Barça 4, Espanyol 1, aka “Wrestling without a script”

“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.

turan

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

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.

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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.

25 Comments

  1. luisthebeast
    January 6, 2016

    I dont like to give the blame to one player when we concede a goal but who was our player that did not follow Caisedo when he make the move?Macherano did what many times do in such counterattacks and i cant understand why!Lucho must do such things in trainings and prepare our CBs for 2vs2 chances!

  2. georgjorge
    January 7, 2016

    Thanks for a great article, Kxevin! “dark-hearted midfielder”, “iron will” – a beautiful story.

    I actually thought the referee was decent, he was a bit too lenient in the first half but still got to his task of distributing yellows to Espanyol players when they took it to far. He couldn’t possibly have seen the stomp on Messi by their goalkeeper.

    I also thought Turan – apart from his defensive contribution – mostly played short safety passes when he got the ball, but that’s only to be expected in his first game for us (and such an intense one at that). There’s definitely a lot of potential for creativity and beating a man there. The key question for me is whether he will be allowed to express himself that way or be constrained to be a point of reference for Messi and Alves/Vidal on the right side while covering for them defensively like Rakitic. However it will turn out, his facial expressions when faced with complaints from opposing players are already world-class.

  3. Cyclops
    January 7, 2016

    Firstly, i’d have to say Revenge is really Sweet-its just too difficult not to enjoy it…

    And boy, were the players not up for that game..They literally had Fire in their Stomach..The line about Messi Sporting A Muderface, funny, but in truth he and Neymar apparently were all in for setting some records straight..
    And that one of the thing you really enjoy most,,there’s hardly a movie scene more sweeter than when a Talented Hero decided he’s had enough of the beatdown, and is ready to do some beating down of his own

    But how lame can Espanyol get tho’, really did they actually think replicating the weekend performance would gets them same result? that would only happen if the Hero of the Movie is some dumb guy, who’s hardly got any Emotions..
    Well that wasnt the case, and the dweebs got their backside rightly handed back to get them

    Still i wonder how many times we’ve seen this same script played out? I think its was Villareal last season, who put out a very intense performance in the liga game- maybe a couple of Litres short of what espanyol did, they lost but left a mark, and they thought to repeat that in the copa game, but they got swatted away.

    But then as Kxevin said, what choice do they really have? its not that easy hitting a mark and coming up with a tactics(ofcourse calling it a Tactic is an extreme Favour i’m doing) that works against Barca, and throwing it away, dosnt look quite smart…After all what did they said about a working Team? Never change it

    But the quote attributed to Diop if its true, i think he should be charge with First class attempted Homicide..its ridiculous…If the play wasnt bad enough the comments took it up there.. I know some will talk about other derbies, but take the Roma-lazio derby for example, rarely does a Match ends between those two, without dozens of Yellow card, redcards, penalties. coming in full..
    Here we’re practically begging for a measly yellow card
    Dish out two three Redcards to espanyol at the weekend, and by jingo their coach Galca would come up with another tactics whether he likes it or not
    Enrique’s quote about the Ref Just about said it all

    But i find it highly amusing that they dish out the agricultural Fouls, yet are the same people who gets smacked with injuries? lol, is that some sort of Reverse causal phenomenon, were your actions on others simply comes back to blight you.. Its weird , but weird is what Espnayol is, is what their play’s about…

  4. January 7, 2016

    Normally when our opposition is down to 10 men, I feel different and only just want a win, nothing more. But yesterday, really wished we scored 8 or 9 goals against Espanyol.
    Am so so happy for Arda. We have got one more excellent dribbler, even in tight spaces. Rakitic might need to worry about the starting space, I think.
    Vida wasnt poor, but I can see that he is going to be incredible, very soon.
    And Masche, please please its been some years that you are a CB. That was very poor from you.

  5. Davour
    January 7, 2016

    Yes, on some level one can understand the frustration of the Espanyol players. But they are still professionals – as are the refs – and it should not get so heated. Suarez, it seems, did not really help the situation. But it is hard to know the details, of course.

    Still, our team, when playing like this, is just impossible. Really, we have not only the best, but – to me – the 5 best players in the world (in order, Messi, Neymar, Iniesta, Busquets, Suarez), and arguably the best CB, now that Piqué is back on form. That is simply insane.

    Thanks for the show (and the article!)

  6. Cyclops
    January 7, 2016

    Heard the guys waited for the espanyol players at the locker room, i just wonder if it finally turned into the WWE Kxevin spoke about out there..

    just to add, Espanyol Players would really be suffering a serious inferiority Complex right now..If the beating didnt completely punched a Mamoth hole on their Ego, i reckon Suarez’s comments did the Job..(and have you noticed Guys who plays like this against us mostly ends up with a rotten form? Roma- the latest example)So i’m going for an 11 game losing streak for Espanyol.. hey i’m not being Mean, just following #Facts…

  7. January 7, 2016

    Any news, if the club is reporting the Espanyol goalie stomp on Messi? Again, would we end up doing nothing about it. I would hate to see him next week.

  8. Dar_vincy
    January 7, 2016

    I’m only glad that both Rakitic and Alves can now sit up now that they have real competition to grapple with. I’m expecting the level of performance to improve in their various positions.
    And finally, a real steel in our midfield. I’m expecting the softness and the looseness in our midfield that is so often breached easily to greatly diminish.

    • Dar_vincy
      January 7, 2016

      Except we stole some Catalan birthright of theirs and besides the point that it was a derby, I’m curious as to why Espanyol would play like WWE wannabes against us and wouldn’t replicate same approach against Madrid and would instead elect to be subjected to a thorough annihilation. This very fact exasperates me to no end. They are to Real what Atletico isn’t us- charitable.

  9. January 7, 2016

    Espanyol is alleging that Suarez hurled racial insults at Pape Diop in the tunnel. More to come.

    • ooga aga
      January 7, 2016

      Unfortunately Suarez has exposed himself to this based on previous behavior.

      Meanwhile, I wonder if Barcelona is alleging that Pau tried to break Messi’s ankle on the pitch? There certainly is video evidence of that. Of the tunnel incident, I can’t say.

    • January 7, 2016

      The club is not going to contest the Pau incident. No reasons given as to why.

    • Davour
      January 7, 2016

      As of yet, unverified sources, I think. We’ll see. But he was out of line during the game, too; should’t overdo his bad-boy, provocative style. Especially with his baggage.

      And again we face a discussion: what is worse – horrible remarks, or trying to injure somebody? Part of the game, what happened with Messi, Pau said.

      I think everybody would be best off forgetting this side of the clash and move on.

  10. Cyclops
    January 7, 2016

    Ofcourse no reason, just That the Club Sucks, that all

  11. Jim
    January 7, 2016

    But why would they not pursue it? Can’t be bothered ? Are we still on this kick of slagging this board which has given us Neymar, Suarez, Bravo, TS, Matthieu, Turan, Vidal and relieved the club of a number of lesser players who weren’t going to make it, put on loan some who arent quite ready and got some money in for Cesc and Pedro who weren’t going to get much playing time ? They seem to have steadied the finances, overcome the loss of Tito, and become the first to win the treble twice. All this while having, imo, the top four or five players in the world and the largest average player salary. Anything levelled at them seems to me to range from the trivial to the “everyone’s doing it” and we are definitely the poor neighbours power wise in the country, not least because we’re seen as less Spanish than some.

    So, all in all, they are doing a pretty decent job so can we give them some credit for that and a bit of slack when it’s clear that they either don’t think they can get anywhere or they’re pretty sure La Liga is going to deal with an insignificant GK from the hatchet boys up the road ?

    On to the game – which I ended up watching on a decent stream with a Spanish commentary which was about thirty seconds behind the action. More exciting in some ways than Bourne at its best but ultimately pretty frustrating. Don’t know how lucky I am to have a good HD picture normally or how some of you can put up with it. However, what I think I saw was yet another piece of this amazing jigsaw come together.

    I moaned for years about the lack of a CF to push the CBs about and how Villa was played out of position and we bought Suarez. We got rid of Sanchez, who was a decent player but holding us back as he carried little threat and we were reduced to debating whether running about the pitch was enough for a Barca forward. So we got Neymar, who, unbelievably, some were against. We got rid of Cesc, who I Still think is a great player, just not good enough for us and bought Rakitic. Not our finest moment as far as I was concerned as he is good but not good enough. He skewed our midfield play and we had to resort to the fact that we had the best front three in the world. Hardly slumming it by any standard but the fact remains that when Xavi didn’t play last season our passing game and control from midfield went. So we bought Turan the boot thrower. Even after one game I hope most can agree that the mdfield is going to go back up that notch. Not wishing him ill as the guy seems really nice and runs his hart out for us but I have a feeling Rakitic may end up being used as the sub after 70 minutes and our midfield may now once again become unplayable. I fear Rakitic, Rafinha and SR may now be competing to avoid leaving us.

    So, to sum up. I reckon our front three is now close to perfect – we probably still need a sub who carries some threat- , our midfield is geared up to play whatever way we want ( carry the ball, beat men, thread passes, control the game and press) and our defence is pretty good. We have one of the top GKs in the world in Bravo and if he falters one of the best up and coming keepers in TS

    Still needed : in defence we need a partner for pique. Not a new comment from me I know but hopefully more are coming round to it, if not LE. He is playing Masche regardless and he is a weak link. Always has been although he has played some very good games. He not only can’t help himself charging to the ball, he unsettles Pique who needs to know where his partner is and what he will do. Yes, I know Alves shouldn’t have lost the ball yesterday but we were still okay had everyone done their job. It wasn’t hard.

    The only other spot needing backup is DM. Busi is provably the best in the world at this position but who is his replacement ? Masche gives us aggression but not the quickness of feet or guile, SR might be okay but it’s not his natural position. To me the answer is there and it’s Samper. At 20 he is ready for the next step and all he needs is time. What he has still to learn is learnable and that’s the key. If you don’t have the peripheral vision, intuition, passing ability and quick feet you can’t learn it. He has all of these and just needs playing time to improve the small flaws which are still in his defensive game. ( certainly no more than Busi had to learn when he arrived in the firsts) . I’d be more happy contemplating Samper as a backup for Busi than I was originally when Busi came in for Yaya.

    New Year’s resolution regarding Twitter – like brevity has gone for a burton but then not even Twitter seems to be managing that. Thoughts ?

    • Davour
      January 7, 2016

      Rumour has it we are looking for a CB this summer… I know you’ve been suggesting Mathieu as Piqué’s partner, but would he really provide an overall stronger game? I’m not convinced.

      I do agree with you on Rakitic. He does wonderful, selfless work covering for Messi and Alves, scoring some goals… but his passing game just won’t pick up properly. A few times during the weekend game he failed to execute correctly (too tired? Well…). Obviously, players have different roles, but in this Barca, you cannot be a too few-tricked pony. Arda looks promising; grit and creativity, but still not a spoilt superstar (like the front three) who refuses to sub (I hope). Could be a very nice match, him and Iniesta. And with SR and Raki, Rafinha returning, there is nice competition in mid.

      Samper is one for next year, not for the second stretch of the season where everything matters. But he looks very promising; I really liked the raw material displayed against Leverkusen. There is something there to be developed.

    • Jim
      January 7, 2016

      I’m not against looking for a long term CB, Davour, but you’re right I am convinced by Matthieu at CB. I can’t recall him letting us down there and I think everyone can agree he has played some great games with Pique there. He’s good in the air, very quick, covers well for Pique and to me has pretty good positional sense. He has been criticised for some of his performances at LB and tbh I can’t argue with that. His passing, although good, isn’t his best attribute and LB will find you out in that as you’re tight against a touch line and further up the pitch so everything is tighter. However, for me atm, he’s way ahead of the current incumbent and both Bartra and TV. Doesn’t stop us looking around for a younger partner for Pique while keeping the defence tight this season and maybe next.

      I wasn’t suggesting Samper as a regular for this season but to me he is wasted in the reserves and no other team plays the same way we do so he’s not gonna learn anything he doesn’t know already. He needs time with Iniesta, Turan and maybe even Busi pushed up. Playing with great players is much easier than he had in his last appearance where his midfield partners were Rakitic ( whose passing was unusually loose that night) and Kaptoum who showed a bit of promise but was too excitable in possession. If we need him in the B team, (and they may be a lost cause for this season which is bad news) then leave him there but give him the odd outing with the top guns when Busi needs a rest and promote him in the summer. That would give us a midfield squad of

      DM – Busi ( vast majority of games unless injured) / Samper / Masche
      AM. – Iniesta / Turan / SR / Rafinha / Rakitic ( with Turan able to play front three to spell them). That’s a peach of a midfield squad with a mixture of old, young and th next generation. What’s even better is they can all play our passing game. No need to spend bucks on Pogba etc , particularly as we’ll need them to renew Messi and Neymar.

    • Davour
      January 8, 2016

      Fair enough. I wonder if Masche brings intangibles to the table that LE likes – motivating speeches, drive and general grit – you know, Puyolesque qualities. Mathieu seems more like the strong, silent type…

      I am in complete agreement we should NOT buy Pogba (unless the price is really right, which it won’t be). Better to splash on a proper CB. The squad you outlined will be excellent for next year (assume Bartra will be leaving, and new CB entering), if Turan keeps on improving and Vidal manages RB well enough. Can’t think of any player who would be desirable then (Verratti, Alaba, etc, but not realistic). Still, have to start thinking about what will happen post-Iniesta (Neymar is the plan for post-Messi).

  12. Cyclops
    January 7, 2016

    Actually, that was a Tongue in Cheek comment
    But still i cant help but feel the boards are kind of inept in certain areas,,i think thats already a given, if we’re still arguing about that- then i’m suprised
    Especially with issues relating to officiating, we’ve seen the club take no action on ridiculous calls made by Ref against players,,its really dosnt matter whether you’d get the call overturned or not, thats neither here nor there.. often times you’ve gotta throw your weight around, set the records straight on who’s in charge, and prevent people messing with you..
    what was that comment that was attributed to Neymars agent again?about playing for Madrid if you dont want trouble? True or not, its highlights the fact that its quite generally obvious that maybe just maybe, the board’s not wielding enough Muscle…
    But hopefully we’ve gone past that stage of Bantering about the board, and shouldnt start one now..
    Though i’d have to say i think its giving the Board cheap credit, to just heap the success of Clinching the Treble on them…I dont know, but i dont just warm on to that particular Notion

  13. Cyclops
    January 7, 2016

    Samper for next season? Bro we’ve got Granada at the weekend, so you’d play Busquet against them? Never mind we’ve got the nasty Espanyol Couple days later.. or maybe you’d have Masche in Mind? then i wonder what can Masche do against Granada that Samper cant do better…
    Buisness end of the season you said, well said..as has been shown we are not getting the same luck with injuries as last season, Busquet Needs Rest..and against the Granada’s of this world( which would come aplenty)i’d give Samper Minutes, after a dozen of such games you wouldnt bet against him coming on in the 70th minute of the el clasico and holding his own…Seems smarter than shelving him aside to wait for Next season…

  14. Jim
    January 7, 2016

    Agreed on Samper, Cyclops. With regard to the board, don’t want to sound as if I’m a huge fan. I reckon most boards have their own agenda but I don’t see ours as being worse than anyone else’s. It’s seldom you hear any fans praise their board but I do feel they were given a rough ride by some fans before their re-election.

    • January 8, 2016

      Jim, does that give them the liberty to remain silent , without even a comment , forget an appeal, when their best player is deliberately stepped upon in a violent game.

  15. January 8, 2016

    Two-match ban for Suarez for his role in the tunnel incident. The club will appeal.

  16. January 8, 2016

    Anybody else in place of Messi in world football now, barr Xavi, would have made an absolute meal of that stomp, rolling around all. And Messi pays for it now.
    This kid needs to grow up, doesn’t he :)-

    • Davour
      January 8, 2016

      Good point. He reacted like a normal person would if somebody stomps on your leg – “Hey what the hell! Don’t do that”. Not collapsing on the pitch unable to move because of a muscle injury (like some other people…).

      Though I would add Iniesta – and the new, Messi-raised Neymar 😉

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