Thirty-eight matches unbeaten.
With its second-gear dispatching of Arsenal in the Champions League round of 16, Barça extended its unbeaten run to 38 matches. Its last loss was in October
December against Sevilla, a match that featured a blizzard of squandered chances. Its last draw was away to Valencia in the Copa del Rey, a 1-1 that was a half-speed stroll in the wake of a 7-0 first-leg hiding.
Before the Arsenal match, there was talk of a grand Arsenal comeback. Arsene Wenger talked about fighting hard, Vermaelen said to not count Arsenal out. Reality is that it was a 2-0 aggregate advantage for Barça, with two precious away goals that were grabbed with a minimum of effort at the Emirates, but that left the tie, in the view of Arsenal’s coach, “95 percent over.” What Arsenal was going to have to do is outscore Barça by two goals just to get even, then hope that they didn’t concede. Neymar put paid to that idea early on, slotting home after a delight of a pass from Suarez, and that was that.
There was talk of Arsenal having played well, and they did. What there wasn’t much talk of was Barça sauntering about in second gear. Even then, it took a moment of sloppiness in possession and a wonder strike for Arsenal to get a goal. But then Barça got another. And another. This is what Wenger said, after the match:
“At some stage in our sport, we must admire art and they have two or three players who transform normal life into art. I respect that and I believe it is pleasure as well. For me, is it suffering.”
The Suarez goal was spectacular, converting an Alves cross with a scissor kick that solidified his reputation as the best worst player in football. Then Messi chipped home with a goal that only he has the astonishing skill set to make look easy. Wenger was exactly right. Barça strolled around, let Arsenal huff and puff and caper. From time to time, someone would make magic, and a goal would result. And that was that.
The Arsenal match started out the way most Barça matches have, with a resolute opponent coming out to “take charge,” pressing and running and driving and putting Barça in what some perceive to be difficulty. Then Barça mash the throttle, the ball flies around and a goal is scored. Then the opponent redoubles its effort because now the match much be chased, which opens spaces and vulnerabilities, which leads to more goals. The Arsenal match was more of the same and now for 38 matches, this Barça is unbeaten.
Streaks carry a weird kind of pressure because sustained excellence is unnatural. The world conspires against it. Injuries, luck, dogdy refereeing decisions, everything wants to break down streaks. Sometimes, the mind kills a streak as a team begins to feel the pressure, the mass of expectation as every time it rolls out, success is the only acceptable result. Everything else is abject failure as the world waits to say, “Muhahaha, told you so!”
As the streak continues it becomes its own beast, something that almost everyone wants to see end, for different reasons. Supporters want to get the loss over with. Non-supporters just kinda detest that this one group is so good at what it does that for 38 matches, nobody has been able to figure out how to beat it. People have predicted dropped points in this or that match and still the streak continues.
Worry often accompanies a streak, the sort of disgruntlement and unease that makes a group tighter and tighter until one day, the wheels blow off. Brows furrow, tempers get short and nobody wants to talk about the Thing, for fear it might get messed up.
During the Barça preparations for Arsenal, a trio of kids dashed onto the practice pitch. Official-looking types in neon coats strode forth, but the players all started grinning and laughing, and surrounded the kids. They took selfies with them, put the kids in a rondo and handed out hugs. Suarez signed a training shirt and gave it to one of the kids. And after the wee interlopers were ushered away, training resumed as Suarez just sat on the pitch, laughing and utterly charmed.
We often talk about a demanding supporter base, a group for which it is alleged that draws are like losses. But the mind turns to an odd idea: What if the players are even more demanding than the supporters? What if they understand how good they are, and find dropped points even more annoying than supporters precisely because of that knowledge. Players know the game, and other teams. They say that “on any given day,” etc, and it’s true. But reality is that the best team wins an astonishing amount of the time. It’s the quality question. Danny Welbeck, free in the Barça box, tripped over his own feet and the ball squirted out of play. Neymar took the pass from Suarez and calmly slotted home, pretty much on the dead run. The best team has the better players who make better decisions with better end results. It seems so logical.
The talk is about not knowing how good Barça is, about seeing things in training, when the team is finally matched up against an equal, that would make eyes bug out. But Barça probably knows how good it is, understands the opportunity to make history, even as the reassurance in that overall quality keeps the team from getting tight. “What, me worry? Why?” How must it be to be, as a collective, that good at something? Thirty-eight matches, a pivotal Champions League tie in the offing, and they’re playing with kids in a rondo then doling out hugs.. There is time for joy. Real life can wait.
Luis Enrique is tasked with the job of keeping his charges sharp, focused and motivated and calm. He has fashioned a Swiss Army knife of devastation from the whole cloth of want. The best players in the game are also the hungriest. It’s an absurdity. In a very smart piece over at Four Four Two, Michael Cox posits that Neymar’s development is mirroring Messi’s, which makes Barça all the most dangerous. Barça have two players who can dribble through a defense, then put the pass on the head of a pin. Most teams don’t have one. Does any team have two with the quality of Neymar and Messi, which doesn’t even take into account Iniesta. Is this unbeaten run a thing of wonder, or a group of assassins just doing its job.
Streaks always end. Nature corrects things. There’s reassurance in that reality. Pragmatic culers say that this match or that match will result in dropped points. The team goes out and does what it does, what it has been equipped to do. Leicester City is a remarkable story as an unlikely bunch tops the Premiership. That team isn’t supposed to be there. Barça, however, is exactly where it is supposed to be, occupying the place it was built to occupy. That’s the weird thing about this streak: it’s logical. “A better team would have beaten Barça,” some said of the Arsenal match. But as a few post-match recaps said, had Arsenal played better, there was always the sense that Barça would just grab the next gear, and that would be that.
Nobody knows when the streak will end. Nobody wants to say, “What if it doesn’t,” what if Barça keeps right on being unbeaten right through the Champions League final. There was a time, when this group was viewed through a haze of doubt, that such a notion, even a single treble seemed impossible, much less a double treble.
Barça will be going for 39 unbeaten against Villarreal, a quality side in the fight for a European slot. Things will happen, supporters will worry. But when you really come down to it, will the fluke be that the streak continued, or that it ended at all?