Thirty-eight and counting …

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 OctoberDecember 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?

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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.

8 Comments

  1. Davour
    March 17, 2016

    Thanks for the read. I am sure this is partly why the players (except Rakitic, that crazy exhibitionist!) always brush aside any question about the streak (just like LE does) – as soon as this becomes a real thing, fear of losing might overcome desire to win, and a negative motivation is always worse. A second treble is there to win, not to lose, they must tell themselves. But on paper, and in practice, this team is easily the best there is. And when squad players like Sergi and Mathieu (I didn’t even miss Piqué) play like they do, well… it becomes a phenomenon. Sometimes I watch games in the EPL just to remind myself that normally, players don’t manage these kinds of passing combination; losing the ball is not an anomaly, and dribbles are only occasionally successful. Normal players don’t scissor that ball into the far corner; they don’t provide scientifically precise crosses from standing still onto the feet of a teammate on the far side, or suddenly – from nothing – find a teammate like Neymar did for Messi (or receive the ball like that – Wenger said Messi did not miss a single first touch, and this was one of them…). I find myself baffled when Messi suddenly misses a cross, or is robbed by a DM (seldom when it matters, over 10 years, bar that Chelsea game).

    There is such purpose to everything that happens, playing to the third player, moving about like a blizzard creating intricate patterns that the opponent cannot read quickly enough. Iniesta and Busquets – Rakitic is getting further into it game by game – know everything – they always know and like Messi seldom make a bad decision. It is not normal, but – or just because of that – it’s beautiful. I hope this team get to experience a second treble, but even if they don’t – cheers!

    • georgjorge
      March 18, 2016

      Great article and great comment.

      It’s a bit sad how fast we take such beautiful things for granted. It becomes apparent to me when I watch Turan and Vidal play, two very good players who naturally struggle in their first season adapting to a very demanding style of play. They would be considered as doing very well in many other teams right now, but because players like Iniesta, Messi or Busquets do their things so well we see them as not good enough. Or – as you said – when you watch the Premier League where you also have many highly talented players who do nothing but practice their skills and their teamwork all day, yet they can’t ever do what our team does. We are truly gifted in getting to watch this team.

  2. PrinceYuvi
    March 17, 2016

    38 🙂
    The legend keeps growing.
    Incidentally,
    ‘I hope you get Barça’ – is the newly popular threat amongst football neutrals 😀

  3. Jason
    March 18, 2016

    Wolfsburg v Real Madrid

    Bayern v Benfica

    Barcelona v Atletico

    Paris v Citeh

  4. georgjorge
    March 18, 2016

    Judging from this and last season’s matches I’m rather confident we will beat Atlético once again. I’m not happy with the draw though, I’d rather see both us and them proceed, and it feels we’ve been playing them about twenty times in three seasons between Liga, Cup and Champions League.

    • Davour
      March 18, 2016

      No, not happy at all. We are favourites, of course, but it will be a rough and demanding tie. More so than against RM, I would think (who, of course, drew Wolfsburg and with the second game at home… though I don’t think the Germans will be that easily dealt with). Rm-Atletico I would have loved…

      But now we know!

      .

  5. Jason
    March 18, 2016

    Total respect for Atletico but I would have disliked facing one of Bayern, PSG or Real more.

    This season’s edition of the Europa league is good! BVB v L’Pool is going to be enthralling. Can’t wait!

    • Davour
      March 18, 2016

      On EL – yes. And note that all Spanish teams, that did not face each other, went through to the next round… Dortmund must be overall favourites, though!

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