“You can’t say we were violent – there was no blood. If we’d have wanted, they would have left the pitch on a stretcher.””
— Pape Diop
“The limits are set by the referees. Those are the ones who are in charge of making sure this is football and not American football.
“What we’re looking to do is play.”
— Luis Enrique
There are those who believe that at long last, the Catalan derby is a proper derby, filled with spit, vinegar, hard fouls and insults. There was even a tunnel dust-up in which nothing was hurt except for feelings. In many ways it’s like the wrestling that is popular in America. Men scream at each other in guttural voices, somebody gets hit with a folding chair, then they go out for drinks afterward.
The difference between wrestling and the first two rounds of the Catalan derby is that the wrestlers know their lines, their part in the script. In real life, on the football pitch, real stuff is at stake, along with real emotions. And those things can get out of control. Pape Diop was right, in a perverse way. There wasn’t blood. But not for lack of trying. Their keeper stepped on Messi, quite deliberately. A defender went in hard on Neymar, studs up.
Pantomime villains understand what’s going on, and how to temper the blow. But a player trying to “send a message” can sometimes send the wrong one, and change a player’s career. Espanyol is supposed to play hard-nosed football. Derbies are nasty affairs, because nothing makes enmity like neighbors. A proper derby is always welcome, but a line was crossed today, a mark in the sand that began on the weekend with a 0-0 draw at Espanyol.
If it worked once, surely it will work again, was probably the thinking, as Saturday’s match featured a Barça that was taken out of its game by a chippy, physical opponent. The reward for that rival was a 0-0 draw, and a little bit of pride. This match was different in many ways, but most notably because the shots didn’t hit the post. They hit the back of the net. And the official, while down to the usual Liga standard, wasn’t as worthless as Saturday’s bumbler, and Espanyol went down to 9 men. The Messi free kick that smacked the woodwork on Saturday pranged off it and down into the back of the net on Wednesday.
Suarez is still finishing like a player in a bit of a slump, and Espanyol should be thankful. If he was on his game, the scoreline would have been a beatdown because they did something truly helpful: they scored on Barça. A truly stanky giveaway from Alves led to an Espanyol break. Mascherano ran to the ball instead of understanding that Pique had the ball, and that he should take the runner. He chose the wrong option, and Ter Stegen was helpless.
Espanyol celebrated the goal as though they had won the tie, but like the hero who gets punched in the face then gets riled up, that goal woke Barça up, and another difference was made apparent from Saturday, as Barça figured out that the way to beat a bully is to humiliate. Don’t whine. Rub his face in it. The result was whirlwind football that Espanyol was, at times, powerless to stop because the ball moved faster than their kicks and shoves.
Barça didn’t show backbone on the weekend. It showed petulance of the sort that creates a red mist, that takes a team off of its game just enough for the aggressor to have just enough control of the match to get a result. Today, Barça showed the kind of backbone that said, “You can kick, but that’s all you do. Now stand back.” There was hard work, grit and determination of the kind that makes people assert that this team has taken on the hard-nosed personality of its coach. Most crucially, Barça didn’t wallow in the mud with Espanyol. They got fouled, got up and started play quickly. And the first goal was a thing of beauty, as a result.
Arda Turan, unleashed after six long months of preparing to play, worked a ball loose with quickness and physicality, not of the type unleashed by Espanyol, goon stuff, but of the type a dark-hearted midfielder possesses. He fed the ball directly forward and a few passes later, Messi struck home, mere minutes after the Espanyol goal. This was the Barça of last season’s back half of the season, the team that struck back when it was struck, that wasn’t interested in taking prisoners.
The second goal was a sublime Messi free kick from distance, a shot that caromed off the underside of the crossbar, the keeper and the pitch before bounding over the line. It was almost as if the Football Gods tired of the frustration, tired of seeing shot after shot, 15 of them this season, bang off the post. Today would be the day, and it would be wonderful.
Espanyol tried to destroy, Barça tried to create. That’s the difference, Saturday to Wednesday. Both teams had the horses, so to speak, to attempt to accomplish their chosen task. Espanyol wanted a repeat of Saturday. Barça wanted anything but, and played like a team made to understand what it needed to do. Neymar capered up the sideline, Iniesta had another match for the ages, a display that should make people start to think that maybe, just maybe, this isn’t a rich vein of form, but the way that Iniesta will be playing. He was dominant and glorious, almost above the fray, gliding about the pitch to distribute pass after pass, unleashed in his role of modified Xavi thanks to the presence of a boot-throwing hellion.
Messi was focused, sporting a murderface like his latest crappy haircut, hitting shots with venom, tracking back, tackling and playing like a player who wanted to leave no doubt as to who the better team was.
We could sit in our chairs and express disgust at the way that Espanyol chose to go about its business, but what choice did they have, really? They aren’t going to be able to play football with Barça. At least if you try to drag the whole game down into the mud, everything slows down and you have a shot. But the difference between petulance and anger is 0-0 vs 4-1. It’s that little bit of extra focus, that ire that forges a player into something other than what he is, augmenting his skill with a bit of iron will.
But Barça football is also pretty, so when Pique took advantage of slack marking to tap a cross home, it was 3-1 and the centerback was in full trolling mode. There were those who suggested that at 3-1, the tie was still in doubt, that this team could actually win a match 2-0 at their house, and progress thanks to the valuable away goal. Then Neymar unleashed a golazo that put paid to such notions, while also beating a tattoo on the psyches of the Espanyol players. Kick all you want, but you still aren’t good enough. Being dragged down into the mud only works if you allow the opponent to grab hold. Today, players and the ball moved too fast for that, and beauty ensued.
The only miracle was that the final scoreline wasn’t even gaudier, and the only thing left was the tunnel, and the folding chairs. Luis Suarez might or might not have waited for the Espanyol players, labeling them a “waste of space.” Barça players might or might not have waited for the Espanyol players in their locker room, ready to … um … discuss things. But all of that stuff might or might have happened off the pitch, even as it was a direct result of what happened on the pitch. The two are inseparable. And those hailed it as a proper derby, finally. After all, there wasn’t blood.
Meanwhile, and fascinatingly, Diop received a straight red for saying to Luis Suarez precisely what Gerard Pique said to earn his red card and suspension. And the other Espanyol red card came from an aggregation of yellow offenses that went one too far, as the sport called kicking Neymar earned its just desserts.
There are few things more disagreeable than culers who brandish umbrage every time a Barça player is kicked. Hell, who wouldn’t kick Iniesta? How the hell else are you going to slow him down? You get stuck in, you play physical, you try to burden the ballerina. Espanyol, however, crossed a line into thuggery. Impede, take the professional foul, okay. But when you step, heavily, on a player’s leg, that is disgusting. There is joy in the fact that Barça responded to that by creating a football whirlwind, by saying that you can’t hit what you can’t catch.
Espanyol tried harder, and so did Barça. Only a fool would believe that an opponent should come out like Rayo, caper about in an elegant football match and take its whipping standing up. You play in the way that promises to get you the best result. But call thuggery what it is.
How must debutantes Turan and Aleix Vidal must have felt, coming to Barça from teams that would strive to play physical with Barça, to use getting stuck in to take them out of their game. What must the pleasure have been like of having 70 percent possession, of playing football that bordered on bliss with some of the best players in the game. Turan unleashed Iniesta in a way that Iniesta used to unleash Xavi, in a way that is different than Rakitic. He’s pacier than most realized, and worked selflessly for the team. He’s also fonder of, and more adept with the forward pass than Rakitic, dishing off ball after ball that deserved a better fate, playing like a player who worked out with this team, and knew exactly what was expected of him.
Vidal, on the other hand, was a little like … well … Douglas. Jumpy, nervous and conservative. There is no question that the player, however, has a tremendous up side. His potential as a right-sided Alba is clear, as are the ways in which he improves an already formidable team.
There will be cliches such as football lost, etc, today, but they aren’t true. Football won, over the sort of probably unintentional excess that comes from people who don’t know the script, who don’t understand boundaries. Football won because sometimes the princess wins by not asking why you dare question royal lineage, but by responding to mud slinging by becoming ever more regal. Steel-toed boots don’t hurt, either.