The days of Robinho II seem so far away now for Neymar, a player who still carries baggage and scorn, even as he is exploding into vibrant life before our eyes, more a new Henry than the next Robinho.
As Barça began, finally, to show chinks in the armor of invulnerability even as the unbeaten streak was extended to 34 matches in the wake of the 2-1 win over Sevilla, it was difficult not to watch Neymar and smile.
When Thierry Henry prowled the left flank for Barça, he was a man on a mission. He didn’t just score goals, pass, facilitate and make assists. He also defended like a fullback, tracked back and did all of those things that superstars so rarely do. His motivation was the big-stage glory that eluded him at Arsenal. He said that he never had to run more than when he was playing under Pep Guardiola for Barça, and look at the results.
Most illustrative of Neymar’s all-pitch match against Sevilla was a play where an attack was building. A lofted Sevilla pass found this bullet streaking in, faster even than the Barça defenders nearby, to head it away. He was stealing, heading balls away in the Barça box but also leading breaks so fast that he found himself the only one at the attacking end. It was a sterling display from a player who came to Barcelona as a mystery. But what is a surprise is how willing Neymar is to emulate his betters. First Messi, and now Suarez.
Suarez, against Sevilla, was playing like a man striving to single-handedly bull his way out of the finishing slump that he’s suffering at the moment, by dint of effort. He’s running like an academy player trying to impress a coach, rather than an 80m+ striker who sits pichichi. Neymar came to Barça to not only play with the best players in the game, but learn from the best of them all. His maturation has been fast, and had to accelerate even more when Messi was out for two months. In that absence Neymar adopted an all-business haircut and proceeded to become the leader as the team laid the groundwork for the beast it is right now. He ran the show as Barça learned to play brilliantly without the best player in the game, setting the stage for the return of that player, who is now slotting into an ideal situation: a mature team that can play without him, and becomes even stronger with his presence.
What’s interesting is how Neymar is also emulating Suarez in his workload. What that meant against Sevilla was not only an extra hand in defending their counters, but an extra hand with pace. Neymar still defends like an attacker, but in most cases the biggest value of tracking back is being there to influence play. The other value of tracking back for him, of course is that he is closer to the ball when it gets turned over, the carrot at the end of the stick that is hard work. His indefatigable effort was even more important because for the first time in many matches, Barça exhibited signs of real fatigue against Sevilla.
Match management has always been part of this season, and key to the team’s unbeaten run. They put out just enough to win, and it always seems controlled, fan base hysteria notwithstanding as yet another opponent comes out to press and harass. The outcome has always seemed inevitable. Sevilla was the first match in some time where the issue seemed in doubt, because Barça wasn’t completing important tasks. Decision making with the ball was lax, passes were held too long, players who are usually sharp were taking one touch too many, the weight of passes off, even from the likes of Iniesta.
On defense, players were lunging rather than running. The buildup to the Sevilla goal was an example. Pique lunged in to go for the steal and missed, which set the dominoes falling, a chain reaction at which the end was Arda Turan’s marker running free to slot home. Pique had to lunge because he was slow in closing down space. From there everybody from Barça is behind the play, and out of position. You can see Turan rushing in, too late, to cover that last, loose man. Turan has a moment, right as the play developed, where he could have sprinted to close down, and didn’t do it. Rest assured Luis Enrique will let him know about that because everyone scrambled back to cover. The fire would have been extinguished had Turan gotten on his horse.
This is to take nothing away from the Sevilla goal, which was Barça quality in its buildup and execution, but it’s a goal that probably isn’t scored on a team with fresher legs. And there were other signs. Suarez stumbled onto a ball that, in a sharper state, he controls and slots home. In this match it bounced off his knees and to the keeper. Excellent chances were created, none converted as the team seemed to be playing in a hurry. The match turned on two moments of dazzling quality, the first at the end of a Neymar caper, resulting in a foul just outside the area. Messi stepped up and unleashed a curving, swerving rocket of a shot that the Sevilla keeper just kinda waved at, a strike that essentially bent across the face of goal, nestling into the far corner. The keeper shrugged like, “Welp.” The Sevilla players just dropped their shoulders and walked away. Nothing really to be done in the face of a moment such as that.
The second goal was a bit of high-speed madness, during which Messi didn’t give up on a ball, pointing to the danger of having an “alien” on your team. In the instant that Sevilla relaxed as Messi withdrew from the zone of maximum danger. But like a snake recoiling in preparation to strike again, he initiated a series of one-touch passes as the ball flitted from Messi to Suarez to Pique, who slotted home for the match winner. Again, two very different kinds of goals, something that has become typical of this Barça team, as has the victory at the end of them. Individual brilliance? You bet. If ya got it, flaunt it.
Crucially, Barça won, to maintain the 8-point gap over Atleti, and a whopping 12-point lead over RM. This is another busy week, with matches on Thursday and Sunday, both away, to Rayo and Eibar. Both those matches will be difficult, because both teams play well at home and are buoyed by a vociferous supporter base. It’s safe to say that if the unbeaten streak after those two matches sits at 36, the Liga championship will be a foregone conclusion.
The schedule seems lighter in March, with only five matches, but because of the looming international break those matches all have to happen in a compressed period. There is a luxurious (given the schedule) six-day break between Eibar and Getafe, and then Arsenal for that return leg, then the international break. Look for heavy rotation from Luis Enrique in an effort to keep his players as fresh as possible, given the circumstances. And don’t be surprised if the team picks up a few two-week injuries, as the first match after internationals is the home Classic, a match that would delight if, with a double-digit lead Luis Enrique decided to field a rotation XI.
Against Sevilla, Luis Enrique again used all of his subs, key insertions that calmed waters. Rakitic brought the surge that a tiring Sergi Roberto had lost. Iniesta subbed on for Turan, who was getting heavy-legged. Alves came on for Aleix Vidal, to add midfield control. Most importantly, crucial players got rest in an intense match against an intense opponent. The next huge test, barring anything weird, will be Villarreal at the Madrigal.
Barça is now fighting a two-front war, as the Copa final is for later. Champions League is a competition that is a wild card, and the team will know that. A couple of good efforts now, could mean rest in the event the unthinkable doesn’t happen in the Arsenal return leg. From the quarterfinals on, there will be no easy ties. As Luis Enrique said, the 34-match unbeaten run, if silver isn’t at the end of it, is meaningless. He has done an excellent job of steering his team through some very difficult waters, with the most difficult task to come as his charges walk a tightrope of excellence, without a net, amid what must be incredible pressure. So much of the footballing world, including segments of the Barça fanbase, are waiting for the Icarus moment as a team that flew too high, too fast, comes crashing down. That team has been grinning, and whistling past the mythical graveyard. Sevilla was a real wake-up call. Now comes the rest of the road.