Today’s match, vs La Real at their house of horrors for Barça, should be sufficiently exciting to make a culer almost giddy.
Yes, there are portents of doom. Barça is winless at the fortress Anoeta in 10 visits, and the teams are riding very different waves of form. La Real is indomitable at home, while Barça is … suspect even if the team wasn’t visiting a bogey ground. Pique, it was suspected, had a bit of a knock but trained as normal. Umtiti and Iniesta are still not back, nor is Mathieu. Neymar crashed his Ferrari while en route to joining the team for the trip, capping off a week that included more transfer saga litigation.
As if all that wasn’t a sufficient distraction for the essential Brazilian, he will have to play on tenterhooks today as he is a yellow away from missing the Classic. One rash challenge, one moment of vexation, the smallest something from a player who even as normal, faces an unusual degree of scrutiny. And La Real sits fifth in the Liga table, no longer the charming mid-table side with aspirations but a legitimate force.
These portents are like a coterie of ravens, perched on a branch, singing “Nevermore!” at the top of their lungs.
What a time to be alive!
It’s easy to support a team when it’s all going well, when it’s laying manitas on folks, dancing and prancing. But there are culers who have never known legit adversity, never understood what it’s like to — more than drop occasional points — be on the wrong side of things with regularity. This match today at Anoeta couldn’t have come at a worse time for Luis Enrique and his charges. Drop points and they will be looking at a 7-point gap to Real Madrid, with the next match being the Classic. Lose there and it would be an insurmountable 10-point gap to the top.
Without a shard of hyperbolic excess, the Barça-centric media outlets are calling today’s match a “final,” which it kinda is when you consider what’s at stake which is, in effect, La Liga.
Yes, the team could lose today and win the Classic. Put nothing past this inconsistent group of part-time marauders. But imagine the full-scale meltdown should the team drop points today, which makes this match quite indeed a final, which is magnificent.
Every group of supporters wants its team to be tested. It is only after a test that you find out what is going on, what that group has. This season has, to date, been fraught. The form of every player has been inconsistent, and there have been injuries galore, too often to key players. And when one returns, another one goes out. Even the flu is stalking the Camp Nou, grabbing Arda Turan after having just released Lionel Messi from its grasp.
What makes this match so exciting is that great teams — and this Barça is a great team — will find a way to be at their absolute best at crucial times. It’s the notion of being clutch. Luis Enrique won’t need any rousing pre-match speeches, won’t need to get his players psyched up in any way. They know what the deal is. This should make culers confident, because the team that you support is a row of assassins, led by the best player in the game. The team is winless in its last 10 visits to Anoeta, but it has never before visited with the season on the line.
Will Eusebio sit deep a la Malaga, ceding possession for the chance to hit out on the counter? It would be a coward’s approach to a home match, but the kind of swashbuckling derring-do that dictates attack, put on a show before the home crowd also hands coaches beatdowns.
Midfield pressure has been proven to be the way to unsettle Barça, particularly without the magician Iniesta absent to manage any stresses from impudent defenders. All of the potential substitutes are, in their own ways, flawed. Rafinha is more attacker than stable midfield force. Andre Gomes still has deer in the headlights-itis. Suarez Minor is inconsistent, even as his Mininiesta qualities are well suited to a potential La Real midfield press.
Or does Luis Enrique make Messi a full-fledged 10, stick him in midfield with Rakitic and Busquets, going at La Real with Neymar, Alcacer and Suarez? Do desperate times call for daring measures?
There are some who have already, in their heads, ceded defeat today, too daunted by the spectre of Anoeta bogeymen. But streaks are made to be broken, and any culer should have full confidence in the team today of all days. Why? Because today is everything, and it’s glorious.