In another episode in the adventures of the Gang That Wouldn’t Shoot Straight, we find a cast of characters, a profligate bunch prone to hijinks with the football, good-natured louts with a flair for the dramatic. Just the other day, they found 5000 Euros on the street, ran straight into a casino and placed it on a single spin of the roulette wheel. And lost.
Spectators gasped. Our heroes shrugged, said “Easy come, easy go,” and strolled casually in the Catalan night, and the uncertain future of another day, another opportunity — one that might never come.
Real Madrid is more mentally equipped to win La Liga than Barça, something that makes for uncomfortable reading for culers. Week after week, they play poorly and win, managing to score key goals at key times. A draw against Atleti, wins in which they were outplayed, victories fashioned from coarse thread and moth-eaten remnants.
But that team has something, this season, that Barça doesn’t: killer instinct. The latest evidence of this came at the weekend. Barça had an opportunity to go top of the Liga after Real Madrid dropped points against Atleti, realistically the last chance they will see to realistically lose ground in the standings. They managed a draw, and the path for Barça was clear: beat Malaga.
The culerverse was ready. The team was coming off a dazzling display against Sevilla, a second gear throttling that should have left them daisy fresh for this suddenly crucial encounter. The difference? Cynics would say that nothing was on the line against Sevilla, that the Liga was considered lost, the team was at home, so why not? Then came Malaga, and something to play for.
Choke? That’s a harsh word for a team that has come through time and again. But something is missing from this season’s edition, in many ways reminiscent of the last season of Pep Guardiola, a time that slid by with a wink and a shrug. Like the grasshopper of fairy tale fame, Barça fiddles, fritters away chances because surely, another will come, until suddenly, it’s winter.
Messi put a ball into a perfect place for Suarez. He shot directly at the keeper. Suarez gets set up again. Nothing. Suarez dummies a ball that he should have controlled and scored. Messi set up Gomes, who was muscled off the ball by a shorter, presumably less strong defender. Gomes just walked away with a blank expression. Messi could be seen shaking his head, perhaps one of the few who understood how crucial that monent that was. At another time, in another place, Barça is up 2-0 at halftime, and the match is over. Malaga understands its place, and that’s that.
Instead the chances were squandered. A Sergo Roberto penalty shout denied? Whatever. It would have been 2-1, or 1-1. So what. But Malaga got a breakaway, and — who else — Sandro knocked in the winning goal past a helpless Ter Stegen. Given the way Barça half-assed around the pitch, that goal felt like it was enough, even as we kept watching because PSG made us believe. Then, suddenly, late, Malaga got another and it was over.
As usual, factions lined up. Gomes has been on the scene every time the team has dropped points, as if it was his fault. “Damn that defense,” others railed. But even if the defense does its job perfectly a draw is a good as a loss for Barça, essentially. No, as with the Tata Martino season, goals, or a lack thereof, were the problem. Recall that Barça went scoreless in seven matches in that misfortune-riddled season. Liga came down to one goal, one match.
Goals, always goals. And for a team with such a potent attack, goals don’t seem as though they would be the problem. But for a team that can create chances out of nothing, so what if they miss a few here or there? Then suddenly, it’s the 85th minute and it’s tucker and pucker time.
Mentality. Barça is in many ways like that star basketballer who can rain in threes, drive the lane and dunk with thunder. But give that player free throws, and watch out. Gulp! Lower-table teams are gimmes for the top clubs. Alaves, Depor have beaten Barça. Malaga, with a scoreless draw and a win has all but defined the Liga title for Barça. The Catalans drew Betis, being outplayed. Real Madrid beat them. The capitol city club also beat Alaves, who beat Barça early in the season, and dispatched Malaga.
Is it that Barça needs a jolt of adrenaline that can only come against significant opposition? Every time they have dropped points to a lower-table club with somthing on the line, it has been a half-assed display. The team looks leaderless, looks bereft of the fire that comes from a talismanic player such as Carles Puyol, a firebrand to get in faces and remind players of what in the hell the deal is, what it means to don those colors.
Leadership instead comes from the tacticurn Messi, a preternaturally calm player who leads by stratospheric example, via his play. Neymar should put his leadership CV in mothballs for a while, after that stupid, stupid red card. The first yellow was childish, the second silly. After the match, people talked about the ref having it in for Barça, talked of the garden-variety foul that resulted in a yellow. But as my Mom would say when we were caught with others doing naughty stuff, “Why were you there?” It doesn’t matter whether the crime was real or imagined, whether the punishment meted out is just or not. “Why were you there?”
Neymar definitely fouled the player, who definitely made a meal of it. Neymar also applauded the fourth official in the tunnel, something duly entered in the referee’s match report. In a league that takes abuse of officials quite seriously, the possbility that Neymar will be suspended for the Classic is very real. If he isn’t ashamed, he should be. It was a ridiculous display from an essential player. The hope is that one of the captains pulled him aside and gave him a stern talking to, because leaders don’t just lead with the ball at their feet. Leaders set an example for the rest of the team. Neymar reverted to a petulant punk kid wearing a Santos shirt, qualities that don’t befit the starting left wing for FC Barcelona.
There is something missing from the team this season. In the treble season (the second one) Malaga was again a bete noire for Barça, beating them once, getting a scoreless draw in the other. But Barça didn’t drop a single point to a lower-table side until the last match of the Liga season with a 2-2 draw to Depor, when there was nothing for the Catalans to play for. That team was brutal, and hungry, like death and taxes.
Some blame rotation, blame players who aren’t up to standard. Suarez squandered two chances, so try again, He wasn’t part of the rotation. Gomes is improving, but still not up to standard. Denis Suarez is playing like his testicles haven’t dropped yet. But he’s cheaper than Gomes, so he gets the benefit of the doubt when he struggles, passively and anonymously.
Yes, it was a rotation XI, with the Champions League match on Tuesday in mind. But key players were on the pitch, including Neymar, Messi, Busquets and Luis Suarez. It should have been enough, but they made defending easy for Malaga. Barça would switch the pitch, then dawdle on the ball, giving Malaga’s defense plenty of time to shift. Runs were predictable, passes even more so. Luis Enrique said that his team played well enough to win, even as they lost. Sometimes, that is true. Not against Malaga. The result was fair, and we are left to wonder who will claim the Liga That Nobody Wants.
A great many culers have given up on Barça, a team that has performed the impossible. Real Madrid, at this juncture, could lose the Classic, draw another match and still win the title by winning the rest. Their margin for error is immense. Barça needed, to, had the opportunity to apply huge pressure and let its eternal rival off the hook. Why? Good question. What’s missing from the club this season? That’s an even better question. Maybe it’s just hard to stay hungry, year after year, in a world where you get everyone’s best game. Maybe. Maybe the game is too easy for the team, and chances created and missed aren’t that big a worry because there are always more chances. Who knows.
What is clear is that all of the plaititudes, all of the “we will fight until the end,” of the trite sayings and neutral zone interviews don’t mean a damn thing if the team can’t do a very simple thing: beat teams that it should beat. All the rest is theory.