Barça 3, Atleti 1, aka “It’s family, and it’s personal”

atmtrio

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.

atmney

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.

atmini

Captain Messi

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.

atmduo

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Written by:

In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.

42 Comments

  1. mazimi
    January 11, 2015

    Wonderful read, thank you Sir!

    It has been a terrible week for us, but great to see it was rounded of by some of the most spectacular football seen against one of the best teams in Europe. All round great performance by the players and well done LE for choosing the right formation and personnel for the match.

    I know every body was great, but some of those Messi runs are just out of this world. It just creates a joy and a reminder of why this is called the beautiful game.

  2. BA
    January 11, 2015

    Messi, and especially Neymar, were stunning tonight. brilliant. Neymar deserves a ton of credit for shrugging off what’s gotta be a really painful injury tonight to get back on the pitch; the kid showed heart and it’s gratifying to see it from a big signing and a new import.

    Heart is probably what i’d talk about after this match. i want us to play teams like Cholo’s Atleti every week; they are always ferocious and even though in this game they crossed the line (on numerous occasions) they brought something out of our team tonight. there was a real drive and desire from our boys that has been missing for large chunks of this season; their backs were up and they weren’t going to let themselves get bullied (as they have over the last couple of seasons) by Simeone’s mob. Messi was on absolute fire, and Neymar after that early bloodying was out to make a point and embarrass whoever was in front of him. Iniesta shone as he hasn’t in ages and while Busquets and Rakitic had some wayward balls they remained relatively solid and showed a marked improvement in our transitions (saida in Portuguese).

    the other thing that really sprang out at me from this game was just the sheer *talent* we have at our disposal. overall it was a very skillful match but some of the touches displayed by Iniesta, Neymar, Messi and Dani Alves were just sublime; practically peerless in the world of football. with that much talent we should be playing like this even week, not just when we’re facing down the barbarians (and i use that term respectfully) at the gate.

    outstanding victory, and while “well played” might be a bit too much of a compliment for Atleti, i do hope they rebound in midweek and take their frustrations out on los Blancos.

  3. PrinceYuvi
    January 11, 2015

    This is everything I wanted to read.

    A top notch article,
    many thanks, kx.
    You’re freaking fabulous.

    Kinda nimble footed Olympians vs thuggish Titans set up, last night.
    I loved it.

  4. KEVINO17
    January 11, 2015

    Messi didn’t say he had a good relationship with David Villa!!!! I knew it, I knew it!!!!

    Interesting how much better Barca look with Messi back on the right. Last year, Alexis would play out there (nominally) but he would always be tucking inside to take up station at CF, leaving Dani out there with acres of space (and no creativity). Now Barca has an almost traditional CF (Suarez) and Messi has returned to the glory days when he played on the right. Suddenly, even Dani is looking good again because he is combining with Messi again (though I don’t want to go overboard again).

    • the_dean
      January 12, 2015

      indeed!
      these front 3 remembered me of ronaldinho (Neymar), Eto (Suarez) and Messi (messi)..it’s gonna be a long2 game for opponent in any game. they mark messi, neymar and suarez will free… if the focus to suarez and neymar, messi will walk in to their goal mouth!!

  5. lala10
    January 12, 2015

    Is it too much to expect some consistency of selection and play? Boy do we need that.

    Commanding performance that should act as a springboard. No more unnecessary fiddling

  6. the_dean
    January 12, 2015

    few things that made me screaming while watching the game:

    1) did u guys noticed that for quite few times alba covering the right side of the pitch?? either coincidence or purposely instructed to be at the right side. he gave more option to launch counter attack from this side!

    2) neymar had managed to carry some burden from messi by being a target man to provide killer move and pass. yes still no doubt, messi is the main man, but neymar had shown in few occassions, able to dribble, smoke away from the defender and provided killer pass..

    3) these front 3 remembered me of ronaldinho (Neymar), Eto (Suarez) and Messi (messi). this is hilarious!!!!

    4) Pique and other defenders. what a game!!!!! flawless..

    • barca96
      January 12, 2015

      1) Yes it happened twice. Strange.

      2) Neymar has always been doing this but wasn’t so successful in La Liga. But now with a year experience, makes a whole lot of difference.

      3) Yeah it reminded me of those 3 superstars too but I prefer it to be Henry, Eto’o and Messi as the latter resulted in more goals spread between them.

  7. January 12, 2015

    Wonderful, simply. Our best performance so far this season. Everyone played their hearts out, just that there was not much midfield play behind our 3 goals. Messi made Godin look amateurish for the first goal.
    And a salute to Pique too, he got everything right today.

    Am I the only person who thinks, the Messi foul for the penalty, could be among the softest of touches for a pen.

    It was heartening to see Suarez was more disappointed than even Neymar in his header miss – that was a sure goal..

    • barca96
      January 12, 2015

      Suarez is very expressive. I noticed that since the first time he played. I wonder if the team mates take it kindly because the last time a player was so expressive was Henry. Ibra was expressive but didn’t show too much of it here.

      Once Pique gives this kinds of performances consistently, the whole team will gain more confidence. A great team starts from the back. GK is already good but the CB has to be a rock. Pique is a rock but not consistent but he’s finally getting there this season.

  8. Zubs
    January 12, 2015

    What an incredible game this was. SO exciting, its been a while since i really, fully enjoyed a match. Especially against a big team.
    Everyone played awesome today: Iniesta was playing more like Xavi, but still showed nice touches.
    Dani was disciplined and actually really good today, for the first time in a while, i didn’t have anything bad to say about him. This in turn freed up Rakitic who was the perfect player for this match with his physical presence.
    Neymar, big game, big goal. He’s by far and away the best young player in the world. No question.
    Busi was ‘quiet’ today, in other words, he was vintage Busi. Alba, once again really good, our best player of the season alongside Neymar IMO.

    That celebration at the end of the 3rd goal brought (manly) tears of joy to my eyes. You can tell that picture is going to be everywhere.

    LE always starts the season slow before doing well in the 2nd half, hopefully, this was the turning point. Even though there were some people on twitter again saying it was an ‘individual’ win.
    Onwards and upwards.

  9. Zubs
    January 12, 2015

    What an incredible game this was. SO exciting, its been a while since i really, fully enjoyed a match. Especially against a big team.
    Everyone played awesome today: Iniesta was playing more like Xavi, but still showed nice touches.
    Dani was disciplined and actually really good today, for the first time in a while, i didn’t have anything bad to say about him. This in turn freed up Rakitic who was the perfect player for this match with his physical presence.
    Neymar, big game, big goal. He’s by far and away the best young player in the world. No question.
    Busi was ‘quiet’ today, in other words, he was vintage Busi. Alba, once again really good, our best player of the season alongside Neymar IMO.

    That celebration at the end of the 3rd goal brought (manly) tears of joy to my eyes. You can tell that picture is going to be everywhere.

    LE always starts the season slow before doing well in the 2nd half, hopefully, this was the turning point. Even though there were some people on twitter again saying it was an ‘individual’ win. Im constantly seeing people on there complain, even after this match, that Messi shouldn’t be playing at RW even though he played awesome there. If he plays as CF, then that means Suarez is being pushed to RW where he’s least effective. He goes from being a 10/10 to 6.5/10 whereas Messi is 10/10 as CF and 9.5/10 on RW

    Anyways, Onwards and upwards.

    • barca96
      January 12, 2015

      Ranjith from the Guardian??

      Dani was disciplined but most attacks bar a couple in the 1st half died whenever he touched the ball.

      Agree on Busi quiet = good.

  10. Davour
    January 12, 2015

    Great and exciting game! During a post-match interview, Neymar was asked by a reporter: who is the boss of the team, LE or Messi? Bartomeu he replied, smiled and walked off.

    • barca96
      January 12, 2015

      Yeah I saw that. It was right after the match. Bad ass answer! I was surprised tbh.

  11. Neel
    January 12, 2015

    @Davour, hehe, nice piece of news

  12. January 12, 2015

    I hate to be the buzzkill but athleti barely made it to their average selves, probably from beating Madrid at midweek. but altogether a strong statement from the team and especially messi, seems like he’s the one holding all the chips since Enrique always steered towards blank when queried on the issue.

    I think there was a rift, otherwise no emergency meetings, and i also think we are back to normalcy, predicted and absolute competitive line-ups and smiles everywhere. I’d hate to credit this victory to just the on-field prowess of our matchday team(and that includes physios and the lots) so its a massive victory for all of us including that #luchoout trend and media fire, if you are delusional enough to think that this team was always fine then thats your call.

    Its a phase we have grown from and no matter our understanding might be, I’m glad we had our feuds. There’s no need to lay down the gauntlet over the promise of tomorrow, alot can still happen in a day.

    As for Enrique’s trust, i just dont think he makes all the calls anymore.

    • ooga aga
      January 12, 2015

      cant kill this buzz kess. cant tell me atletico werent their average selves or give me the “tired from playing RM” argument. arguably we were less rested than they. we had one day less rest, they rested many players vs RM while we didnt vs Elche, and i bet if you look at the “distance run” stats in the midweek games it isnt significantly different.

      but a strong statement yes. a VERY strong statement.

      why do you continue to think there was a rift? beyond the normal things that happen between humans, sometimes? not everyone gets along all the time. so what? i got tense with my girlfriend once, she got tense with me. then it passed. and we love each other.

      the evidence of the last day says you/we have basically no reason to believe anything about anything… or do you live in Barcelona and know people personally? youre reading the same discredited headlines as the rest of us.

      and then, you essentially call people who didnt believe the rumors regarding strife in the team “delusional.” nice.

    • January 13, 2015

      Well, i see your points on the days rest, but playing Madrid isn’t like playing any other team in the world, with them its a drain-drain situation, we had a walk in the park prior to this game and whether you see it or not athleti were below average. But i didn’t not discredit the victory as a whole on that ground, i thought it was noteworthy.

      Thats not the point, we have great media and with enough intellect we deduce what they give to us, be it an exaggeration or rumor, then yet again we look to body language between the two targeted or the whole team as a whole, if messi scores does Enrique cheer? Does Enrique have any extended conversation post match? Does his press conferences reveal anything or he just ignores the question, does he pat neymar on the back?

      Like you said and i clearly stated, there was a rift or still is but we have passed that phase and whoever doesnt acknowledge that rift is delusional.

  13. barca96
    January 12, 2015

    I fully expect Ronaldo to win but for some reason I have a feeling that Messi is going to be close second surprisingly.

    If Ronaldo didn’t have a strong 2-3 months at the start of the season, he wouldn’t be a sure winner.

    The first 2-3 months of the season which is right before the voting takes place is crucial as most of the voters seem to think that it’s only those few months that count.

  14. Ryan
    January 12, 2015

    Thanks for the good read, Kxevin! That was an extraordinary effort by our team and hopefully is a sign of things to come. But even by itself it’s a wonderful thing to convincingly beat Atleti after the 6 draws/defeats of last season.

    They just announced the FIFPRO 11 by the way – I’m not sure about Iniesta and David Luiz being included, but otherwise looks about right. Godin surely should be in there though.

  15. norden
    January 12, 2015

    Great article, Kxevin. Thanks!

  16. ooga aga
    January 12, 2015

    thanks kxevin for another quick and well written piece.

  17. Jim
    January 12, 2015

    Not sure I’d buy the AM werent a patch on their normal selves because they played RM. Half of them were rested. They were outplayed by a hungrier team. They were up for it but couldn’t cope. Likewise, though, this isn’t the end of our struggles.

    I posted a comment at the end of the last article so I’ll just pick out one or two things which I think are quite relevant.

    After the week we’ve had the one thing for sure was that our players were going to be angry. Angry, hurting Barca is a good Barca. That didn’t take much in the way of mystic predictions. When we move and press it takes a great team to beat us.

    The performance from the front three has been coming. They have basically been waiting for Suarez to pick up the threads of how they play and how the quality he can expect is maybe higher than before, even as the defences are more packed. Their movement at its best is unstoppable for any defence.

    Messi on the right wing which some of us have been shouting for has also been too long coming. It should have happened when we bought Villa. We have suffered two/ three seasons with no presence in the box. Even the Milan game didn’t make the penny drop. Suarez will make CBs lives a misery in the next while and if they’re bothering about him It’s party time for Messi.

    We didn’t lose the first goal !!! See what a difference that makes to how the better teams have to play us. AM got a bit confused after our first goal as to how many should be going forward. Can we now stop talking about our weak defence? We haven’t had one of those for some time and certainly since the start of the season. What we have done is lose silly goals this season due to errors. The defence totally sat on AM yesterday. No, I’m not completely happy yet as Masche needs to move forward to DM. He played well yesterday but still too many needless FKs given away around our box and we were fortunate Pique got his head to so many of the cross balls/ set pieces. That won’t always happen.

    What I would say is that Id have no objection to him being made captain. Once Xavi goes, Iniesta is too quiet. Pique is actually a growing shout but overall Masche is probably our best bet for a motivational captain. Just don’t let him set the defensive line at FKs. He leaves far too much space between the line and the keeper. Saw him and Pique arguing about it yesterday, not for the first time.

    Buses! It was nice to see Bravo looking to move the ball out long occasionally but most of our play was again with seven or eight players between us and the goal. The midfield played their part in pressing and defending but not in any of the goals. We scored these goals against a packed defence so we can do it if we get the right forward movement.

    Finally, LE. No matter what has or hasn’t gone on, you’ve bought some time. Use it to build on this and keep cultivating that world against us feeling. It seems to work.

  18. Jim
    January 12, 2015

    I know being a language teacher I should have a good command of the spoken and written word but that man is an arse and always shall be.

    Apologies.

    • Jamal103
      January 12, 2015

      What I found most alarming is that the final vote tally was not even close with Ronaldo tallying up almost 38% of the vote while Messi and Neuer settled for around 15% a piece..

    • Valdemar II
      January 12, 2015

      Being as diplomatic as I can, still can’t make a good argument for Cristiano this year. He scored less goals if you disregard the pens, and if he’s not scoring more goals what is he really doing to deserve the award? That’s his whole game.

    • January 12, 2015

      I think there’s a hole in that analogy, Jim.

      (From one English teacher to another).

    • Jim
      January 12, 2015

      I stand in shame, Lev, but feel better already. Please feel free to delete above comment 🙂

    • Jim
      January 12, 2015

      Nice one, btw . . . .

    • Davour
      January 12, 2015

      That was funny – in a Beavis & Butthead goes to university kind of way.

    • bhed
      January 13, 2015

      This makes me proud to be in the fraternity.

  19. Ttemple
    January 12, 2015

    If all the other awards were predicated in the World Cup, then why wasn’t the Ballon d’Or?

  20. ooga aga
    January 12, 2015

    the world feared the tantrum that would have been thrown had he not won. only way i can explain it.

  21. Davour
    January 12, 2015

    The Ballon D’oh? Ah, the hyped golden boot. Shame that Neuer didn’t win. A bit amusing to scan the votes. Note that Turan left Messi out of the top three. Guess he was out in his place yesterday… And Zlatan, again, voted for Messi. Man, they must really hate each other. Casillas seems to wage an anti-Messi campaign; first he would not have him in his team (which Carlo mildly corrected), then he does not deem him good enough for top three (revenge for all those balls picked out of the net?)

    The narrative everywhere is that Ronaldo has overtaken Messi (and tellingly, media voted near unanimously for CR) – you need the conflict going. But there is no denying he had a great year, despite contributing perhaps more in quantity than in decisive moments. Messi should’ve buried that chance in the WC-final…

    What’s there to say? People like them goals.

    • Davour
      January 12, 2015

      Turan was, of course PUT in his place…

  22. Archie
    January 12, 2015

    Wow, one of those days where the story line changes abruptly. Messi demanded to win this game. I found his hand ball so disturbing that I stopped watching the replay for an hour. The more I thought about how it had affected me the more apparent it was that he was “taking” the game in a show of dominance that didn’t conform to normal boundaries. Against Real Madrid in first leg of Copa (and in many previous matches) Athletico players “took” the game regardless of relative overall football quality of the individuals.

  23. Neel
    January 12, 2015

    Was it only me who found both Messi and his partner (forget her name) failing to hide their not so great feelings about LE? Messi was almost bummed. Ya, bury me, but I will still keep gloating about LE.
    CR7- he is really dumb, how he talks, what he talks.

    • Jim
      January 12, 2015

      I’d be careful reading too much into that. It was a long and very tedious ceremony and God only knows when they had to be in their seats. My overriding thought was actually what a lovely couple they make. I’m old, I know.

    • IamXavi6
      January 12, 2015

      Antonella Roccuzzo.

  24. luisthebeast
    January 12, 2015

    Leo messi is the best player ever.The media need someone like ronaldo.But for the people who know football there is leo and then the rest(my boy luis i know u understand me;-)).

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