A dog briefly came through my life decades ago. What kind of life that dog led before coming to my home as a foster, nobody knew, but the manifestations of that hardscrabble existence were fear. Put her food down, and she’d wolf it down, giving me all kinds of sideeye like, “Back off! Mine!” A toy that was given to her was immediately hidden away in one of her doggy hiding places, only to be pulled out when she was sure nobody was around to take it from her. Fear, fear, always fear.
Today, I would name that dog Culer, because that’s the prevailing mindset of a fanbase that outsiders almost universally laugh at. During the Copa de Rey return leg, Athletic Club came out like a house afire, pressing, charging, running around. They scored a goal, and in the Culer Worry Multiplier, that goal counted for 10. And yet, the match was taking the same shape and cycle as the Malaga match that was still fresh in memory, where an opponent came out pressing, playing physically and having a great match, only to have Barça do exactly what it did against Athletic: score a goal, and cruise to a win.
But this time, this time, it will be different. This time, all the prophesies of doom will come to pass. Then Suarez bangs one home. Then Pique heads home. Then Neymar decides laws of physics don’t apply, and people are celebrating having made the Copa semi-final, until the draw comes and the team gets Valencia. Then it’s “Well, the Mestalla,” and “I’m worried about this tie, etc.” A player says that he is happy and he isn’t going to leave, which doesn’t stop people worrying about that player being transferred.
It’s the kind of reaction that makes a body wonder if they’re a proper culer, because from this and most normal seats, what’s going on is:
— Barça is unbeaten in its last 25 matches.
— In its normal starting XI, Barça has the best player in history, the best player in the game on current form, the best DM in the world, the best AM in the world, the best striker in the world, one of the best CBs in the world, the best LB in the world, the … you get it.– Atleti is a mean, physical, formidable opponent who boasts the stingiest defense in Europe, and who hasn’t beaten Barça anywhere in its last 11 tries.
— Barça is top of the table, with a match in hand, against Sporting Gijon. Even if doom occurs and a loss comes, the team will be, when it all shakes out, still just fine.
So it’s an odd thing to sit and not have a lot of real worry, even as you can have anticipation, even trepidation because every time your team rolls out, you want it to win. This isn’t possible. The rate at which Barça wins isn’t really possible. Through injury, malaise, “crises,” it just keeps on rolling, keeps on winning, and is just off a treble-winning season, boasting a team that has been reinforced in two key areas and is, almost unfathomably, stronger than it was at this same time last season. So we have to, at this point, parse worry vs concern, as the team looks at a potential six-pointer at its home fortress.
Anyone who remembers the early-season match against Atleti is far better than most of us, who have to hit DVR files or download buttons. In that brilliant, hotly contested match, Atleti scored first, before Neymar whipped in a magic free kick. Messi didn’t start, and the team was also without Pique (suspension) and Alves (injury). Neymar wasn’t in anything like the remarkable form that he is boasting right now, and neither was Iniesta, even as he turned in an MOTM performance. Messi entered and was electric, notching the winner and sowing chaos every time he touched the ball. It was a big win that came at the end of a difficult run of Athletic, Malaga and Atleti.
Atleti has the same trouble scoring now that they had then, even as their defense has toughened up since that match, but both teams have changed. The first match was a stalemate that was decided by moments of individual brilliance. This match looks to be very different, even as it will probably feel much the same.
— The flanks look to be the deciding areas. Atleti likes to get attacking width from its fullbacks, and Neymar makes Barça’s attack go from his left-sided perch. Will one neutralize the other? Neymar’s form is such that Atleti need to be more worried about him than Messi, and yet, Messi is always charged against Atleti. And then there’s Alba who is also capable of creating danger. Given the need to exploit the space left by Atleti’s attacking FBs, does Enrique deploy Aleix Vidal for his pace and potential runs into vacated space? Celta, who took Atleti apart in a 1-3 win, utilized attacking pace to unsettle, and unusually slack marking by Atleti on set pieces to drive the win home. You can’t give Barça set pieces because of the danger of Messi and Neymar on free kicks, but if you don’t foul them, how can you stop them? The players get into danger areas so quickly, and present problems that are almost impossible to solve, without conceding set pieces.
— The midfield will be a stalemate, as it always is, even as Iniesta will be key to this match. If the anime-coifed mid’s current form holds, it’s difficult to see how Atleti will be able to manage a win at the Camp Nou. Iniesta and Busquets are, at present, otherworldly. This means possession and building from the back, two of the hallmarks of the Barça system will be in the hands of the players who know how to use it best. And both will be fresh as daisies. Busquets got a little run-out against Athletic, and Iniesta was resting, and plotting. Atleti has quality in its midfield, as well as physicality and the ability to pick out telling balls to key attackers. But even the most fretful culer, asked whose midfield they would bet their house on, wouldn’t choose Busquets, Iniesta and … Turan or Rakitic?
— Barça has defensive problems, right? Wrong. Atleti, given their difficulty scoring goals of late, will have much bigger defensive worries than Barça, a concern that will almost certainly affect how they play. Simeone will be desperate not to play from a deficit. Antoine Griezmann is a fine attacker, but Atleti still have problems at forward. Torres is on the outs, and Jackson Martinez isn’t working at a level anywhere near commensurate with his gaudy price tag. Barça can afford to concede a goal, with full confidence that they will be able to score at least one at home. Atleti, however, faced with the possibility of having to chase a match, would become increasingly vulnerable as players pushed forward. That’s a recipe for disaster.
Bring me the best
Diego Simeone is probably pulling his hair out right now because on form, Neymar is the best player in football right now. The game looks easy for him. The goal that he scored against Athletic in the midweek Copa tie was, for a defensive plotter, terrifying because it’s the kind of goal that Messi can also score. Neymar was surrounded by four defenders but quickly worked his way into the box to preclude the possibility of a foul, which these days is the most effective way to stop him. He danced, pranced and with very little lift, smashed a ball into a top corner, past a keeper who knew what was coming. He can destroy from the wing, he is quicksilver with the ball at his feet and has reached a level of calmness that isn’t quite Messilike, but you can’t take him out of his game by fouling any longer. As with Messi, it just makes him more determined to destroy you.
Whether this arrival is ahead of schedule depends on who you ask. Neymar would probably say that it’s behind schedule. Most observers would say that it’s ahead of schedule, as a 23-year-old wisp of a man is already playing the game at a level that approaches the theoretical. Again as with Messi, as a defender it isn’t possible to say, “He won’t be able to … ” because in the form Neymar is in, he can. Again and again. He is fast enough to get to the end line, elusive enough to make a defender lean and then leave him for dead. He can shoot and score, but is more willing to pass in a danger zone than any top-class attacker any of us have seen in a while. Defenders can count on Messi and Suarez, once in the box, to shoot. When Neymar has the ball at his feet, a defense has to mind its back, because a late-arriving runner becomes a tempting target, such as when Neymar set up Rakitic, after essentially eliminating 5 players with a mazy, crazy run.
Things to worry about
People inclined to fret have plenty to worry about at FC Barcelona, but all of them are off the pitch. Money is the biggest thing to be concerned about right now, as the club desperately seeks the massive piles of cash necessary to keep the magic machine humming. This is a club that is already at the 70% salary to revenue mark, and has some massive renewals/raises looming. Sergi Busquets is the best DM in the game right now, but isn’t being paid like that. Look for his new renewal to change that. Neymar will get a bumper new contract that reflects his status, and Messi’s automatic pay rise will kick in. Perhaps the best way to look at Barça and its need for money is the boiler room of old steamships, where muscled, sweaty brutes stuffed shovelfuls of coal into the mouth of a furnace as fast as they could.
Worry about money. Real Madrid just renewed its deal with adidas, a bang-up bit of business that resulted in the richest arrangement of its kind in history. Barça, meanwhile, is saddled with a legacy contract with Nike, a deal struck at a time before money had gone crazy. Look for the new deal to reflect Barça’s status as best team in the world, for all the reasons that gobs of money fly around, including ego and marketing.
EBITDA isn’t as sexy as goals, but financial ratios are the biggest worry that the FC Barcelona board has right now. Its coach wanted a player whose buyout clause is EUR18m, and a deal couldn’t get done because the rich kid is cash poor right now, and that’s a problem. And that problem isn’t going away. A renovated Camp Nou has, at last estimate, a price tag of EUR 600m, even as nobody expects the finished product to hit that mark. It will be more expensive, because what building project isn’t? More money.
Those money concerns and EBITDA ratios of course, are linked to a Damocles implement in the automatic elections being triggered if the proper EBITDA ratio isn’t being met. As potentially desperate men try desperate things to get numbers down, and those people run out of things to sell, players might become an option. Or they might just sit tight for a while, with no new signings of fiscal significance, hoping that the team can hang on until the club’s finances stabilize which, at the rate things are going, will occur on the twelfth of never.
The pitch is easier to fret about even as the team is getting it done, but the actions of Gucci-loafered businessmen pose a greater danger to the magic than anything any opponent can do.