The ending was perfect.
In many ways seeing Messi laying there on the Etihad pitch raging at his penalty miss, prone in the aftermath of a putback attempt, was a perfect ending to this wonderful match. Because art shouldn’t be perfect. Art, like life, should contain flaws, and Barça is life. Messy, violent, sublime life that treats us to highs and lows, spits in our faces at inopportune times and presents us with joy sufficient to almost make our hearts burst.
And like art, its artisans paint with brightly colored boots for brushes, making the most delicate hatching marks across a green canvas as they seek to create simultaneous beauty as they sow destruction.
In the wake of a loss to Malaga, a casino visit and speculation about the state of a relationship between a coach and his star player, Barça set up to face Manchester City, a team that culers suspected might not be good enough but like that thing you know you want and will probably get, but don’t want to count on it because you might jinx it, few culers really wanted to confess to being flush with confidence at the outset of this repeat matchup of last season’s Champions League.
Some of the uncertainty was because of the Malaga tie, a loss in which the team’s coach discussed his tactics after the match as if they were some sort of formula rather than one of those footballing bolts out of the blue. “But Malaga isn’t even a Champions League side,” some said as those slivers of doubt crept in.
And then, for 45 magnificent minutes, Barça delivered a display of footballing divinity that had neutrals shaking their heads in wonderment. It was a delightful team performance that was helped by some naivete on the part of City and its coach, just as Malaga was helped on the weekend by a lot of flatness from Barça. These things happen. Busquets could sip tea as he decided what perfect pass to play. Alba was everywhere. Suarez scored a pair of goals, classic striker’s goals, and should have had a third. Rakitic was every bit the player he was at Sevilla, unleashed in a system that played to his strengths and an opponent who allowed such a thing to transpire.
Pique was magnificent, Ter Stegen coolly professional, But even in the face of all that beauty, only a fool wouldn’t admit that this was Messi’s match. His fingerprints were over both goals, and he had defensive stats that would put a defender to shame. He pranced and capered, nutmegged and passed, controlled and dominated. It was a night where he seemed unfettered by mortal constraints as City players tried everything to contain him only to find Messi, somehow, almost magically, on the other side of a tackle attempt as even efforts to foul him failed.
The first goal came from a lobbed pass into the box that found Kompany unprepared, perhaps thinking that the attempt would be absurd. The ball bounced around and fell onto a patch of open pitch, seeming to stop there as if to ask the question, “Who wants this?” Suarez stopped, pounced and it was 0-1. Lucky bounce, sure. Excellent movement, absolutely. But the perfection of that pass smacked of divinity. You don’t have to be a fan of Messi to be able to appreciate how extraordinary the things are that he does, things that make his ordinary days make liars out of those who defend him no matter what.
For the second goal, Rakitic took a pass and was instantly confronted by a couple of City defenders. With discretion being the better part of valor he passed the ball to Messi, who doesn’t seem to have notions of what can or can’t be done. Five defenders confronted him as he moved through them almost like a video game, as some kid with a joystick said “Cool! The cheat code!” Then he slid a pass to Alba, who assisted Suarez.
Say that Messi didn’t have a good match because he was bottled up by defenders, then put the Vine of today’s moment on repeat and tell me again how a defense can stop Messi when he doesn’t want to be stopped. His nutmeg of David Silva was pure evil, this display coming in the wake of a written piece by Paul Scholes in which he describes how impossible it is to play against Lionel Messi, who essentially brought that piece to life.
After the match people rushed to the defense and praise of Messi as they always do almost no matter how he plays, like the obligatory standing ovation that greets a symphony orchestra by a crowd that doesn’t really know how to parse what they saw so it’s easier to leap to their feet and scream “Bravo!”
But Messi doesn’t need defending. Messi doesn’t need praise. Especially not after this match. If you can watch that player have that match, then sit and suggest that he isn’t extraordinary, it doesn’t matter how much anyone says, what kind of case is made for him. You either see it, or you don’t. And if you don’t see it, how can anyone really explain it to you?
Yet even after all that, the mistake would be to reduce this match to Messi, for other Barça players were also immense, even if not otherworldly. Suarez, seemingly revved up by the English air, was everywhere, from scoring to donkey work, tracking back and winning balls. Pique made a case for his return to the defensive elite, making those times when he was being dismissed as a poker-playing playboy with a pop star wife seem such a distant memory.
And Enrique got his tactics right as much as Pellegrini got his wrong as his attackers came running at Barça as if they believed that “defensive frailty” business. That Barça will make an error or two is a given, and a sharp opponent will need to capitalize on every one of them. But those brain lapses are different from the kind of frailty that too many supporters and pundits seem to take for granted. But City didn’t just leave space. Barça took it with a display of pretty passing and movement that called to mind another era, the kind of football that Enrique detractors snarled about this team not being able to play, forgetting that Enrique has struggled and rotated and coached to build a team that can play in many different ways to beat an opponent.
Yes, history will ask whether Barça was guilty of hubris as they came out for the second half a diminished side that seemed almost surprised that City would evince the quality and effort that makes them a Premiership contender. They slowly worked their way back into the match, eventually pulling a goal back thanks to a comedy of errors as it seemed that every Barça defender had a chance to clear a ball that eventually fell to Aguero, who made no mistake as he slotted home. People gasped and suddenly paranoid culers began to mutter that perhaps, just perhaps, a 2-2 seemed more likely than a 1-3 as doubt reminded us of his residency, like that obnoxious relative who just won’t leave your guest room.
But to fret and worry and suddenly bay at the heavens would be to ignore the reality that City wasn’t in this match. The first could have ended 0-4 or 5, and only Joe Hart kept his team in the match with three excellent moments: two against Messi and one against Suarez. And yes, this tie could have, and probably should have been over, but the reality is that whether 0-2 or 1-2, away goals mean that City will still have to score twice at the Camp Nou while not conceding. I’m no oddsmaker but the possibility of that, given the necessity of the all-out kind of attack such a feat will require, strains credulity.
It’s easy to understand the doubt that creeps in. This team just lost to Malaga. Yes, it’s the same team that won 11 straight, beat Atleti three times and was on a roll, but disaster is just around the corner. We lost to Malaga! The beauty of football is that each and every match is a new beginning. A relegation candidate has a chance to beat the immense, talent-packed, monied colossus, just as an extraordinary footballing side has the potential to be, for a match or two, a week or two, a magical run of matches or few, better than its supporters expect it to be, better than the culer-described mess that it demands to be.
We are graced with one of the best football teams in the world. You need look no farther than the disappointment in a 1-2 result that wasn’t as close as the score indicated to understand that. Malaga returned home, hailed as conquering heroes. That win made their season. The win for Barça today somehow wasn’t enough. They got a goal, we should have scored more.
And yet for me, the result was almost beside the point. For a half, Barça achieved footballing divinity, making the game look easy against an opponent — a powerful, monied opponent boasting gobs of talent — who was doing everything in its power to make that game as difficult as possible. We seek beauty and elegance, seek those moments that lift us up and promise something extraordinary. It is often said that culers would rather lose with beauty than win ugly. Yet winning with moments of breathtaking beauty somehow leaves a supporter base wanting more, demanding more, somehow feeling cheated.
Ask me how I know Barça is better than even its supporters are willing to admit, and I will point to that feeling. It should have been more. That it wasn’t more isn’t the point. It’s the expectation that defines the feeling, and the beauty that makes it all so wonderful.