La Liga. Played by geniuses, run by jackasses and officiated by buffoons. If only the first was true today.
Like Atleti, Barça played a midweek Copa tie and ran into a buzzsaw of an energized opponent in Betis, who were spoiling for a fight. A team that is on the turnaround after getting a new coach, Betis fought as if their lives depended upon it, pressing, putting Barça in danger time and again and finally grabbing a goal that was the payoff for their hard work, tireless effort and creativity. Hats off to them.
But Barça is better than that, has been better than that and should have been better than that. It was, to be generous, a desultory effort from the team today that pulled a draw out of the lackluster stroll in the Andalusian sunshine thanks to some late Messi genius.
The talk of the match will be a contentious sequence in the Betis box that should have resulted in either a goal allowed for Barça or a penalty for the neck takedown of Neymar. Neither was awarded, which was ridiculous but typical of the refereeing standard in La Liga. It’s easy to point to conpiracies but the simple fact of the matter is that Liga officiating is dogshit, compounded by being self-righteous dogshit. How many times have we witnessed in matches, and not just Barça matches, a bad call accompanied by the fool puffing his chest and aggressively defending his error?
Week after week in match after match it happens. If you only watch Barça it’s easy to think that it only happens to us, but everybody, every week in almost every match, gets jacked. Barça had as clear a goal as you will ever see, disallowed. Not only was the ball over the line, but the man who cleared it in that frenzy of activity was halfway into his own net. When the late goal from Suarez came, it was easy to scream about how this should have been the full points, and the team getting a reward for a thoroughly crap display.
But Barça was lucky to be in that match, and only were thanks to a sterling day by Ter Stegen, who made three match-saving chances. One early with an aerial dive, another when he just got fingertips to a blast from distance and finally, with Betis up 1-0 and headed for a match-clinching second, he rolled out from his line and stonewalled the Betis attacker. Clear MOTM.
Ter Stegen conceded a goal, which is worth a look. Betis played it really well, putting the set piece ball in close to the goal mouth, with a big man to harass Ter Stegen whose punch could have been more aggro, even as a case could also be made for a foul/obstruction. Ter Stegen is still learning, and one thing he will learn is that keepers will always get the call if they go hard for a punch. Go through the defender’s head if you have to, just clear that ball.
That said, Ter Stegen got the ball away from net, but directly to a Betis player who was standing there, unmarked for the tap home. It was 1-0 to the home side, and it was deserved. From that point Barça mustered a little bit of a response, but were still playing like tourists, taking a stroll in the afternoon sun.
Luis Enrique opted for a rotation XI of Ter Stegen, Vidal, Pique, Mathieu, Digne, Rakitic, Suarez Minor, Turan, Messi, Suarez, Neymar. It should have been enough to win. Betis is 13th in the table, but playing better than their league position dictates of late. Barça still had a gulf in quality, which was negated by Betis playing like demons.
This was the first match of the Busquets absence where he was clearly missed. Rakitic was significantly poorer today than he was against Eibar, but Eibar also didn’t play with the same energy and effort that Betis did today. He was a step behind play for the entire match, in a crucial position for Barça that dictates the attack as well as match control.
Another key absence was Umtiti, whose presence in helping Ter Stegen get attacks started is, again, not to be underestimated. Mathieu would move into space, but rarely presented himself as a viable option in terms of linking play, which Ter Stegen is thinking of. Pique was being pressed by Betis, with his attack facilitating role in mind. That left Ter Stegen having to play more longer passes to static mids and attackers, which helped Betis keep and turn possession.
The team had a unique opportunity to apply and keep applying pressure to Real Madrid and Sevilla, who they are chasing in the title race. Dig deep and find something, something more than the effort that cheated them as much as the officials did. Players have off games. Players shouldn’t have games where they act like they want to be in bed.
Suarez was where attacks went to die, as he played almost every second he was on the pitch as though he had cinderblocks for boots. Messi was … low energy. Neymar flagged after working hard on defense, which cost him on offense. He had the best chance for Barça to score in the first half, but was thwarted by some exceptional keeper play from Adan for Betis, who needed every fraction of his 6-foot-4-inch frame to stop that shot. Neymar should have done better, but don’t sell the effort short from Adan.
The match got to the half, and it was unusual because everything happened the way that it was supposed to as Betis clearly tired. You could even see the point where Barça usually takes advantage of that and puts the knife in. But misplayed passes to stationary teammates, easily picked off by Betis players combined with midreading of movement, bad touches and overplaying the ball. The team played too slowly to stress the Betis defenders, who took full advantage of it.
There are many questions to be asked, including did Luis Enrique underestimate his opponent in picking his XI, thinking they would sit deep rather than coming out to press and play? Given the subs that he made to correct that error, almost certainly. But that doesn’t excuse the lassititude that permeated the team’s display today. On a day during which Roger Federer showed the example of resilience and leaving it all on the court as a striking contrast to the grim Barça effort, the difference was striking. Barça was physically and mentally unprepared for what they got today, and never really responded to it. The blame for the result lies with them.
Digne was poor in buildup play, giving away passes like Caga Tio. Rakitic was at sea, as well. But it all stemmed from movement, pace and speed of play. Everyone will have their favorite goat. Some will say Luis Enrique, others will say Ter Stegen, others Mathieu, etc, etc. But as Luis Enrique said after the match, the team was way below its level and Betis took advantage.
Was Barça victimized by bad officiating? Yes. But the team gets crap calls all the time. They just don’t matter when winning 4-0. We can’t excuse officiating being crap with, “Well, that’s just La Liga.” The head of the league, Javier Tebas, said that goal-line technology is too expensive. For a league that saw almost a billion-dollar TV deal this season? Worth a bit of a dig.
When MLS, the American soccer federation, was considering the technology back in 2014, intial cost was about $260k per stadiun, plus an additional $3900 per match. The Premiership managed that cost by making each team contribute 15k to the technology effort, to defray the initial cost. At around that same time, Michel Platini, asked about the same HawkEye technology for UEFA, also cited cost, claiming that it would cost more than 50m to equip all of the stadiums. For a league with more than 2bn in annual revenue? Hmmm, okay. But even if you just put an official on the goal line, it’s about EUR700 per match, by Premiership salary standards (it would shock if Liga paid officials as much.)
After the match, Luis Enrique said that the official need help, a comment that pointed out the terrible call while also calling for goal-line technology of some sort. He was also clear to point out that his team was crap. Both can be true. As so many culers rush hither and yon to claim being the victim, this can be true. It can also be true that the team victimized itself by being crap.
Is the Liga over? No. There are many matches be played, and teams can go on streaks. Look at the current Real Madrid form. Anyone saying the Liga is over need only look at last season, and how Barça had to, in effect, win it twice after a series of poor results made things more exciting than they should have been. If Real Madrid drops points to Celta Vigo, things are right back in play. You count this team out when the math says it’s impossible, not our paranoia.
The larger question is one of personnel. Luis Enrique can rotate everywhere except where it really matters. We can’t write off Paco Alcacer, but we can wonder how poor he must be when Luis Enrique plays a way out of form Suarez over Alcacer, even in a match such as this one where there is rotation. Turan can deputize for Neymar, but there is no answer for Messi, who is forced to self-manage himself in matches so that he can get through them all. Because short of injury or a legit minnow, Messi will start. That’s hard. He was way off today, and that lack of energy reflected in a team that takes its cues from him. But it’s hard to imagine how he has to feel, knowing that he will have to play every last match, that he is essential.
This rules out the larger question of does he, really? Luis Enrique isn’t going to consider resting and rotating him, reducing that query to one that is merely academic. But rest must be found for the triumvirate dubbed MSN. Their fatigue cost Barça a shot at the treble last season. Might it do so again?