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.