After the footballing heights reached in the Valencia destruction, it was always interesting to see what was going to happen in an away fixture at a potentially difficult ground to Levante.
The team put out midweek in a way that resulted in its best display of the season, but that also required a lot of effort, making the challenge of dealing with Levante a bit more fraught, even as we remember that this team is rock-bottom in the Liga table, butt-naked last as a track runner once said of an opponent. To make matters worse, the match featured a noon kickoff, which robbed some of us of much-needed beauty sleep, and at times had Barça staggering around like vampires unable to deal with that bright light in the sky.
And the team won, comfortably, not even getting out of second gear. Levante had two legit opportunities on goal, one easily parried by Bravo and another one that hit the post. The brutality of being a team at the bottom of the table is statistical in nature. Even the best teams squander scoring chances, but can usually make enough of them to win a match. The poorer teams don’t get that many chances, and when you consider the percentages — chances created vs converted — math becomes downright tyrannical.
Levante had bright stretches of play, but not enough chances. They would get in or near the Barça box, and a defender, quite often Mascherano, would bolt in to shut the lock. And that was that. Of the only two proper chances created, it’s statistically proper that Levante score neither. The problem is that your opponent is not only good, but lucky. When Navarro assed in an own goal in the first half, it was all over but the shouting, really. Levante wasn’t going to score. And if they did, Barça would have scored again. That’s the nature of football at the top and bottom of the table.
The announcers talked about Barça looking dull, and this not being one of their best displays. And this space echoed Barça Twitter, as some were quite unhappy with the display, even as it was pretty wonderful.
In the past, Barça’s success was like one of those perpetual motion machines. If one domino fell the wrong way, the whole thing went kerflooey, and a negative result transpired. Winning ugly just wasn’t an option for the team that was all butterflies and glitter bombs. Some of it was a consequence of the style of play, one rooted in movement of ball and players, of intricate passing lanes and one-touch delicacy.
Enrique changed a lot of that, bringing pragmatism to the picture and allowing his players to, in effect, have rest matches. Barça won 0-2, which was one more goal than required. Did that second goal bring a sigh of relief for many? Assuredly. But Levante never seriously looked like scoring except for those two opportunities, the quality of Giuseppe Rossi notwithstanding. And Barça never got out of second gear to get the full points, and keep everybody fit. If there is a “match-worn” shirt sale by Barça players, this is the match you want. They will still smell like new — except for Mascherano and Sergi Roberto’s. Those will need to go in the wash right away.
Matches such as this one are essential for a championship team, not only to conserve energy but to put in the precise amount of necessary work. The quandary is that for everyone else, football is entertainment. Imagine being an accountant, and having people express disappointment that the tax return you just did doesn’t display the same kind of eloquent sum-adding of the last return. That’s what footballers have to deal with, and they probably have a giggle about it on the bus rides home.
FC Barcelona supporters are, and have always been a demanding bunch. Merely winning is insufficient. The team must also play beautifully, and correctly. What this means that is that effective football isn’t really that much of a thing. Statistics are brought to bear to demonstrate why the match was poor, such as three completed dribbles, and the like. But for this Barça, a team that often runs afoul of its demanding fanbase, the only stat that seems to count is the final score.
Even last season, we could see the pragmatism, the team that played just well enough to win, that put out just enough effort to get the job done. Work. Supporters demand entertainment, coaches and boards demand results. They will acknowledge the need for beauty, for “Barça football,” and sometimes even pay lip service to the notion. But they would rather have a result than beauty. Who cares what score the Russian judge gives that routine? Put in work, get the result, and go home. Matches such as this one are every bit as essential as the extravagance of the Valencia Copa tie. In both cases, the team got more goals than were required, more than enough to seal the deal. They could sashay around the pitch vs Levante, and will be able to rest players vs Valencia. That’s effective football, and effective football wins championships, even when it doesn’t win beauty contests.
When the match was over, there was a consensus floating about, expressed by the BeIN match commentators, that Levante “deserved” a draw. Why? You want the point? Earn it. There aren’t consolation prizes, or judges in a sport that is simple: score more goals, and you win. There have been matches where a valiant opponent has come out to compete with an in-form Barça and gone toe-to-toe, only to lose. In some of those matches, a more generous soul can say that, football justice being what it is, yeah somebody might have deserved a point.
Levante got an energy-conserving, sleepwalking Barça and couldn’t score a goal. So they deserved precisely what they got. It’s cruel, both to the supporters who came out to watch and hope, the players who worked their butts off and the coach who drew them up and worked out a match plan that would enable him to get the most from his charges. It wasn’t enough. The late tally from Suarez, that took advantage of a Levante team that was pressed up to seek an equalizer that was never going to come, was just Barça doing what it does, taking advantage of a favorable situation. And at the end of the match the team shook hands and exchanged pleasantries. The script was adhered to, and that was that.
That makes 28 matches unbeaten for this team, that will be going for a club record 29th when it takes on Valencia at the Mestalla, and boy, is that going to be a problem. The team will only well and truly care about not losing 0-8. Ship six goals, and they will caper off to the Copa final, grinning. Should this happen, some will lament not having gotten the record. Guardiola fans will breathe a sigh of relief that those storied teams can remain so, untouched by time and mere humans. And the team won’t care all that much, this group that doesn’t seem all that obsessed by stats and records. Its attackers pass up open chances to dish off to more-open teammates. The extra pass is almost always made, all in pursuit of the result. A victory.
A fanbase might seek beauty, but a player will tell that there is nothing more beautiful than three points.