Killers don’t care.
There is no purer distillation of that simple phrase than the end of the American college basketball championship game on Monday. One team, the favorite, came back from 10 points down to tie the game off an absurd, double-clutch, off-balance 3-point shot. With 4.7 seconds left, the other team had a play. They calmly went the length of the court, and one of their players drained a 3-point shot at the buzzer.
Killers don’t care. Athletes get in the moment, this thing often misnamed “the zone.” It isn’t a zone, but rather a moment that extends into seeming eternity. If you’re a basketball player, the hoop seems the size of a giant garbage pail. If you’re a footballer, you see everything before it happens. It’s a period where senses are heightened and the body functions at a higher level. It’s fascinating to watch.
As Barça lines up against Atleti in the Champions League quarterfinals, there has been a lot of talk before the match about the possibility of the RM loss somehow affecting the team. It won’t, because killers don’t care. Barça understands what happened during that match, those few minutes of lost control. They understand the reality of trying to manage a match with the real objective in mind, and will be ready for that objective. That’s the simple view.
This is a worrisome tie, but not for any residual psychological reasons. Athletes do things that allow them to be ready for anything, living life as a series of moments. The tie is worrisome because Atleti is a team whose strengths match up against the Barça weaknesses. Their press can disrupt the possession game. They can also play off the counter, are strong on the flanks and from set pieces. Any honest culer will admit that this is the one team they didn’t want to see in the competition, particularly as the other three favorites have something of a sashay into the semi-finals.
That Barça is 6-0 against Atleti might be one of the best examples of why Luis Enrique was the exact right coach for this team, at this time. Atleti had its number, because it was built to destroy what Barça does. It’s difficult to play possession football when you’re being punched in the face. And it worked.
But while everyone was talking about a betrayal of Barça principles, and “where’s the midfield,” etc, Luis Enrique was diversifying the way the team could attack, and preparing it for those punches in the face. Atleti set up to truncate and harass. Barça just bypassed the midfield, leaving Atleti swinging at air. That 3-1 Camp Nou victory was a statement of intent — things were different now. Barça was no longer a team handcuffed by its own traditions. Somehow, attacking, possession football became thought of as the deliberate, passing style that many called tika-taka.
This new Barça beat Atleti and won the treble for the same reason that Guardiola’s team did: it had many different ways to attack.
In the here and now, Atleti has also had to adapt. They can still grind out a 1-0 win, but can also score goals, more than they have in the past. It isn’t just the fluency provided in attack by Griezmann. Fernando Torres is scoring goals, the midfield is solid and creative and the team understands how to use the flanks to attack, a potentially devastating outside-in approach to creating scoring chances.
And yet because Atleti is also such a danger off the counter, possession will be crucial for Barça. Atleti punishes mistakes with a regularity that verges on inevitable. Make the same errors in possession that turned the tide in the Classic, and Barça could quite easily find itself heading to the Calderon with an away goals deficit. That 6-0 record is as meaningless as the result of the Classic. It’s already forgotten by both sides.
Fatigue won’t be an issue, either. Focus is. Barça lost focus for about 10 minutes against Real Madrid, and that period was crucial. Lose focus against Atleti, and problems will result. But the team won’t, because it has always understood the important moment. The Classic meant a lot more to the supporters and various ancillary types than the players and coaching staff, because of the pragmatism that Luis Enrique has instilled. They knew the situation on Saturday, and they know the situation now.
The other intriguing thing about this match will be the difference wrought by the keeper. Ter Stegen moves Barça up the pitch. The back line has less responsibility to play out of the back because the keeper is making that initial pass. This has the benefit of diluting the Atleti pressure on the players bringing the ball out, and gives the attack a head start farther out from its own area.
Ter Stegen, because of his sweeper keeper style of play, also has the potential to negate one of the big weapons of Atleti, a team that is fond of controlling the space in front of the keeper in attack. They play close to the opponent area. Ter Stegen controls that space with effectiveness, and because he plays out from his goals, the through balls that Atleti can thrive can possibly be cut off at the source. It’s a different way of playing by a keeper that has the potential to provide an advantage against Atleti.
All that said, one thing that Simeone will have learned from watch the Classic is the value of neutralizing Neymar, whose importance to the Barça attack can’t be overstated. The team plays differently when he is on the loose, faster and less predictable. Atleti needs an opponent to be predictable. Messi is like a shark. He is headed for goal. Suarez needs service to be truly effective. How Simeone plays Neymar will be interesting. This is also one point where officiating will matter. If Felix Brych decides to not let Atleti get overly physical with Neymar, they will be in trouble. If he lets aggression go, it could be a difficult day for the left side of the Barça attack.
We don’t yet know who is in the Barça squad for the match, but the hope is that Rafinha makes it. He’s the precise kind of player who, in a substitute role, can unsettle and unbalance. He’s physical, and strong with the ball at his feet. He’s also capable of making runs of a type that moves defenses around.
But even as this match is complex, it is easy to predict. The team that plays its game will win. Duh. But possession will be everything. Barça will want it, Atleti will want to disrupt it and capitalize on any errors. The pressure will be intense. But killers don’t care. The danger is that both sides have killers.
When all is said and done, the lack of consistent scoring will let Atleti down, but the tie will be close, as in squeaky bum close. Key players in the tie will be Pique, Messi, Neymar and Ter Stegen. If those four have a strong match, it could all be over but the shouting.
Fearless prediction: 2-1 and 1-1, for a 3-2 aggregate Barça win. But I could be wrong.