What a bonkers match this was, a display that makes you wonder if we will ever be able to get our minds around what happened.
— Busquets was MOTM on a day where Messi got a hat trick, and Suarez got whatever you call four goals.
— Neymar got a shove, a slide, a cut, and angry, dominating a match even if he didn’t get a goal.
There was worry going in, because of a slack performance that saw Valencia grab a late equalizer. But in hindsight, the scoring chances in that match were such that such a thing shouldn’t have been possible, proceedings done and dusted before that collection of unfortunate events happened. Today Barça demonstrated the verve and killer instinct absent on that day. It wasn’t vengeance, as some suggested. It was just a job, an event that made you think of Clint Eastwood at the end of “Unforgiven.” He is pointing a rifle at Gene Hackman’s face, and the character says, “I don’t deserve to die like this.” Eastwood’s avenging angel says “Deserves got nothin’ to do with it.”
Valencia wasn’t anything. This wasn’t revenge, wasn’t anything except a day’s work at the office. Valencia could have been anyone in the league, most teams in world football. Today’s match was about a great team discovering what it was like when everything is working at the highest level. A jazz combo has a cutting contest, and all of those notes a player had been trying worked today, and his bandmates could keep up, and everyone who was there talked about it for years, about what a sound that was.
But Barça also played with the ruthlessness and focus of a team with somewhere to go, as if Luis Enrique told his players, like a work detail on a grim Thursday, “Finish this job and you can have the next day off.” Barça went about its destruction like a team that wanted the return leg to be irrelevant, that understood the value of a little work today meaning big dividends next week, as the pummelling made the second leg basically a rotation extravaganza.
It’s easy enough to say, and many will, that one of the most distressing signs for Valencia coach Gary Neville was that at one point in the match, Barça and Valencia had the same number of fouls. This is because about the only way to deal with Barça now is to harry, press, harass and kick, spreading the fouls out and disrupting play. Malaga did it, Athletic did it, Atleti did it. They all lost, but at least for a time they had hope.
And today showed exaclty WHY teams come out and kick Barça. Valencia came out with a defensive-minded posture but no real commitment to the task. Sure, there was a petulant shove on Neymar by Barragan, but Barça had space to play, almost as if Valencia still thought ordinary rules applied, that like its predecessors, you could give Barça possession, watch them do that cool elf dance, then stick a boot in at the last second as they got within sight of goal. Form argued for this approach, after all, as seemingly all of football lined up to say that Barça was fatigued. Give ’em the ball, then.
As Graham Hunter said, this Barça is like a cousin of the Guardiola side. But this one has a muscle car, thinks time getting there is time wasted, sometimes eats with his hands and by the by, yo mama. This is a team that if you give a sliver of an inch, if you don’t play with the unfettered, demonic fury of an Atleti, they will dance around you and kick your face in.
Football isn’t theory for this group. There won’t be sonnets written of its prowess, unless “Man, they got in that ass” counts as verse. This team wants to destroy — but in the most efficient manner possible, because it has other things to do. It’s cruel in a lot of ways. Guardiola’s Barça didn’t anger as much because it was all so beautiful. Even opposing players wanted to be like that, flawless triangles and glittering players. You could admire it even as it slit your throat. There was nastiness when Mourinho entered the picture, but even that was the classroom bully, sneering as he spray painted on the class art project.
This Barça isn’t all that likable. Suarez preens, falls and sneers, elbows, shoves and moves constantly. Neymar removes the good-natured quality of the Ronaldinho flicks and tricks, bringing them into the all-business modern era. “You kicked me? How does that sombrero fit, jackass?” Even Messi is a bit nasty now, handing out nutmegs like business cards.
The earlier, Guardiola cousin was a collection of football aesthetes led by a genius. Most of them hadn’t even discovered sex yet. In the wake of the sprite baby boom these are players with lives and families. They don’t want to hang around all day, absorbing theory and learning a preternatural control of a game that is, by all rights, uncontrollable, while Xavi trims the Camp Nou pitch with nail clippers and a laser measuring tool.
These guys want to kick you in the face and get home to their families. Valencia understands the difference now, that this group is led by a hard-edged little thug, and the approach shows that. Yes, there are goals that are art, but there are also plenty of smash-and-grab goals, the art of which is in their suddenness and devastation. Alves to Suarez and goal. Neymar to Suarez and goal.
The second goal today was an aberration, as Aleix Vidal made a run into space, exactly what his role in the XI was, a different thing than Alves. He just touched the ball into the path of Suarez, who came charging in late. 2-0. The ball was in the box so quickly, and Messi was running toward goal, sowing panic. As everybody watched him, Suarez strolled in. But the third goal was a high-wire act at full speed, all backheels, half-touches and glitter bombs, a Barça in which Messi isn’t the most dangerous player, until he pops up to destroy.
That fourth goal was a work of art in the buildup, a slicing and dicing easy to forget because of the Suarez backheel that perfectly found Messi in full run, as he shrugged off a defender who was trying hard to foul him, then slotted home. The fifth goal was hard work, as Neymar made a run and Valencia stopped him, for once executing the plan right, but a hard-working, forechecking Messi worked the ball loose, rounded the hapless defender and wham. The best player in the world isn’t supposed to be running around, pressing with a 4-0 lead. Number six was another workers’ goal, a counter at the end of which Adriano just put a ball up for Suarez to run a smash home, again the absurdity of the best 9 in the game running for a ball like it was 0-0, early in the first half. The final goal was just kicking a team when it was down, as Suarez easily got goal side of his marker. Arda Turan found him, and he slammed it home. Many goals, scored many different ways by a team with the best of everything.
What makes this group so confounding is that it can also put on the dancing shoes. Watch the buildup of that fourth goal that began with a Neymar dance, continued with the ball pinging around in a one-touch blizzard of influence peddling before ending with a logical, inevitable goal even as the movements were performed at the highest level.
This was also a day of highs and irrelevant opponents, a day where the unthinkable — for opposition coaches — happened, and Messi, Neymar AND Suarez all had a great match.
It’s usually one or two of them, but never all three. And never all three at a time when Busquets was playing a different game at a different level, and Iniesta was beating.out his usual unplayable rhythm. It isn’t fair, really that all of this happens at once.
If you look at the passing chart of Busquets, it wasn’t as if he was everywhere. He was in fact everywhere. Today’s matches make an opponent rail against the unfairness of it all. Yes, Valencia is a hot mess right now, and Barça took advantage of that. But admitting that Valencia is in a down phase shouldn’t diminish the quality of the display that Barça put on today. The goals were of the highest quality, the best players as part of the best team and also working the hardest. You just don’t see that very often, matches when everything comes together, and those moments are worth celebrating. Maybe football is theory after all.