Reader Andres has written his view of the CL match with Stuttgart because, well, he was there. In the stands. I’ll just let him take it away. Enjoy it while I finish the preview of the Zaragoza match–and thank you Andres:
Instead of heading south to warm Mexico a la Isaiah, I decided to spend my spring break and half my life savings with some of my friends in the Ciutat Comtal.* By some of the best luck I’ve ever had, this break coincided perfectly with the return leg of Barça’s Champions League Round of 16 tie with VfB Stuttgart. Wednesday morning, I woke up at what felt like 2am, took the metro to Palau Reial, and ran to the taquilla to grab some of the last tickets to the game. It was a beautiful day, and, to my surprise, Stuttgart fans were everywhere. To be fair, we spent the day frequenting the basic tourist destinations, from sunny Barceloneta beach to the green slopes of Montjuïc, but everywhere we were surrounded by roving groups of Stuttgart supporters, sporting red and white scarves and more than the occasional Aliaksandr Hleb jersey. After a quick butifarra amb mongetes in a tapes place a few blocks off the Rambla that night, we headed out, and were instantly enveloped in a different crowd – a massive tide of blaugrana-clad supporters excitedly streaming toward Les Corts. The atmosphere was electric: flags waved, car horns blared, and from a block away songs could be heard emanating from the brilliant behemoth of the stadium. I’m no stranger to big stadia (I grew up a block away from this), but the Camp Nou, bathed in light and resounding with cheers, is a whole new level of majestic.
I was more than a bit concerned, given the trouble we’d had in the first leg and the last-minute loss of Xavi. Pep’s lineup, announced over the loudspeaker to raucous cheers, did not make me much more confident. No Zlatan, an unorthodox midfield, and Don Andrés in his less-than-stellar LW role did not seem to bode well. Within minutes after the conclusion of the Champions League hymn, though, it became clear that Guardiola, as always, knew exactly what he was doing. After what felt like the briefest period of settling in, Barça began to dominate play, and never stopped. I’ve seen plenty of games on TV that we’ve totally controlled, but this was an entirely new experience. I can recall only two moments that registered even the slightest hint of anxiety in the crowd, one early shot that sailed well wide and a ball that bounced around in the box off a Stuttgart corner but came to nothing. Aside from that, Barcelona owned every inch of the field and every second of the contest. Some of the best high pressure I’ve seen resulted in Stuttgart turnover after Stuttgart turnover, and any threats were swiftly dealt with by the backline, led by a magisterial Pique. Busquets, too, had a very good game in the straight DM role, and Alves sprinted back to break up several attacks. Maxwell was more than sufficient, and Puyol did what he had to.
In attack, Henry was excellent, especially within the first half hour. He seemed far and away the most determined player on the pitch, and did very well, with an early warning shot and successful hold-up play up top and defense-dragging runs leading to chances on the wings. If culers are disappointed in his play, it didn’t show, as each action was greeted with applause. The Yaya, too, did very well in his new role; while he misplaced more balls than Xavi likely would have done, he also provided midfield steel that the man from Terrassa does not. Pedro was an unceasing bundle of energy, and worked well with Alves to manufacture several opportunities. Iniesta, while a fair distance from his scintillating best, managed a few good balls and crowd-rousing dribbles, and was warmly applauded upon his substitution.
Messi was absolutely sublime. While this was without doubt a team effort, he was the undisputed star of the show. He did everything – goals, assists, pressure, leadership. His first goal was unbelievable, as he navigated through a sea of Stuttgart defenders and unleashed a shot that had everyone in the stadium on their feet from the moment it left his foot. The second goal was equally brilliant, as Messi’s perfectly placed through lob to The Yaya forced Lehmann out and allowed Pedro to score into an open net. And the third, while certainly the most collaborative, called for a turn and shot that induced waves of bows of obeisance from the people around me. Throughout, too, Messi seemed to be taking a leadership role in a way that was probably not obvious on TV; whenever the ball was back and comfortably in possession, he was dictating commands to the players around him, seemingly organizing attack and defense.
The smooth sailing was marred only by an unfortunate halftime rendition of Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance and the time-wasting antics of Jens Lehmann, which drew furious whistles from the Camp Nou crowd and a few choice Catalan insults from a livid cigar-smoking gentleman to my left. The Stuttgart fans, to their credit, stayed on their feet and steadfastly singing even down 3 – 0, sometimes even drowning out the efforts of the Barça home support. But they finally fell silent as Ibra’s brilliantly placed and weighted nutmeg through ball allowed Bojan to poke in the final goal. The 80,000 blaugrana supporters took up song, the stadium resounding with chants of “¡Eo, eo, eo, esto es un chorreo!” and, as regular time expired, jubilant cheers of “¡Sí, sí, sí, nos vamos a Madrid!” Cesc and Co. and a certain Indomitable Lion might have a thing or two to say about that, but it certainly seemed possible Wednesday night.
*Barcelona is referred to as the City of Counts (as I learned in the excellent Museu d’Historia de Catalunya) because, from the 9th century fall of the Visigothic Empire to the 18th century War of the Spanish Succession, it was ruled by a series of counts rather than by kings. The museum, in fact, attributes the name Barcelona to one of these families of counts.