Barça 0, Juventus 0, aka “Gracies, equip”

People who were there say that it was beautiful, spectacular. The magnificence even carried over through the medium of television as the Camp Nou rose as if one to applaud its warriors.

It was the 90th minute and the outcome was clear. There would be no miracle today, but Camp Nou supporters known for silence, whistles and waving the telltale bits of white cloth when things don’t go as expected, gave their all in support of their team just as their team gave its all in support of them. This was as it should be.

For yet another year Barça has gone out in the quarterfinals of the Champions League, again to a resolute defensive stalwart of an opponent. What made this one different? What made this one worthy of love and support? It wasn’t just that this elimination came at home. The feeling was different, just as it was different on my visit to see live Barça this season. Perhaps some of it is the realization dawning, now that end of annus Barça is in sight, just how glorious these glory days have been.

In some places outside the Camp Nou there was the expected rage and recrimination, and blame. Luis Enrique is the worst coach ever, this player or that player isn’t up to standard, everything sucks.

I finished my workday, went home, had dinner, talked to my wife and went to bed. It hurt. It sucked. I visited Barça Twitter, briefly, where the expected fire and brimstone rained down, and I left. It wasn’t time for that. I got to thinking about what I felt, and how it wasn’t an iota of what the players must be feeling, and decided the pile of enmity and rage didn’t need my contribution. It still doesn’t.

Neymar wept inconsolably, and more than a few speculated about why. Those of us who have tasted athletic failure knew. This one was particularly bitter because Neymar was the single-minded catalyst behind the amazing PSG comeback. He, like us, like his teammates, believed it was possible again, was crushed when it wasn’t. Some wondered why this one was so painful, where others haven’t been, but sometimes failure is like that. Failure that was a few whispers away from success is even more cruel.

Messi wide of the target, then over the target. Rakitic over the target, then over the target again. Neymar over the target, then wide right. Finishing was the demon that brought down the joy, as it almost always is. Any culer worth their history doesn’t expect Barça to be a defensive demon. With a high line, and possession specialists who aren’t always the fleetest afoot, the defense is going to leak goals. But we expect to score. Messi, Neymar, Suarez. We expect to score. And in a different world, they would have, in Turin as well as at the Camp Nou. And they would have advanced to the next round.

Football is weird. Sometimes, the ball just won’t go in, despite the best efforts of the athletes to make it go in. Juventus defended heroically, attacked with gusto, did everything that a worthy semifinalist should do. Congratulations to them. Recriminations flew about why did Luis Enrique start Mathieu over Alba in the away leg, even as Mathieu wasn’t the reason the team lost 3-0. No, t’was the odd lassitude that has permeated one performance too many in this erratic season of almosts. There have been matches this season in which the team has given its all, has tried as hard as it could from the first moment to the last. Those matches have been rare, but the home leg against Juventus was one of them. They were warriors.

Pjanic cleared out Messi, making the Barça talisman land awkwardly and gash his cheek open. And Neymar imstantly cleared out Pjanic. It was glorious. The logical person wishes that Neymar had been thinking of a potential semifinal and avoiding that yellow card, and telling a teammate to do it. But that didn’t happen, and it was laudable the way he fought for his teammate, his hero. It was that kind of a night.

They chased loose balls, Pique made amazing tackles, errors were cleaned up after, near misses from Juventus made us all breathe a sigh of relief. It was high drama in a way that it shouldn’t have been, precisely because we understand how good this team is. That is the reason and any eulogies are premature, any talk of dismantling or rebuilding is the profoundest nonsense. Because of that hope, because of the shots that sprayed wide or high that usually are on target or go in, shots that made Gigi Buffon thank his lucky stars as the force field that customarily thwarts Iniesta plagued the entire Barça team. And that team worked its asses off for the people who packed the seats and the aisles to celebrate and support them, and those people showed their love for a job well done.

There are some who will say that the team didn’t play well because well, it didn’t win. There are those who will say various things because well, the team didn’t win. They will say that people who undestand how close the team came to making us all giddy with rapture yet again, who assert that obituaries for this bunch needn’t be written yet, are cheerleaders who refuse to look at reality. And that’s okay. The people in the stands knew, the people who were there to witness it knew. Football is quite different live vs on television, even as TV provides the god’s eye view. The game is more visceral live, the effort and passion easier to understand. The highs are higher, the lows lower.

Flags flew, hands clapped, voices cheered for a group of heroes. Players took to social media, stunned, to thank their supporters. It was new to them, as well, this outpouring of love in the face of failure, beauty amid desolation. It’s impossible to know what to write when you sit down in front of a keyboard. Then you see the video, the images, the unfettered love and support, and you start typing. You know exactly what to write, because so many screaming throats and big hearts wrote it for you.

Gracies, equip, for everything.

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In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.

22 Comments

  1. Davour
    April 20, 2017

    Very nice summing up of the evening, and possibly the beginning of an end (though not yet the end, perhaps). Camp Nou was thankful, we should be, too. Re-learn the notion that winning is a privilege, not a birth-right. An anomaly is not normality.

    In a sense, that is a relief. And it is the possibility of greater, purer joy when victory happens, as it will again.

  2. Godwin
    April 20, 2017

    Together we can the camp nou crowd yesterday was magestic making our galant stars feel proud of their performance as pique noted on twitter some win and they are still jeered thanks kevin for taking cognissance of what they did

  3. nonsoo
    April 20, 2017

    it’s my first time commenting on this blog i’ve been reading it since 2014. The reason I fell in love with this blog was because it isn’t based on statistics like other blogs it gives comprehensive break down on every match identifying things statistics doesn’t. I liked it soo much I began to read the articles on the blog that were as far back as 2011. I also want to thank everyone commenting on here especially jim…I’m a big fan.lastly I want to thanl Kevin….I remember that time you took a break
    About the match yesterday I saw the fight in the lads right from the get go…but the lead was just too large against the best defensive side in Europe. …it almost looked liked they enjoyed defending. ..and it was just one of those nighta were the ball wasn’t going to go in even if we were to go another 90mins. Enriques era is over,irrespective of what happens from now to the end of the season it wont change how the era is viewed….it was really great especially the first season. …the astronomical highs and really low lows (I’m looking at you anoeta)…it was just beautiful, but there’s only one thing i’ll be critical about which is that I don’t feel Enrique really knows how to maneuver a champions league tie really well….during guardiolas era how many away matches did we win we were conservative in the first game keeping the ball and seeing out the match you can’t win every time Enriques barca goes out to win everytime imagine if they wete conservative against juve and and left with even a 1-0 loss it would be a different story. …this isnt to take anything away from him I’m not one of his haters but it’s just something I noticed……all in all this era was truly glorious

    • Jim
      April 21, 2017

      Thanks, Nonsoo, and welcome!

      You’ll already know that this is a comfortable space for giving your thoughts without anyone jumping down your throat so I look forward to hearing more from you in the future. As you say our ability to control a match through meaningful possession was a great thing to see and a loss. I thought Ranieri had it right on BT sport on the night when he said that when Xavi and Iniesta had the ball it was on the edge of your penalty area and it was the mental as well as physical stress of knowing that at any moment they could find a killer pass through the heart of your defence which wore you out and eventually caused mistakes and that we have lost that.

      However, we now need to look to the future and the club needs to decide how we want to play in the future. Big decisions will be getting made as I write this and over the summer. I look forward to seeing what they are.

  4. April 21, 2017

    I thought we played pretty well, considering our recent form, just that the ball wouldn’t go in from whatever attempts we had.
    Having read many recent comments and posts I disagree with the thought here by few that Pep’s last season(s4!) too was same to that of LE.(s3) It wasnt.
    In a season when Chelsea won the CL, people all over were still talking about Barca as the best team in the world. Thats the magnificence of that team even without winning much that season. Nor did Pep’s team let any team to have a 2 goal lead.
    That was the real era defining Barca.
    Whereas now, we are not feared any more by most big teams and even small teams manage to score 2 goals against us. There’s a big difference.
    Anyways.
    Cant wait for the Classico now. I really hope the team will fight for its pride.

  5. Mishti
    April 21, 2017

    Just read this, left a bitter taste in my mouth. Every now and then this guy writes insightful stuff, and soon after comes up with vileness like this. Why pass off angry and bitter fandom as journalism? I guess since these footballers earn loads of money, they stop being human beings and are fair targets for all our frustrated callousness. Disgusting.

    http://www.espnfc.us/blog/the-match/60/post/3107895/neymar-and-barcelona-need-to-dry-their-tears-and-refocus-after-champions-league-exit

    • Yaredinho
      April 21, 2017

      The fact that he wrote an article to find out why Neymar cried makes me speechless! As for Graham, you better know, while he is a very goon journalist, he is still mourning Laporta’s loss and the gone privileges with him. And attacking Neymar on every chance, rightly or wrongly, became his weapon…While it’s OK for Messi to cry in front of camera, he only mentioned Messi’s dressing room…, Neymar’s motive has to be incensed!

      Am saying this to state a simple fact, not to compare the players or their way of being. For me there is no comparison between Messi and Ney in the first place. But now it has been long since Graham uses Ney to attack this board and somehow to remind us the Brazilian disrupted the glory days and the legacy of Messi and Laporta. Man even some of the words he uses against Neymay make me sick.

    • RT
      April 22, 2017

      What a TERRIBLE article! You said it all Mishti, with the phrase “angry and bitter fandom”. I’m not at all saying that Neymar can’t be criticized, but he’s actually questioning his commitment in this vile and harsh way? To suggest that he’s just coasting and expecting to be the best? FFS this made me really angry. He sounds like an anti-Barca person who doesn’t watch Barca but goes by popular negative perceptions of Neymar. And it’s absolutely pathetic to frame the whole thing in terms of some tearful moments right after being eliminated from the CL. Who even got us this far? I’m not at all a fan of attributing any success to one player, but would we have gotten past PSG without the work, belief and commitment of Neymar? I think we all know the answer to that!

  6. georgjorge
    April 21, 2017

    The question hurts me a bit, but still: after a period of Barcelona dominating both in Spain and in Europe, is it now the era of RM?

    They have won the Champions League twice in the last three years, and of late look very impressive in their games against strong opponents (Atleti, Bayern). If they manage to win it again this year while also winning the league, that would be a very impressive feat. More teams might copy their approach to football over the next years, just like they did after Guardiola.

    On the other hand, in two days they will have some beautiful goals scored against them at the hands of our beloved sprites. Can’t have it all ; )

    • Davour
      April 22, 2017

      I don’t think they will have an era of that kind. Though they did not spend like crazy last summer, they have spent plenty to get where they are. Rather, I think we are approaching more regular competition where we become less dominant, and therefore the competition is more open. But how can anyone copy their approach? Indeed, what IS their approach? They have amazing players, and for almost every position they have a back-up of top quality. Some key players are approach their twilight, however.

      On the contrary, I think we can give it one last go with the right coach, 2-3 key signings, and some luck with development and injuries! It ain’t over until the fat lady sings (or Messi retires).

  7. April 21, 2017

    Welcome, Nonsoo! Thanks for stepping out of the shadows. Always lovely to have another voice in the mix.

    — People predicted the end at the end of Rijkaard, at the end of Guardiola and now at the end of Luis Enrique. As Sid Lowe noted in an ESPN video, Barça have an excellent attacking front trio, one of the best keepers in the game, two top-class CBs and Busquets. That’s most of a world-beating XI.

    The team was damaged by injuries to key players, and poor finishing. Recall how Arda Turan started the season, then he picked up a succession of knocks. Aleix Vidal was just becoming the player he signed up as when he got hammered. Rafinha is essential (even as his contributions are underrated) as that link between lines. He shuttles the ball from back line to Busquets, or Busquets to Messi. For the 3-4-3, Vidal and Rafinha would have been perfect.

    All three players were lost, which means less rest for Neymar, loss of attacking verve on the right side and Messi having to do too much work to get the ball and then move with it into attack.

    People talk about the superior depth of Real Madrid, but Barça got screwed by assimilation problems, as well. Who suspected that Denis Suarez was going to be a cipher this season, or that Alcacer would take so long to work into a useful role? Gomes is just a head case, who hopefully isn’t lost to the team, a lanky, Portuguese Bojan Krkic. Playing at Barça brings a special set of pressures. Talent, which Gomes has, isn’t enough. If you don’t have the head for it, you just shrink before you vanish.

    Luis Enrique said that on paper, he had the best team that he has ever had. He was right. Circumstances made him a liar. And here we are.

    We should be careful not to let the conclusion define the question and the circumstances. Barça finished like crap too many times this season, reminiscent of the Tata Martino season. T’was a lack of goals that did them in. Neymar’s scoring was down because his role changed, but he also missed goals that he usually scores. So did Messi, so did Suarez. The goals that were going in previous seasons, didn’t this season.

    This doesn’t mean that the team isn’t flawed, doesn’t have many issues that need solving. But I don’t think it is that far from being right back on top. The next coach will be crucial for a number of reasons, not least of which is the tactical decisions he will have to make. Is it time to make Messi the next Xavi? Think about how often he played that role this season, let down by poor finishing. Almost six percent less of chances created by Messi were converted this season, compared to the treble season. For a team that scores 150 goals, that’s a significant number of goals left on the table, more than enough to define the circumstances in which the team now finds itself in terms of results.

  8. nonsoo
    April 21, 2017

    thanks alot everyone.This Barcelona side aren’t that far of from being the best again like Kevin pointed out.On their day they are still the best….Madrid this season has been really lucky and efficient, but what is going on at madrid is by no means era defining all they do is cross, stop Marcelo and you’ve really crippled them and I doubt they’ll remove atletico in the cup but lets wait and see.
    What I feel Barcelona need to do this off season is to buy a ball retaining midfielder like verrati…I feel like he’ll force the move it won’t be easy and it’ll require alot of money. let’s keep alba….he’s not been great this season but he hasn’t really featured in enough games to build momentum. Mascherano should get one more season, Mathieu should be sold and if a good offer comes for turan we should let him go, I feel like hes hampering denis suarez.A rb is needed majorly beacuse it’ll take vidal a while to get in the swing of things.if we are to take messi to midfield who gets the last spot forward…rafinhas decision making isn’t great yet plus he can’t be relied on….and alcacer isn’t a starter for us definitely. …I feel it has to be someone capable of playing in midfield and outwide coutinho maybe but a summer of coutinho and verrati is highly unlikely. …..wheat of bernardo silva of Monaco he seems good enough.
    I am really looking forward to next season.

  9. Yaredinho
    April 21, 2017

    The fact that he wrote an article to find out why Neymar cried makes me speechless! As for Graham, you better know, while he is a very goon journalist, he is still mourning Laporta’s loss and the gone privileges with him. And attacking Neymar on every chance, rightly or wrongly, became his weapon…While it’s OK for Messi to cry in front of camera, he only mentioned Messi’s dressing room…, Neymar’s motive has to be incensed!

    Am saying this to state a simple fact, not to compare the players or their way of being. For me there is no comparison between Messi and Ney in the first place. But now it has been long since Graham uses Ney to attack this board and somehow to remind us the Brazilian disrupted the glory days and the legacy of Messi and Laporta. Man even some of the words he uses against Neymay make me sick.

  10. Jim
    April 21, 2017

    I used to look forward to Hunter’s writing and I probably still rate him above most in terms of insight but I felt towards the end of Revista he was beginning to look for attention and some of his articles since are more dramatic than they need to be. However, he has been an unswerving admirer of our way of playing and although the terms he uses are a bit harsh for me I think there is a question to be asked about Neymar, not in terms of being a world class player but maybe on what he needs to work on to be THE best.

    When he arrived we had the best out and out dribbler in the world, he had pace to burn and scored some great goals. I was hoping that, as he approached best in world status, he would start picking up Messi’s clinical efficiency in terms of decision making about passing or dribbling and supreme use of the ball. I don’t think he has so far and Hunter is right in that what it needs is maturity and work and more work. He is busting a gut for us in terms of his shift up and down the wings but as I said a couple of articles ago his use of the ball isn’t where I thought it would be by now. No, I’m not having a go, I’m saying what I’m seeing. Maybe I’m wrong to expect that and he is more an emotional player than Messi like alien but to be the best in the world he needs to start making better decisions about when to dribble and when to thread balls into defences like Messi – and complete those unlikely passes.

    So, yes, Hunter could have chosen a better time and reason to bring up the issue and I’m sure the wording and headline are designed to get the clicks ( which I don’t like ) but it is something which interests me.

    • Mishti
      April 21, 2017

      I was the one backing you up on the criticism of Neymar’s decision making after your comment, and even had a discussion with Yaredinho regarding my basis for criticizing him. How does this article have anything to do with anything on-field? He is pretty much attacking Neymar’s work ethic, commitment to club and literally stating it again and again that he is the epitome of everything that is currently wrong with the club. And the fact that he chooses the weeping incident to mount this attack, just goes beyond any basic human decency for me. Disgusted is what I felt, and still do, regardless of what I think Neymar should be doing better as a player. I have previously shared articles by Hunter that I found insightful, but those happened to be actual journalistic pieces. He is entitled to his opinion about our ‘way of playing’ or lack of it. But this article has ZERO to do with any of it. I mean “the Brazilian was bought, he is not La Masia”- the way he uses that fact as proof that something is fundamentally wrong with him being at Barcelona, is just vile. I am sorry for using such strong words, but I wonder how Ronaldinho would feel after reading something like this. May be you are right, may be he wanted exactly the response I am showing so that his article will get discussed. That makes it even more disgusting then.

      • Jim
        April 21, 2017

        Just to be clear I wasn’t defending the article or how it was framed just the fact that there is a football question at the back of it. I’m not sure why he delves into the personal reasons. He either knows something we don’t or he is just looking for attention. Fwiw, although Neymar isn’t La Masia he has shown a lot of the qualities we associate with it; being willing to work hard tracking back for the team, playing second fiddle to Messi and even saying he’s here to learn from the best. That’s why I find it odd Hunter would take this approach.

  11. Hamid
    April 21, 2017

    Kxevin – In my opinion, Barça played much better football under Tata Martino than it does under LE. There was game control and fluidity between the lines. No trophies for sure, but let’s remember that he was 2 games away from a double. Just for fairness’ sake, I thought.

    • Víctor
      April 21, 2017

      In my opinion: Tata Martino, just like Luis Enrique now, got lots of undeserved criticism. However, in Tata’s case it was a bit worse because he didn’t have full support from the beginning. Hell, I remember that he got criticized for a 4-0 win against Rayo because Barcelona lost the possession stat…

  12. Mishti
    April 21, 2017

    To take the fairness question raised here a bit further, can we for once take into account who the players were that played under each coach? I know it is unusual to bring up Rijkaard in these discussions, but by the time Pep took over, most of the core midfield and Messi was already in the first team, and that happened under Rijkaard, though he did not see through that rebuilding cycle. Did Pep have to hunt for players that could play the midfield game he wanted to play? For the most part, no. In terms of squad building, he pretty much hit the ground running. Who were playing under Tata Martino? The core of the Pep squad, with a Iniesta and a Messi three years younger than now, AND Xavi. When we evaluate how teams play under coaches, it is useful to classify seasons in categories. For eg, was it a season where either because of retirement or new player induction or old players losing form/fitness or all of them together, the first team was under flux? Or was it a season when a couple of years of squad building has already happened so the team had available seasoned, in-form personnel to carry out whatever the coach was asking of them? Such a perspective is useful. In the first season under LE, in the second half particularly, the team played better football than any season since 2010-2011, if you ask me, and continued to play well throughout that unbeaten run we had in the second season. Of course that is my personal taste, one may or may not feel the same way. But the question about the transitional versus stable state of the squad is very important before we assign all good or bad things to the coach. One of the fragilities of LEs original approach was it’s reliance on pace, since vertical compactness was compromised in favor of stretching the field to launch counterattacks. It cannot survive key players not being in top physical condition and generally slowing down. Apart from all the adaptation problems for the new players, this is another fact about our core squad that need to be taken into account.

  13. luisthebeast
    April 21, 2017

    And how the teams will follow madrid s example,if let s say, even if it s not true,that this is their era?
    Only one way,spending millions and millions.
    What was special and despite our board wishes,it s still special is that Barca showed to the world that a top club can play attacking football and win trophies,using their academy.
    And why Barca today having all that problems?
    Because the board want Barca to became madrid.
    Difficult times coming if the people inside the club dont change their plans.

  14. squeen
    April 21, 2017

    Just something not associated with the CL loss that’s on my mind.

    It is common stated that the LE strategy is get the ball to the front three as quickly as possible. It just dawned on me that this is both an oversimplification, and physically implausible. It is not reasonable to expect the front three players to hold the ball for 45-90 minutes in a game without collapsing from sheer exhaustion. Team possession is the only way to “rest with the ball”.

    Before the CL 2nd leg, a Juventus player said their strategy was to pressure the defense and break the link between defense and the midfield. That’s why 3-4-3 was a partial solution (when Barce has the right fit players). It provided more passing options and gave the ball a better place to dwell until a good attacking opportunity opens up. For his ability to circulate the ball, his vision and patience, the sheer number/accuracy of passes, and distance covered—that’s what disappeared with Xavi. The absolute best of a golden generation. It hurts a Cule to have to admit that what was once a point of best-in-the-world-by-a-large-margin pride, is now a weakness (while the rest of the world hurriedly absorbed the lesson).

    However, without Neymar and Suarez, the same problem once existed going forward from the midfield as it does now from defense to midfield—not enough up-field options. That was the era of Messi-dependence and “parked buses”. He was the sole focus of attack, so teams just over-marked him and cut off Barca’s sole route to goal. Even now, whenever Barca struggles to score, it because we lack enough attacking threat players versus the number of defenders. Rafinha is not afraid to shoot, neither is Rakatic…but the new guys (and even Iniesta!) are hesitant to shoot or poor at finishing. The attacking midfielders need to be seen as a threat on goal, or the defense does not get destabilized when they carry the ball in the final third.

    Anyway, I think the watch word moving forward is team balance. All parts of the machine must work well and be of the highest caliber. Midfield was the weak link this year, defense was in previous years, even offense was once too. This too will pass.

    • Mishti
      April 22, 2017

      Great comment! It’s not discussed very often that we had a balance problem even under the previous coaches, albeit in a different direction. One reason why the first season of MSN was so successful was because the other teams couldn’t exploit the offensive imbalance the way they were used to doing. Now we are back to square one in terms of the midfield needing to be rebuilt, and the defense too. Cannot agree more that the watch word needs to ‘balance’.

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