Barça 6, Sporting Gijon 0, aka “It wasn’t pretty, but it counts”

Moods, feelings and perspectives. Over the time many of us have been supporting this football club, there have been phases.

The last days of Frank Rijkaard featured a team that got creative about ways to lose matches. It was, at the end, a dispirited bunch that expected the worst to happen and was rarely disappointed. Errors, bad passes, once in a lifetime goals against, you name it, it happened. Snakebit? It’s an interesting theory that sometimes can be answered by “Well, if you didn’t walk where there were snakes … ”

The Tata Martino season will always be considered the epitome of failure instead of a stupefying battle against all the odds by a team that finally came up short. Revisionist history? Perhaps. But Barça was off on a record-setting run that season, until the body blows in the form of heartache began to pile up. Then it all got to be too much, as the team went from on course for a treble, to nothing.

This team is different, and it feels different. There isn’t any heartache or body blows, except from fatigue. The team isn’t finding ways to lose, isn’t putting up desultory scorelines with zeroes on them. It’s finding ways to win matches even as it isn’t playing at its best as a collective, nor are the individuals in anything approaching their best form, and still the group is finding ways to win.

What history won’t record is that even with an out-of-form team banging its head against the entire Atleti team, the crucial goal was right there, in that Champions League tie. The necessary goals against RM in the Classic were right there, even as the fatigue-based mistakes accumulated. There were chances galore against La Real, and the team didn’t play much differently against Valencia than Deportivo. Same quality. It just took its chances against Depor.

Chances. The first goal that was scored today wasn’t pretty, but it still counted. A group that wants to find a way to lose doesn’t score that goal because nobody is in the right position to capitalize on an error by the opponent. A few matches ago, even Barça doesn’t score that goal, because Messi isn’t there, isn’t charging around like the best player in football, playing on the best football team in the world right now.

Opponents understand that Barça is still the best team in the world, and the string of recent matches have demonstrated this in rather different ways. In Champions League, Simeone stored his pride and stopped playing Barça as an equal. His team nicked a goal, and then defended with everybody in the box. It isn’t only what a relegation side does. It’s also what a practical team does when it gets a lead in a match that it has to win.

Deportivo walked about, put in enough effort to break a sweat but not really full out, because it has other, winnable battles to fight. Barça won 0-8 in a romp, and the Depor supporters hooted their players off the pitch, clearly lacking the same pragmatism of the athletes they support.

Sporting Gijon came to the Camp Nou, and started the match with a rotation lineup. There were seven changes from the team that beat Sevilla in the match previous, saying the same thing as Depor, but in a different way. Barça didn’t have to play all out, and kinda sashayed about in the first half. Sporting nicked a chance or two, including one that needed to be cleared off the line not once by twice, as Claudio Bravo went on walkabout. There was a goal that should have been disallowed for clearly being offside, and a ridiculous penalty and red card that should get the ref who made the call banished to Segunda as a punishment.

There were also misplaced passes, continued evidence of the individual and collective form slumps even as players such as Messi are showing signs of working their way out, and an essential win is on the books as both Liga championship rivals also won on the same matchday.

Suarez has now scored four goals in consecutive matches, a stunning accomplishment even if you consider that the two teams that Barça have faced are essentially relegation fodder.

There are bright sides to be taken from a match that won’t be on anyone’s “Gotta watch that one again” list. The team got it done, and the Liga title race is poised on a knife’s edge. Did it have to be this way? Think of all the regrettable things that have happened in your existences, and how many of them have been your fault. We rue our errors, we replay incidents and wish that we had done things differently. But life is what it is, as are the decisions that we make and the actions we take.

When Suarez strolled past that open net chance against RM, you can bet the house that he was convinced that others would come, because they always do. It’s what Barça does. Right up until the final whistle, a team that scores goals for fun was absolutely convinced that they could find one against Atleti, then win the tie in extra time, because that’s what it has always done.

This feels like a weird season because it is fraught with the kind of drama that is normal for most teams and their supporters, who teeter totter on the standings, and the effect of a win or loss. It’s the kind of stuff that is pretty abnormal for culers, who pretty much only have to worry about what to wear to the next victory parade. In many ways, it’s fascinating to see how a team and its supporters deal with that uncertainty, that normalcy. Winning everything isn’t normal, even when it happens. Losing is normal. Losing is to be expected as teams go through phases.

Neymar is a perfect example. Two months ago, not to mention during the stretch where he was the catalyst for everything good that happened for Barça while Messi was injured, the game was easy for him. He ran, pranced, stroked passes and goals home with an ease that belied the insane difficulty of the game as it is played at the highest level. That dude is now in a slump, and the game isn’t easy at all. Not any longer. Decisions are wrong, passes are not made or held too long and he’s getting kicked pretty much every time he gets the ball, now that teams have discovered his catalyst’s role in making turbocharged Barça go. Big picture folks can even trace the team’s slump to Neymar’s slump as the pace of play slowed and the capriciousness and constant danger vanished.

Barça Twitter is unrelenting in its excoriation of Neymar, but as with any slump, the player will have to find his way out by playing his way out. Could Luis Enrique sub in Rafinha or Turan in that left-sided catalyst’s role? Sure, as long as people understand that either of those players will be a significant step down from a man who is the second-best player in world football. So you keep starting him just as Luis Enrique did when Messi and Suarez were in their form troughs, because even if a sub for one of the front three has the match of their lives, it isn’t as good as a struggling version of that front three. It’s a quandary and a dilemma that the team, its coaching staff and the player will have to solve.

At times, Barça didn’t look its imperious self against Sporting Gijon. Thankfully, it didn’t have to as its coach understood the situation going into that match, and made the necessary decision attendant to battling relegation and paying a visit to the best football team in the world. The match was never in danger, the conclusion was foregone — both sides played like it.

The real question is what will happen the rest of this season? There are many who expect the team to bottle it, to drop points at some inopportune time as its rivals win out, facing late-match heartbreak as that pivotal Camp Nou match against Atleti when on the last day of the season the Liga was lost. And that might happen. But it would in no way affect the reality that this team is in a different place than its predecessors, the previous folks who faced strife and doubt, and succumbed. The team is stronger, its coach has made the group stronger. Even if the group at times seems fragile, it isn’t.

Each of the remaining three opponents will have their own decisions to make. Betis is in 13th position, with nothing to play for. It’s safe from relegation spaces, without a chance in hell at any European slots. Espanyol isn’t safe, only four points away from the relegation slots. It will have to decide whether to fight like hell against Barça, bringing a derby war that might damage its chances of staying up, or just show up and play it out, accepting fate. Granada is also in a relegation battle, facing the same complexities as Espanyol.

The path for Barça is a simple one: win. Don’t expect or ask for help. Just win. As supporters, we have our own decisions to make. I won’t be watching the Sporting match again, even as the result was as beautiful as can be because of what it represents, which is the team that I love taking a step closer to another league championship.

Success is often fear-based. Someone begins a task saying, “Man, I hope I don’t screw this up.” In athletics, it’s called playing tight. In life, it’s a prescription for adequacy. These past two matches have showcased a Barça that has moved from wishing it won’t screw anything up to expecting something good to happen. That’s the team that went on a 39-match unbeaten run, the team that made football look easy. Let’s hope those guys stick around.

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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.

23 Comments

  1. Davour
    April 24, 2016

    I’ve seldom seen anyone so obviously out of form as Neymar is (though slowly getting better). It’s interesting to see, this almost over-confident young buck, seemingly without hesitation of doubt, greatest self confidence (well, apart from CR) in the world… and then this: hesitant, over-thinking, nervous, no instinct, etc. It would serve as a case study for lack of confidence, this. At one point he was set up by Messi to finish on the one touch, as so often before where he buried it in the far corner – but now, he received the ball, took a few touches, considered a pass, a shot, a pass, and it was gone. Fear-based, as you point out: the in-form Neymar doesn’t think, he sees the opening and pounces; this Neymar is thinking, “man, I better control this thing to get it really, really right – what if I strike it directly and fluff it? Better wait. Where the hell is Leo?”

    But he is getting better, and will be fine. But Messi and Iniesta are fine enough at the moment. And with Busi finding his feet again, the team is looking much better. Who knows what they’ll do next game, but confidence is returning, and with it: joy!

  2. luisthebeast
    April 24, 2016

    The team need more transfers like Suarez.Man what a player.Not only as a talented top level player but also his passion the fighting spirit the winning mentality.Neymar is more talented but i want him to be more aggresive more passionate.

  3. PPos
    April 25, 2016

    Neymar is overthinking his game. Eden Hazard is the best player that represents the two sides of form. Eden last season was brilliant. He believed in himself, so every shot he took, and every dribble he made worked, but this season its a different story. Hazard has been awful this season, but we know that it isn’t due to a lack of skill. Riyad Mahrez has been brilliant this season, because he got off the ground running, and believed in himself. Neymar could be sold this summer. No one believed Ibrahimovic was being sold, all summer long, and he was. The difference between the Neymar of the beginning of the season is fatigue, self-doubt, overthinking, not shooting quicker, the killer instinct. But we know he has it, so its going to come back. Class is eternal.

    • Davour
      April 25, 2016

      Well, sure, Hazard’s loss of form is extreme, that’s true. But the main difference to me is his inability to shake it off, the length rather than quality. Neymar also has a surrounding to scaffold him and ease him out of it, while Eden was the main creative force behind his team (sorry, Cesc). But of course: Neymar has notably lost form; Eden’s been a train wreck.

      And yes, Mahrez’s opener against Swansea was a classic confidence goal; not easy at all.

    • Jim
      April 25, 2016

      Not sure why anyone thinks he will be sold. Club, father and player himself have all said he’s staying and wouldn’t be politically possible to sell him to pay for the stadium. I put that in the same category as Schmichael to Barca when we have two better keepers already …. Hmm, unless one of them is really fed up ?

  4. Tata2
    April 25, 2016

    So we got questionable calls so what? it’s very enjoyable that barca has become a center of envy cos of its exploits since the start of the decade. When the ref makes a wrong call against us then the narrative is usually “it’s a refereeing error” but when the wrong call is an our favour then its uefalona, conspiracy theories etc. The Kevin Constant hand ball that led to Milan’s first goal in 2013, Ibrahimovic’s a meter offside goal against us for PSG, the Messi disallowed goal against Arsenal in 2011,Messi’s disallowed goal against atletico that cost us la liga and even most recently the last minute penalty that was denied us against Atletico and the Sergio Ramos foul on Messi and subsequent yellow that should have seen him sent off. Heck even the Bayern mauling had lots of controversial non calls against us. I recall Muller blatantly pushing Alba away(When he was marking Robben) so that Robben could score. I could go on and on but nobody remembers these. I urge you all not to make an attempt to debate with any anti-barca fan about questionable calls going our way. Their appeals are out of hate and jealousy and mostly sentimental. Ronaldo scored a decisive goal this season in a meter offside position but no one even recalls that.

  5. April 25, 2016

    I agree completely that a not on form Neymar is still better than most players who can play there. I feel lucky that am not into twitter. Who would want to sell him at this stage, unless for ‘making’ money reasons.
    But having said that, it was painful to watch him destroy 3 ‘put me in’ passes from Messi, one after the other, one of which was such a beauty. Anyways, he will get back his form.
    Glad that Messi and Iniesta are back. Messi is such an amazing creator to watch. I now realise why Xavi used to praise him like anything. That match was painful to watch, but looking at Messi I was thinking, have there ever been another trequartista, who inspite of having amazing speed plays a very slow or walking game, but can still be a 4 headed danger – dribbles , have superb vision, can score and can create danger out of nothing from instant passes.

    • April 26, 2016

      Aimar and Ortega perhaps? (if not for the unfortunate injuries for the former and alcohol issues for the later…)

    • April 26, 2016

      Me too idolised Aimar. But Messi is kind of 4 times or even higher version of Aimar.
      Ortega no. For me he was a player who never reached the hype that was created around him.

  6. Tata2
    April 26, 2016

    Citeh all the way tonight!

  7. TITO
    April 26, 2016

    I cant fcking believe that we are not in the semis, while Rm and City are playing there.
    We are so much better than them and to bad that this drop in form came at such a moment of the season.

    • G6O
      April 26, 2016

      Wait till RM reach the final.

      Now that will hurt

      I am not even that bothered by the fact we won’t win it, the worst thing is that we are not there to stop them from winning it….

  8. Davour
    April 26, 2016

    Well, City will need a miracle to win this. RM were clearly superior, without CR and – 2nd half – Benzema. De Brunye not as sharp as I thought, and Augero underwhelming as usual when the going gets tough outside EPL (him instead of Suarez is laughable). Two defensive CMs does not fly, and without Silva there is little precision. Their CBs were pretty good, though, and Hart.

    CIty is a funny team, in a way. Like neither nor. Will be interesting to see what Pep will do with this lukewarm constellation. It is bitter that they have our seat. This is clearly RMs to lose…

  9. PPos
    April 26, 2016

    Citeh vs Madrid was a really boring game. Arguero was pretty awful today. De Bruyne was pretty flat too. All city needs is one goal in the bernabeu and Madrid is going to be toast. City was strong in defense which is surprising. They’ve been suspect at the back all season long. Real Madrid are the favorites though, city is going to have to step up in Madrid if they are gonna warrant a chance. Apparently Ronaldo might miss that game as well, we’ll see. Vasquez was really out of his depth out there. He kept getting roughed up time and time again.

  10. Jim
    April 27, 2016

    Well, looking forward to this after last night’s washout. For me, this’ll go a long way towards telling us if we should’ve done better against this mob. Maybe they are that good but if they’re not Bayern will find them out.

    • georgjorge
      April 27, 2016

      Well at least that first half of the game puts our tie against them in perspective a bit. They really ARE an incredibly troublesome team to play against.

  11. Jim
    April 27, 2016

    Yikes, look at the Bayern bench !

  12. Jim
    April 27, 2016

    Hmm, anyone else reckon Thiago will be on the move again this summer ? Not happy being subbed and it seemed to me that the Bayern players weren’t really using him much. Maybe because he was playing a little deep ? Didn’t cover himself in glory at their goal, showing no urgency to get goal side of the scorer. (Mind you, the whole goal was an exercise on not leaping in and showing the attacker wide.) Or is Thiago still seen as the Spanish manager’s “project” ? Pity, as he is one graceful player on the ball.

  13. Tata2
    April 27, 2016

    Atletico just squeaked out another win by scoring “bucket loads” of… wait for it! 1 goal and parking their bus with Simeone behind the wheels. Gosh this team is built to beat EE in the finals

  14. MSN
    April 27, 2016

    Wish you could write something about Neymar’s overall season, and the current surreal hatred he’s getting from a part of the supporters.

    • georgjorge
      April 28, 2016

      Is he? That’s a bit sad. I don’t know much about Twitter but even in the bar where I watch the games, a decade-long supporter from Barcelona told me Neymar should be sold when he missed so many chances against Sporting. Neymar has been glorious this season especially when Messi was injured but also before that.

      If players would be sold for having a month of bad form then Busquets would be the only one left in the squad.

    • TITO
      April 28, 2016

      And Douglas. He hardly had a bad month with us.

  15. TITO
    April 28, 2016

    That was a game that wasn’t pretty, but it did count. Especially when you don’t concede.
    Feel bad that it was AM that we had to play in the quarterfinals, and even more bad that we weren’t in our peak those days we played them.
    We are such a team, and i noticed this the past decade, that small details pave our path to glory and trophies in the end of the season or not. Hardly we had a bad or terrible season all these years so we can blame everybody for a failure. It’s always about few games when we have a drop in our form.

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