was done in practice to limit their set pieces and use the press to quell their transition game, which is so devastating. Not because that is what happened, but because Enrique would be a fool not to understand and train his players to deal with the strengths of an opponent. Their corners were dealt with, and the only goal they could score came from a penalty that will spark debate in many quarters as to its legitimacy.
Barça fought as hard as Atleti, worked as hard as Atleti and was just as much of a unified fist as Atleti. It was the best performance that I have seen from this football team in a very, very long time, and one that should have every team in not only the Liga but Europe saying, “Um … uh, oh …”
Only a fool would suggest that this group can produce that level of effort, intensity and concentration in every match. There will be matches this season where people will be able to trot out the familiar tropes that surround the club, from “Can’t break a bus,” to “Hmph! Individual brilliance,” etc.
From my seat however, this football team should have earned respect from its supporters today, should have, at least until the next time everyone can worry again, a respite from the crushing doubt that surrounds every aspect of what this team is trying to do.
It’s premature to say that it’s all working, or utter any smug “told you sos,” because that just isn’t how athletics work. But on this wonderful Sunday, the warriors that take the pitch for FC Barcelona lived up to every expectation anyone could possibly have had, and for that they deserve our sincere applause.
This is Messi’s football team, make no mistake about it. And you can usually get some sense of how the match is going to go for the club by how committed, how vibrant he looks. He was everywhere today, from clearing a ball in his own box to trying to make the defensive play that resulted in the penalty. He passed and pressed, moved and worked in a display that was contagious, and had Barça playing with 11 everywhere on the pitch instead of just in attack.
When That Messi shows up, no team is going to beat Barça. Because when a great player also decides that he is going to outwork you as well, there is no defense for that.
And yet for Messi, the team and the club, the most important thing about today’s match really happened after it as Messi took to Barça TV to deny all of the stuff that has been said about him during this ugly, ugly week.
“They said I wanted to fire Luis Enrique, I’d never do that. There are people that want to damage the club, and they’re not from Madrid.”
“The latest lies hurt because they came from Barcelona media this time, not from Madrid, whose media used to attack us.”
“I heard everything, that was said that I had a bad relationship with Guardiola, Eto’o or Bojan etc. a whole lot but it is NOT true”
“I’m tired. They picture me as the one that rules the club, I’m only another player. I don’t make decisions nor do I demand them.”
“I’m tired of people throwing shit at me from outside (Media). I haven’t demanded anything from the club. All lies.”
“I didn’t put any conditions to stay, because I don’t plan to leave. I’m happy here.”
“It is not good to look for rivalry between Luis Enrique and me, because there is none.”
“Don’t throw shit at us from outside because that will only do us harm.”
In those statements, a lot of things happened. Supporters who came out in favor of what Messi was “doing,” and arguing with others about why it was right must have some different things to consider about what they thought about the player they idolize. And to be sure, conspiracy theorists will still find things to meet their needs, but I’m just not that bright.
I used to have a husky/akita mix, who would always know when I was going to take him for a walk before hopping on my bike and riding to work. For months I couldn’t figure it out, this remarkable soothsaying talent that he had. Turns out he would just look at my feet. If I put on the noisy shoes (because of the pedal cleats), he wasn’t going out. If I put on the quiet shoes, he was. It was that simple.
It seemed complicated to me, because I thought too much about it, just as this latest round is going now. Some are saying, “What else would Messi say? There’s something going on, and I know it.” I can’t argue with those people. Nobody can. The best conspiracies can never be disproved. Deny something, and it’s “what else would he say.” Say nothing, and the theories can go hog wild.
So I don’t expect everyone to be convinced by Messi’s statements today. But for me and my dumb brain, everything that I saw today tells me one thing: this team wants to get back to playing football as best it can, and to hell with all the rest. It’s a noble pursuit that all I can do is support, because that’s what supporters do.
It should also remind that us that really, there is a lot of stuff that is none of our business. Did something happen in the locker room? Was stuff going on? I don’t know, and what’s more, it isn’t really my place to know because what is the ultimate value of my knowing? It doesn’t explain anything, it doesn’t help anything unless you’re planning to plant a rancor crop. Then there’s sowing to be done.
After the match, Mascherano exploded at the press corps, saying things such as today, it’s easy to grab a microphone, pen or paper and write lies. He said the team has always accepted the decisions of the coach, and if something happened, it will be resolved behind closed doors.
He’s also very scary when he’s angry. One of the things he said is “I didn’t study journalism, but I know one thing: The truth.”
That is, really, what it all comes down to, the objective reality of what we see and experience. Today, we saw an extraordinary collection of talent play an extraordinary match of football. In the standings, it’s only 3 points. That’s math. But in the hearts and minds of the players, for the supporters who always believed and kept on believing, it’s more than just 3 points. It’s a sign. A supporter’s faith means something, and never more than on days like this.