“It’s tough to play against a side who play at the limit, but that’s the derby.”
— Luis Enrique
This was nasty, but anyone with half a brain knew that it would be, because the Catalan derby always is.
This wasn’t really supposed to be a match that was fraught with danger, but the signs were there: first match of the new year after all that holiday revelry. The superstars jet off to places while the local boys stay home, have dinner with their families and work out how they are going to be heroes on Saturday. And last year as well, Barça laid an egg in its first match in January, away to La Real.
If you looked, signs were there against Betis, despite a gaudy final scoreline. Barça doesn’t look like a tired team, but at times it does look like a complacent one, a group who thinks that one more chance will always come so it’s okay to squander the one that’s there — then they are looking, stunned, at the scoreboard and full time.
This was one of the first matches since the miasma of the early season, in which Barça looked like it didn’t have much of a clue of how to deal with what they were facing. Hats off to Espanyol for that. Usually what happens is one-touch football takes over as the ball and players ping around and suddenly, a player is running free to slot home. But, and we should acknowledge the elephant in the room here, the team hasn’t played as well after the return of Messi as it was playing just before he came back from injury. It’s like they have again settled into familiar patterns of waiting for magic. Neither ball nor players moved today, which is the only way to beat a team like Espanyol.
The 0-4 destruction of Real Madrid was, for me, the high point of the season so far, because Barça won that match on every level: tactically, effort, quality of play. It was beautiful even for neutrals, as an exceptional team performance. Then the big dog comes home, and people relax a bit. It doesn’t take much to dull an edge. In an ideal world, the team would have kept on being brilliant, while adding the best player in the game. Ah, idealism.
Adding to this is the mess of a pre-season, and a short XI that has been working hard to make up gaps and differences all season. Is the team tired? Fatigued? For sure. Haven’t kept track, but I’d wager that the number of rest days from training have been higher this season, as the coaching staff tries to get the group home without wearing out or getting injured. When you look at it all that way, is this result today really much of a shock?
Iniesta and Pique were both extraordinary today. The rest of the team played like there had been a bit too much partying over the New Year, matching the sluggish start against Betis. What made this match different was that Espanyol didn’t tire, working as hard to fight, close down passing lanes and stick legs in to deflect in the 90th minute as the first. They turned it into a real alley fight, like the brawler does against the boxer, wearing out legs just from the constant leaning, and pecking, and battling.
Barça played into their hands by reverting to “Hey, I’m a great player” mode, running at the mass of eight Espanyol defenders who just waited, then intervened at the last moment. Messi hit the post on an excellent free kick. Suarez inexplicably hit the post when confronted with a gaping net. Alba wet the bed off a great early chance that would most likely have turned this match into what many culers expected, a comfortable cruise to victory.
But it wasn’t to be. There will be much excoriation of the same referee whose incompetence gifted RM a victory against La Real. He allowed Espanyol to transgress the rules in a manner that made the mere 5 yellows that team received seem like an injustice. Gonzalez Gonzales turned the first half into a crapshow that favored Espanyol, because half-blind officiating rarely helps the better team. But even with that, Barça had chances to score that were spurned.
The bottom line is that Barça didn’t even come close to playing well enough to win. Raktic, Messi, Suarez, Neymar, Alves, Bravo, Alba, pretty much everyone was poor, chasing the ball and arguing instead of playing their game. Even Messi, toward the end of the match, received a foul and, as he was sitting on the pitch, made the “Card him” gesture to the ref. It was that kind of day. Messi usually takes those fouls, gets up, then cuts the offender’s throat.
The team has to understand what a derby is, has to understand that with a derby, positions in the table are meaningless. It does, but didn’t look ready for what came today and tactically broke down, becoming a collection of individuals instead of a destructive team. The vaunted MSN didn’t even touch the ball until almost 5 minutes into the match. Espanyol effectively tilted the pitch with pressure, never really looking like scoring, even as each foray into the Barça end meant that the ball spent less time in their end. The midfield was just a battleground. It really was an excellent performance by them.
Usually when an opponent comes at Barça with that much intensity, they tire, and some moment of high-quality play puts the knife in. But Espanyol was relentless today, and did everything right as Barça did almost everything wrong. Neymar tries some little bit of trickery but, confronted by three Espanyol defenders, can do nothing. Messi makes a brilliant run at the defense, but to where? There are eight Espanyol players in the box. Alves takes a ball on the right and, “Je pense … Je pense …” plays it too slowly and is closed down by an Espanyol player. Suarez was doing his Diego Costa impersonation, throwing his body around but coming up short when it mattered. His miss was ridiculous, particularly after he did all the hard work of beating the defender and the keeper. The he smacked it directly off the post. It was stunning.
Bravo played in a way that a better team would have taken advantage of, even Busquets was slack. Rakitic played as he always does when tired, and by the time Sergi Roberto came on for him, the rest of the team was dead or too busy arguing. Meanwhile, Espanyol was getting to almost every loose ball, winning almost every 50/50 ball, playing like a team that wanted the point that it came with. Barça played like a team that didn’t quite know why the poor kids weren’t cooperating, and wondering why management didn’t solve the problem.
The two shining lights were Iniesta, who at 31 is playing truly magical football, and Pique, who was a back line stalwart. Even late in the match, the team is arguing about something and Iniesta, seeing that time is wasting, walks over to push them away, to make them understand that the squabbling is all but ensuring the negative result for Barça. The team let Espanyol get in their heads, and suffered for that laxity.
For a bit of the second half Barça came out and played like it had a collective clue, and created chances, that all fell apart at the death, or a bad ball fell closer to an Espanyol foot than a Barça one. And tactically, Espanyol was able to effectively flood the midfield with its high pressure, which meant balls over the top, long balls and short passes that died on what looked to be a bone-dry cabbage patch of a pitch.
Frustratingly, the two players who could have made a significant difference couldn’t play today, because the LFP is on holiday, so the earliest that Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal can be registered is Monday. There really weren’t any difference makers on the bench. Luis Enrique tried to inject some energy into midfield with Sergi Roberto for Rakitic, but everybody else was cashed, so that didn’t happen. But on Monday, everything changes.
Culers will talk about conspiracies, nefarious black hands that rise up to slap Barça down, but the only thing that happened today is that the team wasn’t prepared for a derby, got punched in the face and had no answer. And they couldn’t go crying to Dad, because he wasn’t interested. This was a winnable match that turned into a draw because the team didn’t play well enough. Anything else is just an excuse.