Barça 5, Espanyol 0, aka “Ninety minutes to glory”

As Barça demolished Espanyol today, underscoring a gaudy 21-0 goals scored to conceded tally in the last four matches, the wistful sighs uttered by a fanbase would provide enough ooomph to power a rocket.

Messi was vibrant (at times), and laced in yet another free kick goal. Neymar was dynamic and impetuous. Suarez was offside only once, and never lined up that way. He was focused, aggressive and omnipresent. The press was on working ball after ball loose. We even got a hopeful glimpse of the future in goal, as Ter Stegen demonstrated just how much better he helps the team start play from the back.

The score was 5-0 and could have been more. Often in Barça’s matches, there are those “Yeah, but it could have beens” that give a pessimistic fanbase succor. Not today. Today, under glittering sun at the Camp Nou was the Barça that, if not in full form yet, was a lot closer to the team we know that the sleepwalkers who let an almost double-digit Liga lead slip, and couldn’t muster a single, solitary goal against Atleti in their house.

Now it’s simple: win away to Granada, or just match the RM result, and that’s another Liga under the belt.

What’s odd about this potential league championship as well as the one already grabbed by Bayern this weekend is that they seem like consolation prizes for many, as giant clubs view European glory as the real measuring stick.

But spare a moment to consider what winning a league means. It’s the kind of week in, week out consistent quality that, for more than thirty matchdays, means that the team has been good enough over the course of a season to be the best. Thirty-four rounds, with banana peels, and every team giving of its absolute best, of ups and downs, junk and clunk, finding ways to win and finding ways to show the resilience of a potential champion.

Giant clubs are at the point where they almost take league championships for granted. Bayern has won its fourth in a row. Barça, should they defeat Granada, will notch its seventh Liga crown since 2005-’06. That is astonishing, and possibly one reason that many culers are rather blase about what is in fact an extraordinary feat.

Leicester City must seem so quaint, with a opera star singing before the match, champagne dousings and a weeping captain. It’s like they’ve never … oh, yeah. It’s like they understand what an extraordinary thing winning a championship is.

We had the privilege to watch a magnificent display today by a team that wasn’t even at full throttle. There was one breathtaking sequence that, had it come off, would have been the team goal of the decade, failed only by a final pass that was cut a bit too fine. But the extravagant football was back as the team shook off the malaise of various form and fitness slumps, and Espanyol was the victim.

There wasn’t a lot of love in the Catalan derby, as befits a proper cross-town encounter. And the Espanyol keeper probably, after his howler that gifted Rafinha a goal, regrets his pre-match statements. Before the match, there was talk of the Tamuzado, the goal that killed Liga hopes for Barça and helped give the title to RM, a goal that changed everything for a rival who wants to be nothing more, when it plays its monied neighbor, than a pain in the ass. Yes, they’d love to win. But more than that, it’s the annoyance, the kicks, the shoves, the irritability that accompanies a super-heated derby.

Barça wasn’t (mostly) interested in that today, even as Mascherano cleaned clocks and never deigned to take prisoners. There was something extra about this match, as there have been since the lead evaporated. Today, as in the previous weeks, we saw a team that knew what it had to do. Teams talk of having their destiny in their own hands, but it is rarely so clear as it is for Barça, who wasn’t at all interested in playing today. Destruction was the order of the day.

Epitomizing the tone of today’s match was Suarez, making a run to get onto a pass that didn’t find him, then running back hard to dispossess the Espanyol defender who was trying to start his team going the other way, poking a ball past his marker then running to be on the end of the resultant pass. It was absurd, and a joy to witness.

The team that we saw today would have dispatched Atleti, a team that had their own turn in the lions den at their Anoeta, away to Levante, where they haven’t won since 2005. They didn’t today, and they are now in third place, out of contention for the title that had to be on their minds. Their coach said that their focus was on La Liga, not Champions League, not yet, that they would be going all out to win it.

But as with Barça, the accumulation of matches, of efforts, found them wanting. Bayern was an expensive victory and Atleti looked it today, in a lose or go home situation. They lost, and that’s that. RM won, and are now a single point behind Barça, clarifying with a crystalline brutality the real cost of those laconic ten minutes at home that saw RM seize control of the last Classic.

This team, the way it is playing now, would crush RM. But timing is everything. It was bad at the worst time for Barça, just as it was for Atleti. That timing meant that for the past weeks, Barça has only had a single match to prepare for, much to the chagrin of opponents.

What will happen next week? Granada, who beat Sevilla today, another team showing the effects of European exertions, which means they will avoid relegation and have nothing to play for against Barça. They will be home, and their home supporters will be baying for blood. Will their sigh of relief lead to relaxation, and will it even matter?

This Barça is, after a rough patch, playing like the best football team in the world again. It is that quality of play that makes the belief so rock-solid. It isn’t overconfidence, but rather belief in a team that has done so much and gone so far. It’s one match, and everything is on the line. Barça has too many great players to come up short, players who understand the sheer, indescribable beauty of winning even as they have all done it so often that parades are almost like a summer ritual in Barcelona.

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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.

24 Comments

  1. TITO
    May 9, 2016

    As for Granada, dont think that they will show up for a win.
    They will want to play football, and we know how that ends, when the others try to play football with us.
    What’s curious for me is, why now? If it was was fatigue, tirednes, exaustion or whatever during those 2-3 weeks, now we don’t see that, players looking fresh, they press, they run and they look same as before that blackout.
    It’s got be something mental.

  2. May 9, 2016

    Under the glittering sun at the Camp Nou? It’s been raining for days 😀

    • Jim
      May 9, 2016

      . Yeah, I heard the commentator talk about grey skies. Maybe Kxevin needs a bigger TV. 🙂

      Tito, it is a little strange. It looked for all the world to me that the team was physically done during that spell. However, LE has always maintained that the problem wasn’t physical.

      Whatever, I for one, wasn’t feeling comfortable at half time and I reckon he must have had words because we came out fired up in the second half, helped by Espanyol trying harder to kick us than keep their shape. Loved the move that Kxevin mentioned down the left and Messi also played a diagonal ball into the box later which seemed to make the whole world stop for a moment while everyone stood still in admiration. Also nice to see Suarez recognised. There’s not a better number nine in the world and his work rate every game is phenomenal. In the last two games he has beaten the offside trap beautifully for his goals. Such a clever player.

      So, down to the last game. Gonna throw in a word for Tata Martino here. This is exactly where we were in his season except we were playing a much better team in the last game and still only lost it through an avoidable marking error. And after all the team went through that year…

  3. georgjorge
    May 9, 2016

    I couldn’t see the game, seems I missed quite a bit.

    Last season, Lucho seemed to get everything right with regard to the mental/physical development of the team. There were slumps, but they were in mid-season when European football was still easier even with a diminished team. This time, the slump came at a much worse time. On the other hand, we’re still the team with the best win/loss ratio against Simeone’s team ; ).

    One other thing to note are the continued miracles of the staff with regards to (lack of) injuries, in comparison to other big European clubs (especially Bayern).

    So this is it. A final game against an average side with nothing to play for. The team is absolutely capable of winning this easily, and I think they will. Strange situation for Zidane and RM – they could win the big double, instantly making him a messiah and Perez a prophet. Or they could win nothing at all, yet another zero tituli, which could be the final straw for Perez and very possibly Zidane as well. Whatever happens, I am very much looking forward to another season with Lucho!

  4. May 9, 2016

    The liga is still ours to lose. Even if the ref pull out a Karim disallowed linesman overruled by Ref Benzema goal, we can keep the liga if we win.

    If Messi is ON for even half that game, sending in those out of the world through balls to the box and if Suarez in his typical style can convert one of those chances we will be liga champions.

    • May 9, 2016

      sorry, I meant even if REf pulls a bad goal for RMadrid and helps them win, ….

    • Jim
      May 10, 2016

      No offence, Tito, but having sat through that whole video ( and what good quality it is) I come away thinking what a superb set of highlights of Alba’s play. I saw

      him timing his runs to perfection, especially in beating offside traps
      Him putting in a ton of effort and no little pace in making it onto these balls
      Goals scored by him, assists for others and great chances scorned ( by him and others)
      The keeper and defenders preventing other certain goals
      Some great control and first time touches by someone moving at great speed ( not easy)

      Not trying to be clever but compare these to other LBs offensive efforts like Maxwell and Abdal. Way better than Alves’ efforts for me.

      Btw, I do think there are times when he does muck it up but not really much in this video. Happy to outline in more detail if you want but what a ton of effort he puts in. There is a full half pitch sprint to get onto one of the early ones !

      • May 10, 2016

        I think the point Tito is trying to make is that Alba screws up a bunch of Messi passes with poor decision making. And he does. To a groan-inducing degree. That he also makes something really good of many of those passes is the flip side to that coin. He does both, and both can be accurate observations in this instance.

        Oh. If Barça had Abidal, Alba would still be at Valencia, and Neymar wouldn’t have to track back as much.

        Barça needs a quality LB option to put pressure on Alba who, for me, needs to improve his decision making on the ball as well as defending. He’s the undisputed starter, but his only competition is Adriano.

      • Jim
        May 10, 2016

        I absolutely agree that Alba needs competition for his place, Kxevin, but only because we’re better off if everyone has someone breathing down their neck. Look at Bravo.

        I do agree that Alba does sometimes frustrate with his final ball but which of our team doesn’t ? You yourself have been quite harsh on Suarez given the amount of goals and assists he also notches up. Footballers in attack will screw up more than they succeed. That’s a given.

        Time and again Alba is making these lung busting runs and as the video shows quite often with success. It’d be nice to hear that recognised when the evidence is in front of us. We were talking mainly about this video which purported to show his weaknesses. I would contend it shows the opposite. It’s easy to criticise a player without providing evidence. Just my opinion but I think this video shows his worth rather than anything else. If you think it shows messing up to a “groan inducing degree” then please let me know where. I would argue about fifteen or sixteen were decent efforts.

        We’ve no way of knowing what you say about Abidal . I suppose it would depend on how LE sees the LB’s job. However, in terms of both offence and defence, I wouldnt be sure. Neymar’s defensive efforts are okay, probably good for a superstar, but I haven’t seen any time when he’s got Alba out of trouble. As far as I can tell the moans about Alba recently have centred around two passes made into the opposition half which were intercepted and a clearance on the sideline following a botched tackle by a pique and Masche. In all cases there were several of our players goal side. If that’s all he’s done wrong that’s not much. I feel a fairness committee coming on . . .

      • May 11, 2016

        You start the Alba Fairness Committee, and I will start the Mascherano Fairness Committee.

      • Jim
        May 11, 2016

        I thought you had ages ago ? 🙂

        I’ll need to think seriously,though, about over stretching myself. I’ve already got the Mathieu and Pique committees on the go as well as a share in the Neymar one although I may put the Pique one into abeyance as Pique seems to have won over a few admirers in the last two seasons.

  5. Yaredinho
    May 10, 2016

    Jim,
    I agree with you on the effort and keeping the offside traps stuffs. But not sure why you want to bring Maxell and Abidal into the equation, mainly for two reasons. First, in their days the way the left side is used is totally different. The team used more the right side to stretch the game with the FB. And Dani was expert at it. (While i’m at it, not sure why u mentioned Dani’s effort here…Dani isn’t the force of nature he used to be and will not have Messi’s diagonal passes anyways. And obviously you know the changes made when it comes to the way the FBs setup). Simply that was not part of their primary job in our play. Second, those exceptional diagonal passes were NOT the features of Messi’s games in those days. And thus, I wouldn’t expect them to make those efforts.
    For me Alba is not that bad at picking his team mates as people would like to believe, but he has to improve his finishing considerably. It’s clear he messes up more when he tries to score than to pick his team mates.

  6. Jim
    May 10, 2016

    I used them, Yaredinho, because they were our last two LBs. for me, Dani’s crossing has never been great although I take your point that Messi’s diagonals are something else. I’d like to see Neymar offering the same from the other side although he’d probably have to drop a little deeper to do that. However the point remains that neither of our previous incumbents were much use offensively despite being played in advanced positions but you’re right in that we can look at Alba’s performance on its own. I’m interested in how you think the FBs’ jobs have changed though, as opposed to the way defences set up against us.

    I’m not sure how what we see qualifies as anything other than pretty impressive. In nineteen clips, he scores one, has two cleared off the line, four on target saves, from the GKs (some pretty good from the keepers,), four GOAL assists, four chances set up. And a couple he’d rather forget about. And this is from a LB who is having to take most of these first touch while running at full tilt ? What kind of standards are we applying to consider that anything other than impressive ?

  7. Yaredinho
    May 10, 2016

    Jim,
    From your these two points (“I used them because they were our last two” and “However the point remains that neither of our previous incumbents were much use offensively despite being played in advanced positions “), I can see that you believe in the comparison(the first point) because you believe that our last two FBs played in advanced positions(second point). For me that was not the case though. We can debate on Maxwell’s case, but doesn’t make much difference considering how long he plays and other stuffs. In my understanding of Barca game, Abidal never played/asked to play in advanced positions, during his days the width on left side came from the left attackers.

    As for the changes in our FBS: For me the change was forced by the resources we have, not necessarily driven by our opponent. Dani’s decline in certain aspects and Alba’s strengths, add Messi’s relatively new feature, namely his diagonal passes, on top of it. This brings some more advantages to our play(we can take it as opposed to the way defenses set up against us), mainly to our advantages related to Messi. With the left side being in advanced position Messi has one more option to pass and reason to hold the ball more than the Abidal days, which in turn puts doubts in opponent’s mind whether to keep the offside trap or not, whether to look for the space or the ball or simply to stretch or not…Considering Messi can do this for more than half a decade, this combination would do wonders for us. But I still believe Alba has to improve his finishing, for me most of his misses are his problems and can be solvable.

  8. Jim
    May 10, 2016

    Good discussion, Yaredinho. My recollection is that the FBs have always pushed up the pitch, at least since Pep arrived. Their sanctioned advanced position was often the cause of defensive woes, for me. That, of course, ended when Abidal was moved to CB, where incidentally I thought he played his best football for us.

    It was just that both Maxwell ( who oldies here will know I was a big fan of ) and Abidal preferred to play safe and turn the ball square or back. Whether that was by design I’ve no idea. However, to me, they were always high enough to at least try a bit more, as in this familiar scenario.

    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=pKMBFiT5UyU

  9. Yaredinho
    May 10, 2016

    Jim,
    I was thinking to mention that finishing of Abidal in Alba’s finishing issue(at least in my opinion), then dropped it as the French man never did it regularly.
    As for Abidal and Maxwell…for me they never been in positions/spaces where Alba picking Messi’s diagonal passes these days frequently, and that, I’m convinced, was by design as Lucho (and age) trying to limit Dani’s run and exploiting his midfielding qualities more.

    • Jim
      May 10, 2016

      Yeah, he wasn’t really prolific, was he ? Still he had other strengths. Pep was a real stickler for positional play so, as Henry said, if he told you not to go somewhere and you did you were soon riding pine !

      Yeah, we’d be foolish not to use Messi’s vision in that way. My observation was only that Alba deserves a little more recognition for the skill, energy and pace to get on the end of them then produce something. Control of a ball while moving at full speed is something you more normally associate with Xavi, Iniesta or Messi. Given that, the video shows a pretty good return rate.

  10. luisthebeast
    May 10, 2016

    So West Ham and United love Pep.City will be in CL next season if they draw next game.But i cant understand Pep.You start from the best club then u go to Bayern,a step down and then to City??Why?I cant see City never to be a europe big club.They dont have the mentality.Even if they spend 300m the best they can get is a CL spot.Next season PL will be a thriler and i will make a prediction now.It s LFC time.The biggest club in England will be back to the throne.And they will be in CL too strong candidates.

  11. TITO
    May 11, 2016

    The video is actually about Messi’s brilliance in finding Alba and whoever runs on that left side. It’s not about Alba, i made that point, because somehow coincide with my continous critisism on Alba.
    It’s not about his runs, his pace, his effort, his positional play. That’s all worthy of complimenting. What i worry about is that final decision when he needs to decide whom to pass to. Quite often, his mind sees only Messi in the penalty box, even if there are several other our players in much better position. It’s not about Alba per se, the same issue is applied to most of our players when they have to pass the ball inside the penaly box. They all are firmly convinced and believe that the best chance of making something out of an action is to give it to Messi.
    Now Jim, i cant recall all the cases throughout the years when i noticed this, but since i am talking about it, surely it is something that have caught my attention. Because that’s me, i like to point out only bad attributes. 🙂
    There aren’t better LB’s out there, that’s for sure, but this quality of Alba needs to be improved.
    And as for Dani, well, im sure you remember his Sevilla days and his crosses. That’s why we bought him in the first place. Because he was a menace in that right side.

    • May 11, 2016

      Thank you for posting that video which started that discussion, a long discussion in this space after some time, it seems

      I played as right back, I would have been over the moon, if I had be able to control and execute, pass or shoot, even one of those passes, like Alba did. (my duty was to simply run with the ball down the wing and then cross and run back)
      Alba,though heavily underrated, is one of the best sprinters in Europe, and most of the time he is very fast to be ale to pick up those passes and what he does is incredible. Sure he is not as talented in his decisions, but see we cant have all. But the ones who criticize Alba, for wasting those passes, I would say should also criticise Suarez.
      But as you say, even when we have Neymar Iniesta and Alba playing in the left, a lot of sudden attacks down the left channel is emanating out of that player playing in right wing, incredible isnt it.

  12. May 11, 2016

    Sport reports that the club finalized the Denis Suarez return from Villarreal, and he will join after the Copa final. It’s an excellent bit of business. He was snagged from City for a mil or so, loaned to Sevilla where he grumbled his way out, citing a need for more playing time as a way to improvement.

    He went to Villarreal and became one of the most dynamic young players in Liga, and also raised eyebrows in Europe. His addition will improve the club.

    The board gets shit when they screw up, so they also deserve praise for nice moves. This was one.

    MD is reporting that the club has made preliminary contact with Sevilla over Gameiro, and the price is 20m+a player loan. Obviously any and all such reports are rumors and hence, hogwash until something concrete happens. But speculatively, Monchi likes Halilovic, who will need a next-level club next season even if Sporting doesn’t take the drop. Would seem to be a confluence of mutual need, but we’ll see how things play out.

    I do know that Gamiero would be an excellent addition to the attack.

    • TITO
      May 11, 2016

      I would like them to think about Payet as well. Would do us a lot of good.
      Though we need firstly to strengthen our defense.

    • Jim
      May 11, 2016

      Yeah, I’ve been impressed by him latterly although he’s a fairly spiky individual. Usual caveat about finding out about his ability in the confined spaces we face. He whips in a good ball though and seems to be able to get up and down the park.

      I’m now thinking too many players. If we buy for the positions talked about in addition to Turan and Vidal there are going to have to be high profile departures. Did I see SR’s buyout has now gone to something crazy like 50m ? Seriously, would anyone here buy him at that price ?

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