The Catalan derby has never really seemed like a proper derby. Even as there is rarely any enmity like that between neighbors, the relationship between Espanyol and Barça has been more like the person in the compact diesel puttmobile who is annoyed when the person in the chauffeured luxury car cuts them off in traffic.
“Geeves, what is that little person yelling at?”
Proximity makes this matchup a derby, one that means far more to Espanyol than it does to Barça, and the way it has been played over the years demonstrates that, a trend that continued yesterday. Barça has somewhere to go, and this annoying neighbor keeps kicking them in the shins and screaming at them.
Predictably, the dyspeptic endeavor at Espanyol’s house was chockablock with fouls, yielding a disjointed, messy affair. As predicted. Also predictable was the reaction in the Barçaverse to the way that match was proceeding. Try an experiment the next time you’re at work. Have someone kick your chair and shove your keyboard every time you start trying to work. So many supporters fail to understand the effectiveness of fouling as a tactic to disrupt a match and disturb a team’s flow. That Espanyol had success doing that is best illustrated by the suggested experiment.
What the better team will do is find ways to do what it does, gradually finding a way out of the miasma of cleats and kicks, which usually means tolerating it until the person doing all of the kicking starts to get tired, then putting the knife in. It also means a constant application of pressure, the inexorable tightening of the noose until something pops, until there was one run too many, one slick pass too much and that’s that.
Three goals were scored, all of which were typical of the kind of match it was, the kind of perfect match that an underdog will have to play in order to upset the rich kid’s apple cart, the kind of match that Espanyol didn’t play. After missing their one, great chance at goal, screwed wide of the far post, it was all over but the shouting. The pressure built and suddenly, a loose backpass was pounced on by Luis Suarez, who couldn’t believe his fortune.
It had been more than 600 minutes since Suarez last scored for the team that is paying him millions to score goals. The ill-advised Espanyol back pass was like a lifeline for a striker struggling with form, and Suarez took the gift. Pressure. When you look at the moment the pass was made, there was an easier option, spurned by the defender, because the objective was to kill time. Play it back to the keeper, which takes time, let him hoof it, which takes more time. Let that grass grow to slow down the ball for those rich kids, who are used to cavorting on buzz-cutted turf.
But that long grass also slows down ill-advised back passes to the keeper. Those thinking that would be the easiest goal that Suarez was ever going to score didn’t have to wait long for Espanyol to say, “hold my beer.”
Suarez, even when his form is poor, is a pain in the ass. He’s constantly hanging around the last defender, moving, running, darting, messing about, engaging in shithousery. Every now and again, he will score goals such as that for no reason than at some point, human frailty enters the picture, a pass is a bit loose and bang. From that goal on, Espanyol was screwed because their match plan went out of the window. That fouling and fighting only works when you have something to protect, something that was tossed away in a moment’s haste.
Once they had to play football, the result was inevitable. Barça’s second goal came from a counter, a Messi run to a darting Rakitic, who made no mistake with the far corner finish. Looking at the goal develop, Espanyol was pressing, trying to get the equalizer. The ball fell to Messi, and it was off to the races. Pause the image at any point during that goal and you see almost the entire Espanyol team out of position. Messi made the exact right pass to the exact right player with the exact right pace and weight on the ball, because that’s what Messi does. And Rakitic slotted home, because that’s what Rakitic does. There was even a half-hearted attempt to foul Messi that you doubt he even noticed, such was his focus.
Espanyol was a way station for a team that wants to clean up its own mess, bits of slop made against lower-table opponents that has resulted in the need for hope, that someone will do them a solid and take points from Real Madrid. Amid all of the carping and screaming about everything people have carped and screamed about this season, Barça has dropped more points against bottom feeders than top-of-table rivals, a sign of a team that is mentally fried. Like us when we try to do stuff tired. We drop keys, spill liquids, we’re a mess. We can focus on that big task, mustering up the energy for that, so focused that we forget to turn the car headlights off.
Alaves, Deportivo, Betis, sins of execution whose real cost might only be known in a month. Barça knows it has to win, and keep winning. Espanyol was, rather than the derby its supporters see, just another obstacle to be surmounted for Barça. Two goals would be plenty, but there was a twist in the tail as a pass was played in. The clearance was easy, or it should have been, would have been in the 20th minute. But like you when you’re tired, later in the match, after all of that running around, all of that kicking, simple tasks get a lot more difficult. An Espanyol defender dropped his keys, whiffed on the clearance, which fell right to Suarez, who pounced.
The Catalan derby was a ritual execution in which a number of extraordinary things happened, one from Ter Stegen, who played his usual excellent match. On one play, one which would have been danger at the hands of a lesser keeper, an Espanyol attacker fired in a cross/shot. Ter Stegen slid off his line and caught it. Done. No rebounds, no batting it away or fisting it to safety. No safer place than in the keeper’s hands. It was also a movement that points to skill of Ter Stegen, who clearly works on the basics of his game, of controlling play by controlling the ball.
Many keepers bat balls away because taking that extra step, running just that little bit farther, makes them nervous. Or maybe they haven’t read the play well enough to know what is about to happen, or at a more basic level, just don’t have the confidence to trust their hands. Ter Stegen’s confidence is supreme. What’s best about that mental attitude is that it’s unshakable. Even after an error, he keeps on playing his game, because that’s what you do.
Another player riding the confidence game right now is Andre Gomes. He was, except for a wayward pass that led to an Espanyol break, quite good. And he has been since making the exact right action at the exact right time in the Classic. We underestimate the effects of confidence on a player. Bojan Krkic pushed a header wide against Inter. Is he a different player if he scores? Montoya hit the crossbar against Real Madrid. Is he a different player if that shot goes in?
When Gomes made that pass to Alba, resulting in the winning goal in a massive match, only a few wondered if that would be the corner turned for him. He was also quite good in the next match, but people said, “Oh, it was Osasuna,” looking at the result instead of the action. Gomes was moving like a player involved, like a player who knew what he had to do and how to do it. And from the right side, a new place for him. But Gomes has baggage. Many said his match was poor. A few said, correctly, that he was really good. His goals were the result of a player working off his toes, off the front foot, of a player being proactive instead of reactive because he understands the effect of right action.
Against Espanyol, he was intercepting balls, making the right pass and the right action, working the game like a player who was suddenly part of the team instead of this interloper who didn’t seem to quite know what to do. The difference is significant.
Luis Enrique said of Gomes that right now, we were only seeing 30-40 percent of the player, because he has seen things that we haven’t, seen what Gomes can do without pressure, in training. It’s that pressure and how a player functions when it’s on that makes great players excel and lesser players flinch. People said that goal against Real Madrid was a goal that only Messi could have scored. Nonsense. Hell, Dybala scored a more difficult one against Barça in Champions League.
What made that Messi goal so remarkable is the moment and the execution. He had no time, no margin for error, no nothing. And he was perfect. True.
Gomes has more than we have seen, even as we are beginning to see some of what he has. We think, “These people are professionals, are they really so fragile that they can’t do their damn jobs if they don’t believe in themselves?”
Yup. Pressure is brutal. It asks questions of an athlete, and how they answer is crucial. Barça asked questions of Espanyol, and the answer was clear. Suarez asked questions of the Espanyol defenders, and they failed. Pressure asked a question of Gomes, and he answered. The rest of the season will be defined by how two groups of athletes deal with pressure, as well, applied by one team and responded to by another.
A month ago, maybe Barça draws against Espanyol. Less at stake. Today is different. Tomorrow? We’ll see.