The greatest goal that never was

It’s hard being Ivan Rakitic.

When he came to Barça, he probably had no idea what he was getting into, probably thought it was going to be fun, and trophies, and strolling around, making passes and dropping bombazos on unsuspecting opponents.

Then he found himself, suddenly, having to babysit right backs who were frequently not where they were supposed to be. Then he had to babysit legends who didn’t really have the legs to do what they used to be able to do. And suddenly, the whispers started. “Sell him, what does he do, anyway,” or “He never was Barça quality.”

Then, in the 73rd minute of a pivotal Classic, it happened. Raktic was given a hospital ball by Busquets. Typically, he selflessly dove in just ahead of a charging Marcelo to bat it back to Busquets, who started the cycle. To Alba, then to Messi. All the while, Rakitic did what he always does, which is be ready, be available. Messi tried something and was dispossessed, the ball bounding to Rakitic who settled, and looked.

Suarez was covered, Messi was covered, Sergi Roberto was coming on the overlap, but the blonde Croatian had something more in mind, something that nobody realized until it was too late. He controlled, moved forward, faked Toni Kroos into the cheap seats, sized up the situation and let fly. Boom. Top corner. Keylor Navas never had a chance. Barça was up 2-1 and for about ten minutes, Barça’s Disney Prince was a hero, the man who struck the winning goal in an immense match.

And he stayed that way until James Rodriguez equalized, just as you knew, somehow, they would. And then, in the 92nd minute, Messi did that magical Messi thing and the world erupted, effusion flowed about the miniscule magigian wiht a flair for doing things that make him the best player anyone has ever seen who is paying attention, and Rakitic went back to being what he usually is — forgotten and underappreciated.

Ryan Catanese, a journalist, said on Twitter that absent context, the Rakitic rocket was the best goal of the match. This is correct. It was a work of art, and not just because of the general fondness for long-distance strikes. It was hit exactly right, with form, venom and all that stuff that it takes to make a memorable goal. And then about 20 minutes later, it became the Joop Zoetemelk of golazos.

Who?

Ol’ Joe Sweetmilk was a pro cyclist who finished second in the Tour de France six times. Six. Times. Every time a great cyclist left the game, another one popped up to torment him. His form was immaterial. He was a brilliant rider who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Repeatedly. Like Raktic and his wonder goal. And Raktic in general.

Much of the problem for Rakitic is that he isn’t anything that people think Barça wants, yet his coach knows he is something that Barça needs. He’s like Mr. Wolfe in “Pulp Fiction,” that guy you call when somebody has made a mess. And sometimes, when the mess is too big to be cleaned up, he becomes the easy person to blame because he isn’t Of Barça. He’s an 18m transfer who a few folks got excited about because they were expecting him to do the same things that he did at Sevilla, forgetting that Barça already have people to do those things. So he has to do something else, which doesn’t stop him from being evaluated in the “Barça midfielder” context, which leads to an enumeration of all the things that he is not.

What he is, is selfless. He’s the team cyclist who drifts back to the team car, picks up food and bottles for the star rider, then breaks his legs sprinting back up to his team leader to deliver food, or a rain jacket, or whatever he needs. He runs, and runs. He doesn’t always get there in time, and when he gets tired, his game goes to hell. But even that became, “What, why the hell can’t Rakitic play 90 minutes? Luis Enrique always has to sub him.” But leave him in too long, and it’s “Man, he sucks. What happened? It’s time to sell him.”

Rakitic, like his goal against Real Madrid, is invaluable. We saw glimpses of it a few times this season, when he was subbed off and things went right to hell and nobody took note of the reason why. It was always something else. He and Rafinha can probably start a club of underappreciated men whose surnames start with the letter “R.”

Like almost all players like him, Rakitic won’t care. Just like Keita didn’t care. His coach knows what he can do, and he keeps playing because of what he can do. And every now and again, he unleashes a rocket, then kisses his knuckles and runs like a man who forgot something in his car, rather than a player who has just scored a goal for a massive club.

His golazo happened, and it was fantastic, even as circumstances do what they do. So this one’s for Rocketic, that piledriver of a left foot, and the goal that never happened.

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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.

16 Comments

  1. Davour
    April 26, 2017

    Well argued, and there is no doubt Rakitic has been, and still is, a valuable member of the squad. He had his perfect role in the 2015 team, which was still, as it found its feet, a brilliant, creative unit. Still, for all the good work he is doing, I am not sure he should be a given part of the gala IX (I mean, ideally; with this squad, yes). Just as Keita was never a given starter. He should get plenty of time on the pitch, but this season it has become obvious that he cannot be a creative force at Barca; he does not have the talent, the first touch, quickness and vision. Most of the time, he recycles, often through a defensive pass. Without Iniesta, and sometimes Busi, that is not enough.

    If Catanese with “without context” means everything except the actual putting the ball in the net, then yes, Rakitic’s goal was indeed amazing. But in terms of technical skill, I would rate both of Messi’s goals higher – the first one was of a type few, if any other player could manage; the second was a wonder of control, composure and accuracy in the 92nd minute. I guess there is always context. Three amazing goals, either way.

    My point is: while Rakitic should get all the appreciation he deserves, we must also acknowledge his limitations, and ask ourselves if should be a starter if we, say, buy a solid, more defensive RB? At least, he should be properly challenged. I can’t help but to suffer when seeing his poor first touch at times…

    • georgjorge
      April 26, 2017

      Very good comment, though I’m not sure WHY he cannot be a creative force at Barca when he was one at Sevilla. But it genuinely seems he cannot. I used to think he wasn’t allowed to by tactical limitations, but even in games where he had to be a creative player he couldn’t. His many passes back to the defense when there were options to go forward drove me crazy. Kxevin is right though, he has brought many good things to the team as well.

      If another creative midfielder comes along to gradually replace Iniesta, Rakitic might continue to be the best choice for that third midfield spot. It would be very hard to get a player with his workrate and his defensive play who is ALSO making things happen on the offense.

      Finally, there’s one thing he has in common with Iniesta: a tendency not to score many, but to score important goals. The first and very crucial goal in the 2015 Champions League finals, and now this one. Let’s hope he can cope with everyone forgetting these goals so fast.

  2. squeen
    April 26, 2017

    Is it just an ironic twist of fate that his name is nearly an anagram of tiki-taka?

    Seriously though, I think your observation with regard to Ivan have been spot-on all season, and have really opened my eyes to his true value. Thanks.

  3. Rami
    April 26, 2017

    Kevin, It’s great that you shined more light to Ivan, One of the key players in the past 3 years.

    Ivan to me, Truly illustrate how ‘balance’ is essential to form a successful team.
    Our brains are adapted to drift into what it finds to be ‘intuitive’, As an example let’s look at our treble season, If given the choice most fans would chose to start that season with someone like Pogba than ivan, And they’ll have the same basic thought:

    “Pogba?, With messi, Neymar and suarez? Oh, We’ll scorch the earth with those!!”

    Now that’s the intuitive thoughts working, The linear thinking, Th 3 plus 1 equals 4.
    Yet that’s not how football actually works, Looking closely at that treble season, What made us such a formidable side, Is the ‘balance’, The firepower created by the MSN is complemented with the defensive solidity at the back, Something that was made possible by a player like ivan, That maybe a player like pogba couldn’t have provide.

    When luis enrique took helm, He knew that what we lacked wasn’t more creativity, through balls or dribbles at the front, We lacked defensively, Our tempo maestro is nearing his end, Casper and our clown of a RB can’t run as much as they used to, He knew that to truly utilize the MSN to the fullest, They had to be complemented, Someone to do the dirty work for them.

    Rakitic can’t do ‘flashy’ dribbles, Nor can he do any ‘flashy’ through balls, Two qualities that we intuitively droll over when we see, But these aren’t necessarily the qualities our team needed, Look at RM, Their midfield is cramped with those ‘flashy’, ‘skillful’ midfielders, What good did that do for them?, Other than more leniency with rotation, A team without balance.

    • georgjorge
      April 26, 2017

      Very good points, but for your last paragraph I would argue that RM is actually a pretty balanced team. They do no only have Ronaldo, James or Isco, they also have Casemiro and Kovacic for defensive solidity in midfield, and a very strong defense with Ramos (when he isn’t breaking legs), Nacho and Varane. Which makes beating them all the more satisfying.

      The “put all the flashy players into one team” approach nowadays seems to be more prominent at the Manchester clubs.

  4. RT
    April 26, 2017

    Nice tribute to Rakitic. I appreciate all that he brings to the team, and that goal was amazing! Most fans loved him in his first season. It is now that they question his value, talking about selling him and whether he is still good enough for Barca. I suppose the question is to what extent is this a personal “decline’ and to what extent is he also affected by systemic problems and failures, as everyone on the team is? Even Messi plays better or worse depending on the system he is put into, so you’d expect that to affect any player.

    • RT
      April 26, 2017

      I also meant to add, people are also talking about selling Luis Suarez (really), and the same question applies. How much is it a matter of a player being off form and/or declining, and being hurt by systematic problems.

  5. Davour
    April 26, 2017

    What a game: Masche scored, Alcacer & Gomes’ brace, minutes for Alena… this is precisely the kind of game to bring a player to life. Gomes involved too much too soon. If we are lucky, he can at least be a useful squad player, then, who knows. Hope.

  6. TITO
    April 26, 2017

    The greatest goal that never was, was scored tonight. 🙂

  7. *~ Dumangõli - Oüdyaar, Aisalangådi ~*
    April 27, 2017

    \\

    I dont know about the fan base in general, but Rakitic scores very high in my book, just as people like Alexis, Mascherano always have. Here, in my house Rakitic has many fans and is nowhere near under appreciated. It is probably a little unfortunate for him that messi stole his thunder but iam sure he will be more happy with that than we are. That is the kind of guy Ivan is.

    As for some people suggesting it was the best goal in the game.
    Nope. Sorry.
    Yes a long range belter, specially from a weaker foot might look sexy, but in terms of the amount of skill it takes to execute a goal, the first messi goal is without doubt the best in terms of individual talent.

    A lot of people can score that rakitic goal. Hell, even our Adriano used to frequently.
    But THAT messi goal can only be scored by messi.

    The last messi goal, given the context was a precise finish, but the team move in that goal really impressed me. Sergi roberto could have easily released the ball a lot earlier, in fact messi was free on his right side, yet he ignored messi and drifted towards the left. I got nothing. This is truly amazing.

    I want to mention one thing that probably hasnt been talked about much.
    two images really struck me.
    when the camera first cut to messi lying on the ground, i had a minor heart attack. the guy’s eyes were closed, mouth open with blood and i really feared for messi’s life then given the way he was looking. That camera cut to him from open play was shocking and dramatic. Image one.

    yes then we all saw replays and saw what really happened with marcelo’s dirty elbow etc.

    Image two:
    which is sheer badassery and something i love leo for.
    He was taken out for treatment and he was just laying on the grass on his elbow and bursing his wound and just watching the game like he was on a beach.
    no anger. nothing.
    just like a lion prowling, checking out the scene.

    He then came on and we all know what happened next.
    but that moment of sheer badassery to be laying like that was simply too damn cool. As the writer correctly noted, this guy has ice in his veins.

    What a player! blessed, we are.

    • Davour
      April 27, 2017

      He is almost frighteningly calm at times, on the ball. Yesterday it was almost comical how he would just calmly stand like one meter from the defender, ball at his feet, waiting, not doing anything, but the defender was tense and ready, but not daring to approach. The confidence in his own ability, granted empirically proven a million times, is astounding. No step-overs, just relying on ability (in himself) and fear (in the defender). A lion, indeed. And again, when Leo is like this, you get the feeling he should not be allowed to play against such weak opposition; he is so far beyond everyone it is simply unreal. Leonardo Da Vinci of football, he is.

  8. April 27, 2017

    Rakitic played or even improved himselves against Osasuna, may I say. He was really good yesterday.
    All those English media who create regular stories about how Messi have problems with LE, wants Alcacer Gomes etc to be sold etc, do they really watch liga games. Yday, even after being subbed it looked like Messi and LE was having nice talks in the bench.
    And if it was Pique who decided Masched should take that kick, then yes, Pique is really an incredible person and leader. He will make an excellent president, ha ha.

  9. lovell
    April 27, 2017

    Finally !
    The solution to our greatest problem!
    A replacement for messi ,
    meet the new magician
    Riza perestes .

  10. PPos
    April 27, 2017

    I’ve loved Rakitic since the day he signed from Sevilla. I always admired him when he played there and always thought he was Barça material. Rakitic is an amazing player, he said incredibly strong, incredible good with long shots and has great vision. This season hasn’t been his best but form is temporary but class is eternal. Rakitic has picked up his form tremendously these recent weeks. In the Classic he had the best pass accuracy out of everyone on the pitch.

    It makes me happy that Gomes and alcacer scored a double each. Gomes is a good shooter. Ive seen his highlights at Valencia. He needs to regain that confidence because long range shots only become true when you believe you can do it and that belief channels the form necessary to execute. Right now this team suffers a bit of MSNdependcia. We have to have the midfield contribute more often with goals and work on our set pieces. We used to score more often from set pieces in the past because of Puyol and Abidal or Yaya.

    In order to put Madrid under the yoke again we have to rebalance the team, add more pace in the midfield (Deulofeu, Verrati, or coutinho), solidify our defense, arrevouir Mathieu, merci beaucoup, sign a pacy right back, (Bellerin, Kyle Walker, Aurier), return Sergi Roberto to midfield to give us more control and rhythm and have a bench that can win us games, and stop guaranteeing that MSN will start every game. If they are off form, they gotta be benched. The next coach needs to realize this. A team is not MSN and friends but everyone is an important piece

    • Davour
      April 27, 2017

      Imagine a team where Rakitic, good as he is, is not a given starter, and we have SR back as a utility player, together with Rafinha. Watching Paco find his feet, it is even more obvious that Gomes must be given a second season. Part of what RM did right was not going crazy on the transfer market, but letting players settle – like Kovacevic, Nacho and Isco, even James, and Lucas. One star CM would be needed, though, as well as a RB (of what kind, the new coach must decide, depending) and a CB (+Marlon). Arda, Mathieu and perhaps Masch (though would not mind him as a squad player). Denis, I’m note sure. Samper should get a pre-season. Munir? Alena promoted.

      A few key signings and time – that should be it.

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