Barça 6, Celta de Vigo 1, aka “Adjusting expectations”

What is football supposed to be and what do we, as supporters, have a legitimate right to expect from it?

For those of you old enough to remember analog radio, and that sound that emanated when the knob was almost on the station — that is what watching Barça play feels like a lot of the time. There are passages of sublime play, but then a touch is a little too heavy, or someone hits the ball right at the keeper. And we wonder if today will be the day that the Football Gods decide that enough is enough, that there are limits to what a group of supporters have a right to be treated to.

And something happens, and it’s all better.

Barça is now on a 30-match unbeaten run. Throughout a lot of that run, journos, supporters and other folks have said “Well, they aren’t really playing that well,” or “Boy, if a few bounces go differently … ” Sometimes it’s the consolation of the vanquished. Other times it’s the anticipation of the hopeful, of the people who in some way small or otherwise, don’t like the team/club. Still other times it’s a sense of acceptance, that this kind of stuff can’t keep happening, that logically, something has to go wrong, at some point.

And then it happens again.

For a half of football, Celta was the thorn in the side that they always are for Barça, pushing, prodding, pressing and playing a brave, high-flying style that believes the best way to defend is to attack. The score was 1-1 at the half, after a stunning Messi free kick that saw him dialing in the range on its predecessor, which made you wonder why the keeper didn’t realize this, and shade that way. Celta’s equalizer came from a bit of Jordi Alba boneheadedness that he compounded with petulance. The penalty was converted, and the teams went into the locker room.

What so many of us forget is that Celta played a stunning, energetic half of football that had their coach thrilled. Barça played a half of football that almost certainly had Luis Enrique blasting paint from the Camp Nou locker room walls. Potential counts for a lot in sport, that dynamic range that gives a team the flexibility to be poor and suddenly, be good. Is it as simple as concentrating harder, as simple as playing better? As weird as that sounds, yes.

Some of it is also the domino effect of sport. Legs get a little heavy, and those last-ditch challenges that Celta were making, time and again in the first half, fall short as the match progresses, even as the opponent talent doesn’t. Defenders can’t make the same plays against a vastly superior opponent who is also more focused. There are a host of factors that contribute to converting a 1-1 halftime score into a 6-1 final, but most of them have to do with the fact that this Barça football team can perform at a level that no other team can match.

It isn’t effort. Another team can work as hard, or harder. It’s a simple question of talent and capability, of the hundreds of decisions made during the course of a game, the moves and possibilities born out of an athlete knowing what is before him, and what he can do. Messi earned a penalty by performing a series of moves that left a defender with no choice. The defender argued and really, what can you say? “It was Messi, and he just did that. Give me a break.”

The goal was a wonderful homage to the iconic club figure Johan Cruijff, who had good news this week in the progress of his battle with cancer. In 1982, while playing for Ajax, Cruijff stepped up to take a penalty. Rather than smashing it home, he laid the ball off for a teammate, who fed him for a tap-in. Today, Messi strolled up to the ball, and calmly slid it to the right. Suarez smashed it home as those with a sense of football history melted, even as the ball was intended for Neymar.

“It was for me,” Neymar said, laughing. “But Luis was also around.”

penalty

Another goal came when Messi provided an otherworldly pass for Neymar, who seemed to be running almost parallel to the Camp Nou turf as he rounded the corner and released a shot from almost behind the goal, that Suarez slammed home. When you play against that kind of a team, every attacker that you have played against slips when making the cut, or bangs the ball off your shin for a corner. Or they don’t even get a shot off. What Neymar did doesn’t happen. The pass that Messi made was an obvious one if he plays it to Suarez. There is a set of expectations attendant to any action, a set of choices that an athlete has to make. These probabilities are defined not only by track records, but what you think an opponent can do.

Confronted by a pair of defenders, Neymar just did a backheel flick over their heads to himself, and kept running. If that fails, he looks like a dumbass. It’s why more players don’t try it. If it’s the sole option for you, a flick becomes practical. Football doesn’t make sense when it’s played at the level that Messi, Suarez, Neymar, Iniesta and Busquets can play it. And none of us know what to make of it. There were a few humorous Tweets during the explosion, to the effect of, “If you can do this all the time, why in the hell do you play with our hearts like that?”

But that kind of football doesn’t make sense to us, either, for many odd, psychological reasons. We don’t like really great stuff to happen for too long, and too often. It’s weird. There is an unspeakable joy matrix that makes us anticipate the yang to the yin of delight. It’s human nature. We see Barça do this, and we don’t fully trust it. Neutrals believe that culers are silly to see doom around every corner, see it as a misguided defense mechanism or hedging bets.

“This doesn’t feel good today. We’re probably going to lose.” But for 30 matches now, Barça has been performing magic with roots in redefining possibilities, and supporters struggle with that. Claudio Bravo makes a save, and audible gasps occur, because well … “he had to make a save! What is our defense doing?!” That’s how high the bar is. It’s also what’s at the root of the delight of a match such as today.

On the same day that Barça dispatched Celta, Arsenal beat Leicester City to narrow the gap at the top of the table. They struggled, and finally took advantage of a team that went down to ten, and it still took a last-second header. It was a match that was fun to watch, even if it wasn’t particularly well played. Passes went awry, players were up and down and people struggled. It was a battle. Barça, it seemed, just decided, on something of a whim, to play better. The dimwitted decisions that Neymar was making in the first half, stopped. The ham-handing that Suarez was taking part in, stopped. Pique’s passes went to the right spots, and Busquets was himself, suddenly. And the goals began to happen. It seemed simple. It looked simple even as it was certainly nothing of the kind.

Tactics and substitutions had a role in it. Luis Enrique subbed Alves and Sergi Roberto at the same time, the former because he was having a stinker, the latter because he was tired from mopping up and saving the ass of the former. Aleix Vidal and Ivan Rakitic bring a different set of possibilities. A higher-quality player at RB means that Rakitic is free to contribute fully to the midfield, which makes the Celta press less effective because Iniesta and Busquets have diminished spheres of influence. Logically, it’s easy to watch this stuff happen, nod and explain it.

But Barça has an absurd array of talent, led by a player who is now in form, a player who, miraculously, despite all of the goals, all of the golden baubles, all of the records, only won his first Liga Player of the Month award, for January. Lionel Messi is the best player in the game. He has been rounding into form since his return from injury, having returned to a team that had fashioned itself into a juggernaut in his absence. Bit by bit, you could see the edge returning, but today’s match reminded everyone just how good an in-form Messi is. He sees the game differently. For every player, success is a series of obstacles that need be overcome. A defender is one such obstacle. So is a pass.

Messi struggled for a bit in slotting himself into that team, a team that no longer always need for him to make the mazy, crazy runs, a team that no longer needs him to score all of the goals, to carry them on his back. That diminution of needs has led to a vast increase in possibilities. Messi feeds Neymar because he understands that Neymar has the ability to do things with a football that make sense only to he and Messi. Those things will result in goals. Suarez has a knack not only for scoring goals, but seeing the pitch in an unselfish way.

Forwards score goals, when you give them the ball. Suarez makes passes like the one for Rakitic’s goal, a flawless ball that set up a deft chip. He can also lace a long diagonal ball with enough pace to get it to Neymar and only Neymar, a ball that finds his cohort in stride and able to chip home in one touch.

Real Madrid had its Galacticos, an experiment that assembled superstar players in the quest to create an unstoppable force. That notion failed. Most of us have never before seen a team with such a collection of talent, fronted by the three best attackers in world football, a trio who want nothing more than to win. In a lot of ways, that’s good. We aren’t ever supposed to become accustomed to the unprecedented. We won’t sit back, smile when a match starts and say, “We got this.” It’s the same rollercoaster of emotions that the supporters of other teams have. Neutrals say, “Those jackasses don’t realize how good they have it.” This is true. It will, should and will always seem undeserved, that it has to end as we wrestle to understand what we’re privy to, week after week.

Barça destroyed Celta in the second half, with a lustrous display of football that was also ruthless. Atleti won on the same day, scoring a goal in the first minute, then doing what Atleti does for the other 89 minutes. The final score was 0-1. They were two different displays of effectiveness, Atleti’s based in always having one more defender for you to beat, while Barça just ran around, setting off glitter bombs. The 6-1 scoreline wasn’t gaudy, but rather a consequence of this collection of the best players in the game doing what they do and, for yet another week, an opponent not having an answer for it.

This streak will end, because all good things do. But match after match, Barça is capable of making us believe, for 90 minutes at a time, that football is supposed to be art, that we can expect the extraordinary. That isn’t healthy or normal, even as it’s pretty wonderful.

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Written by:

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.

11 Comments

  1. Benj
    February 14, 2016

    Congrats culers, great game to watch, as usual, and a fantastic piece by Kxev, as usual. Great to see the guy whose name I had on all of my Barca kits as a kid doing so well with the team, Visca Lucho!
    I invite you to watch LFCs game vs Villa from last night. There’s a few segments of play between firmino and the recently returned Sturridge and Coutinho, definitely worth checking out. Hands off Coutinho though…
    On a side note, no matter who I speak to, no matter who they support, the world is literally in awe of the attacking triumvirate of MSN, it’s actually mildly ridiculous how those three can be in the same team and actually perform at their peak, instead of getting in each others way or letting the ego’s take over. Amazing to watch and I’m glad I am around to be able to tell future kids/grandkids about it. Visca Barca!

  2. bwullur
    February 14, 2016

    First thought after seeing the Messi – Suarez penalty was, “is it legal?”, Just because I never seen anything like that before…. This team was really entertaining to watch, there are many unexpected and magic things happen nearly every match. Congrats the team, you really make my day… what a lucky supporter we are!

    • G6O
      February 15, 2016

      It absolutely is legal.

      A PK is a direct free kick. The differences are:

      1) it is taken from the spot
      2) the 10-yard exclusion zone extends to the boundaries of the penalty box (the circle on top of it marks the part of the zone that is outside of the box)
      3) There are a bunch of rules about what you are allowed and not allowed to do when approaching and kicking the ball, but those have all been retroactively added over the decades since the introduction of the PK in the 1890s) as a reaction to various tricks people have come up with (such as the paradiña that Neymar used to do a lot when he was in Brazil and for which Messi got an yellow in a CL game the first time he tried it).

      But other than it’s a direct free kick, and that means you can pass.

      It was first done (or at least recorded) in the 1950s in Belgium, Cruyff did it in 1982. But there have been some high profile failures (google “Pires Henry penalty” and you will see the most famous one)

    • bwullur
      February 15, 2016

      thanks…

  3. G6O
    February 15, 2016

    One minor digression but it’s worth noting — Neymar has tried the rainbow flick about half a dozen times since he joined us, and has failed to execute it properly every single time. But today it was absolutely perfectly done. I take that as a huge positive and an indication of complete confidence and lack of self-inhibition.

  4. phunky
    February 15, 2016

    The second half was truly fantasy football. I’m don’t remember the last time I was jumping up like a little kid in celebration for Neymar’s flick + Messi’s penalty winning run + the resulting penalty.

    Neymar:
    Neymar finally dusted off his bad luck in front of goal (I thought I also saw the dusting off celebration from him). Hopefully get’s back to his scoring ways after 3-4 matches without a goal.

    Messi:
    Not much more can be added about Messi’s absolutely dominating performance. I read, over at ESPN, that with Ronaldo scoring a brace at the weekend, he now leads Messi by 8 goals. The thing with Messi is that he doesn’t actually give a sh*t about his goal tally. If he truly cared, he would’ve actually tried to score that penalty. I was in fact surprised how Messi immediately picked up the ball after winning the penalty. What he did was to only prove to us that we (me?!) care more about his goals than he does.

    Suarez:
    This guy! He dominates a game without actually getting involved too much. 3 goals and 2 assists. All his goals were 1st time finishes. Both his assists required no more than one touch to control the ball and another to pass to perfectly. His play is very similar to how Ronaldo dominates games. Goals + assists. Add to that Suarez’s excellent movement to generate space and time for his comrades. There are many more facets to his game and it would be criminal to isolate his play purely in this game’s context but in essence I think we are seeing a proper number 9.

    Iniesta:
    What touch and control. Back to his best. The only player in our team capable of being on the same wavelength of our MSN.

    • G6O
      February 15, 2016

      His play is very similar to how Ronaldo dominates games

      Except that Suarez does a lot more for us.

      Cristiano is nowhere near as influential off the ball — the reason the attack works so well is that Suarez is there to run after defenders when they try to build play out the back, to receive, hold up and distribute the ball, and to occupy defender’s attention when Messi and Neymar have it. So in the end it becomes the futile exercise of trying to guard three people each of which requires at least two defenders to contain to with just four defenders.

      Cristiano is just a poacher at this point of his career.

  5. Dar_vincy
    February 15, 2016

    I am really glad Suarez is at the receiving end of more generous plays from the MSN triumvirate, like Neymar was last season. There seem to be inconsistency in the media regarding the amount of goals Suarez has scored in all competitions this season, with some reporting 37 goals and others 39. Can anyone please verify that?

  6. February 15, 2016

    Kevin, Liked your comparison of this Barca to the old radio..
    That was orgasmic. The passing, the movements, the split second decision makings and above all the team spirit. When I saw that penalty goal, my mouth remained open, until I saw the celebration of all the players, as if they all knew something about it.. Incredible. But, if that pass was intended for Neymar, how come he was late for it.. My thought was, they meant it to help Suarez go ahead of CR7 in the picchi race.
    Neymar did screw up a lot of moments in the first half, when he simply delayed the pass until he lost. Doing that, when you are only at passing angles with a Messi or Suarez is quite unfair. Anyways, he was better in the second half. Messi’s assist proves once again that he is the master of la pausa. It was beautiful.

    To a comment above, may I reply that, Suarez is way ahead of CR7 as a forward. Am saying this, even if I will keep repeating that for every good moment of Suarez, he has another 2 which he screws up. But still, Suarez is way more technical than CR7, and tactically and as a team player too, he is miles ahead. CR7 might have a better nack for goals and thats it. However, against Athletic, I must say he did play better than his usual self. There was a moment, in which 10/10 times CR7 would shoot, but he passed the ball. I was stunned. Athletic was quite unlucky, I thought.

  7. Davour
    February 15, 2016

    On the symbolism of the generosity displayed by Messi in terms of scoring, Totalbarca expressed it like this: “Messi has begun to acknowledge that how he acts can bring out the beauty in the play of others”. As M himself said in an interview: “I pass more now”. No need to prove anything, secure in his ability and status. And again the absurdity of a comparison to CR becomes evident: when scoring mattered, Leo scored more. Now solidarity and team influence is in fashion, and Leo is the trendsetter. CR is stuck in an old paradigm…

    And thanks for another fine piece; we are spoilt by these remarkably consistent and swift comments on games, assisting in debrief when losing, and setting words to celebratory feelings. Cheers.

  8. Tata2
    February 15, 2016

    Why can’t they give Smache one of these pks to score? dude hasn’t gotten a barca goal since he joined *sad face smiley

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