Remuntada. Comeback. Barça is involved in one of only two Copa ties that aren’t dead rubbers. And thanks to yet another moment of Messi genius, that number isn’t down to one.
A 2-0 loss at San Mames wouldn’t have sealed Barça’s Copa fate, but the circumstances are quite a bit more positive at 2-1 with a precious away goal.
There is so much more riding on this match than whether Barça advances in a tertiary competition, because while the team isn’t in crisis, it is teetering on the brink of a precipice. Free fall awaits. And we as supporters don’t have the luxury of sitting back and saying, “Told you so,” or giving a push. Yell, scream, throw things. The same passion that so many claim is absent from the team is also dissipating from a fanbase, like a married couple that has forgotten why they married. To hell with reserve.
Barça has to advance in the Copa. Simple as that. It isn’t because of the potential trophy, but rather because this is referendum on the team as it stands. No, not the coach — the whole magilla.
Lost Liga before springtime, out of the Copa with a difficult Champions League tie against PSG looming, a home and away that is a gimme if Barça is on form. But no. Not even close.
Will the team be dismantled if it goes out against Athletic. Nope. There is an intact spine. But Copa elimination would put paid to the notion that Luis Enrique would be staying another season, even for those of us strongly believing he is gone in the summer.
Because if Barça can’t overturn a 2-1 deficit with an away goal at home, then the coach has lost the team. Worse, the team will have lost itself.
Barça football is at its best a lustrous, automatic thing that works like a key in a lock, like watch gears. Even if tika-taka was and still is a silly phrase, imagine the sound a timepiece makes as it reliably beats out time. That is Barça football when it is flowing.
That requires confidence. Supreme confidence, that thing that is so fragile these days. Sports is fond of its cliches, of its talks of slumps and confidence and momentum, things that run both ways. Is it as simple as focus? A person on Twitter did a video analysis of just a few moves from Barça during the Athletic match. Every decision was wrong, as if the body snatchers of science fiction fame have taken over the players we have become so familiar with over the years. A simple pass was passed up in favor of a more dangerous one. Two extra touches taken, which gives the defender a chance to recover. Shots instead of passes, passes instead of shots. It was a grim picture of a team that is a mess. Passing backward instead of forward absolves of the reponsibility of having been the one that made the error. It also dooms a team that lives and breathes attack.
It wasn’t that long ago that giving up a goal would piss Barça off. They would shrug, and resume the task of putting the world right. These days, it’s the Fear, the “Oh, no, not again.”
Much has been made of the team’s captains deciding to skip the FIFA gala. Many speculated that it was because no Barça players were going to win. But perhaps, just perhaps, the captains felt the same thing many of us are feeling, that this match is mes que un match. This team has to get right, and it can’t do that on the practice pitch or in any sort of a team meeting. It doesn’t even need to kick the crap out of someone. In many ways of more value would be a close-run win, where a key break goes the team’s way, provides that sense of being out of the shadows.
This team is fighting for itself, its future. Its legacy is firm, or is it? Will it be a group that, a decade from now, will be viewed as one that didn’t do enough with the talent that it had? Possibly. Players also want to keep winning. If supporters think that they are bothered by a loss or elated by a win, imagine being a player. Imagine that being your job. Imagine knowing, feeling that everything is on the brink.
Athletic has a feeling of its own, coming into the Camp Nou. They have a lead in the tie albeit a tenuous one, based on that whole maths business. A 1-0 victory and Barça advances. It’s that kind of tenuous. They won at San Mames, but they didn’t beat Barça. They escaped, like the mouse who lays still long enough for the cat to get bored, then scurries away. Destruction is always looming.
Expect them to press hard and heavy early because an away goal for them would be massive, potentially tie-ending. Chasing that will even be worth the risk of conceding because of the damage that giving up a goal does to a team without confidence. Anyone expecting Athletic to cower on the rocks and defend their slim lead is crazy. And if Barça isn’t prepared for that, everyone on the team is naive as can be, which we all know isn’t the case.
This match is huge. It’s bigger than the competition, bigger than the players. I expect a 3-1 victory, and advancement to the next round. The talk about the team won’t stop because it wins, but that will make the win no less important.