My heavens, poor Celtic.
What comes to mind are the old Looney Tunes cartoons that feature Pepe Le Pew and that hapless cat who got marked by white paint, and becomes the wholly undesired amorous object for the titular skunk.
The cat runs and runs, fast as she can while Pepe lopes, smile on his face and hearts popping above his head. No matter where the cat runs or hides, no matter how fast, Pepe is there, to cuddle and whisper sweet nothings. Celtic huffed and puffed, ran and fouled, got an A for effort but Barça had that match well in control.
Some Barça matches are suspenseful, even though the team has a lead. The proceedings seem rather fragile, almost fraught. Not this one. Not only was Celtic not good enough, but Barça was more than good enough. There was a lot to be learned from this match, most notably that the only team that can beat Barça is Barça. Every loss this season has been due to a comedy of errors. The best chances that Celtic got came from Barça errors. The difference here was that the errors were dealt with by a team that is slowly, surely beginning to come into form.
There was a lot of talk about this match about Barça not playing well, and something in this space about the win being “undeserved.” On what planet? Hell, if Messi brings his normal shooting boots, it’s three or four goals for Barça, not to mention the chance that Suarez headed right to the Celtic keeper.
Perhaps Barça has finally reached a point in its development where its legend is so immense that even it can’t walk in its own shadow. The passing was calm and incisive (mostly), the run dictated the pass, with Messi’s first goal being the most opulent example of that elegance even as time and again, movement demanded a pass and a Barça player usually obliged.
There was talk of “no midfield,” even as Barça calmly stroked the ball around the midfield, Neymar to Gomes to Busquets to Rakitic to Sergi Roberto to Messi to …
This match was so calm, so in control that it was almost boring. We should, of course, deal with the reality that Celtic isn’t a European powerhouse. Yes, they drew Manchester City in their house, but they were never, ever going to trouble Barça, a significantly better side than City.
Most reassuring for long-time watchers is that the press was back. Note the difficulty that Celtic had playing out or playing at all for most of the match, as Barça players triangulated on the ball, with another having their back to scoop up anything that trickled out. And that wasn’t even a full press, as Messi took part intermittently, and Suarez lost interest once proceedings got too far from the Celtic box.
Busquets was given time and space because the Barça movement kept Celtic too busy for them to focus on one player. Attack Busquets directly and as long as he doesn’t commit the sin of holding the ball too long, he will find a runner, and your team will be in trouble. Because that’s what Barça does.
The other interesting wrinkle was the interchangeability at times of Gomes and Busquets, even as the former is still but a shadow of the latter, a player still finding his way into comfort with the pace, both mental and of the ball, of play at FC Barcelona. Note that Arda Turan had the same problem last season, and adapted nicely. So don’t go writing Gomes off yet, even as now you can clearly see his struggles at times with where to be and how quickly to be there, or the pace of a pass that is spanked to him.
At other times, you can see glimpses of the player that Barça paid a king’s ransom for, the silky moves and clairvoyant passing of a player who seems, once he adapts, to be fully capable of playing at the level required.
Luis Suarez is finding his way out of his funk even as he is still in it. On form, he’s always around the ball, always making the right run, linked to his teammates in an uncanny way. Off-form, he’s the player who watched Neymar make a run into the box and didn’t move for the ball, so Neymar’s pass for him, the rare Barça pass meant to dictate a run, rolled harmlessly for a goal kick, instead of into a goal celebration.
The penalty that he drew was a masterwork of the black arts. He had his marker’s arm locked with his, pulling him into his body as he went down. The defender screwed up by getting that close, by trying to body Suarez in the box. Suarez finished off the sale by going down in the classic, arms outstretched posture. He bought that penalty, even as there was contact sufficient to bring him down. Messi shrugs that contact off and creates a play that makes everyone coo at its proximity to genius. Neymar would go down, but not get the call.
Neymar will get stick. Neymar will continue to get stick until he leaves Barça next summer, and then he will get stick for leaving. It will only be when Neymar is gone that people will understand what he does, how he does it and his value to the team. And we will see it when Barça plays his team in Champions League, and he roasts our fullbacks the way he roasts those of other teams.
He accelerates play. Note how often a player slides a ball to him and he outruns the fullback to control and advance. We take it for granted, but it doesn’t happen when he isn’t in the match, or when he isn’t on form. Look at his pass for Messi on that first goal, a ball lofted over distance to the exact spot at the exact right time with the exact right amount of pace for Messi to run onto. To be sure, Messi’s finish was magnificent. But how many players in the game can make that pass?
Run after run, setup after setup, Neymar tormented that side of the Celtic defense. There was a lot of focus on his yellow card incident with Lustig, but might as well get it over with. You force harmless contact, glower a bit and get your card. Sit out a dead rubber and have a clean slate for the knockouts. No shame in that game. Notice how calm Neymar was as he talked to Gomes after receiving his booking, and how controlled his play was after. We have seen “red mist” Neymar, and that wasn’t it. But it is easy to focus on that incident, rather than the quality of Neymar’s match at both ends of the pitch as he tracked back like a yeoman, helping out on defense time after time.
It’s easy to understand why Neymar gets stick. If people ask, it’s easier to explain, even as it’s very difficult to understand, given his immense value to the team. What he does is irreplacable. He makes it look easy, so observers believe that it is. It’s only when you watch another player try what Neymar does routinely, that you realize.
Even as the team isn’t playing all that well all that consistently, it’s worth noting that Barça is playing a different way now. What will have to happen is simple: people will have to adjust to way the team is playing — or at times, trying to play, or resign themselves to being perpetually unhappy, leaving a light on in the window for a style of play that will never return. That’s a call that nobody can make for anyone else.
At times that style of play will seem chaotic, at times it will deemphasize the midfield, at times it will play direct football in an effort to get the ball to the players that can do the most damage. The Barça glass is almsot always half-empty. We have seen, in the wake of the Celtic match, stories about how Neymar hasn’t scored in X minutes, even after the match where he tied the single-season assists record for the Champions League in five matches.
People want Neymar to score goals, even as Neymar wasn’t bought to score goals. Neymar was bought to create goals, whether he scores them himself, or assists them, or makes a key run to create space for one. Suarez was bought to score goals. Messi was created by the gods to score goals. Barça will score goals. None of the transfers this summer have scored a goal. That should worry you only if you like to worry about stuff. But those are the same people who are stomping around and insisting that Barça didn’t play well as they stroked Celtic around their home pitch. And those people can’t be helped. No, it ain’t bunnies and rainbows. But it isn’t a disaster, either. As always, reality is squarely in the middle.
Meanwhile, Barça is a mess of team that won its Championns League group, and sits four points off the top of its home league, despite having been generally clunky and erratic for the season to date. And yet, win the Classic and Barça is one point off the top of the table without even coming anywhere close to form yet, except during brief stretches.
What a mess.