If you say that you know what to do, how to deal with or how to process what happened at Anoeta, you’re lying.
When Messi stroked in the physics-defying free kick that left the La Real keeper as much a spectator as any of us at home or in the stands, Valverde just shrugged and smirked as if to say, “This guy. You explain him.” It was a gesture that was as good as any to explain what happened today in a rain-whipped Anoeta, a cursed ground for FC Barcelona, who last won there when Iniesta had a full head of black hair. 2007 is a lot of years.
For the great many culers left reeling after the wild match at Anfield, one that contained a lot of rooting interest and ended a sloppy 4-3 win for the victors, a result that also broke a record winning streak by Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, when La Real raced out to a 2-0 lead, it seemed that this was the comedown, that today was the day.
This match was everything that everyone predicted when gloom was cast about the team and its prospects this season. La Real was playing Barça football, running, slashing, passing and scoring goals that, even if they required a bit of luck and an otherworldly pass plus a deflection, they were up 2-0 at home. The curse was intact, and the “told you so” legions were ready.
A pessimistic fanbase going into this match at an unholy ground were already prepared for the worst, so the social media world wasn’t as uproarious as it would customarily have been. Yes, Real Sociedad, the brave Basque lads, were in 15th place in league, a match customarily a gimme for the best team in league that is, at the end of a water-slaked, improbable day, the only unbeaten team in Europe’s top leagues.
But this was Anoeta, where nothing good happens for Barça. And then it did.
In the summer, Barça was in crisis, both sporting and institutional. Neymar left, the second-best player in world football. He left for a king’s ransom, but he also left at almost the end of the transfer window, leaving his teammates reeling.
On the institutional front, a censure motion had been mounted by Agusti Benedito, one that many believed had a real chance to make it this time, even with the 15 percent requirement for valid signatories — this, this would be the one that got rid of the Josep Bartomeu board. It was chaos off the pitch.
The team played behind closed doors as outside the stadium, protests went on as a country reeled in the wake of a violence-tainted vote for independence.
Amid all of this, Ernesto Valverde sat on the bench, a coach the cool kids didn’t want, a man in a job that nobody was deemed suitable for by many supporters, except for Pep Guardiola, the man who was building his juggernaut in England.
Barça got whomped in the Spanish SuperCopa, and had a transfer window that could best be described by supporters as — crappy. They got an almost 30-year-old has-been from China, an RB who was talented but raw and young, and some skinny guy they overpaid for from Dortmund, who promptly ripped his hamstring on, of all things Pyrrhic, a backheel. It was like crashing the new Ferrari, a maiden voyage ending on the back of a flatbed truck.
Real Madrid had, in the words of many, an enviable transfer window, adding young talents that Barça allegedly wanted, to their shining diamond Asensio, aka “We got Douglas instead.” They were going to be a juggernaut, people said, and Barça would fight hard to be top four, but who can expect much from a team that didn’t do what it needed to do in the transfer window.
Valverde didn’t care. His team didn’t care. Everyone got to work as a foundation was built from the back as clean sheets came and Ter Stegen morphed into the best keeper in the game, fronted by the best CB in the game in Samuel Umtiti. The team had a foundation that kept it in matches through poor finishing, unfortunate officiating calls and various mishaps. They were undefeated, yes, but where was the beauty. Many called the team boring, said they didn’t enjoy watching it, even as you could see, if you looked closely through clear eyes, something exciting happening.
At the end of the comeback, curse-breaking win against La Real, Barça has a 29-match unbeaten streak, only one less than the number of posts the team has struck with shots this season. It is 9 points ahead of second, 12 ahead of third and a remarkable 19 points ahead of the fourth-placed team, an eternal rival in Real Madrid who is, strangely enough, having the kind of season people predicted for Barça.
Football is a crazy game, one in which gestures matter. After the second La Real goal, Ter Stegen just strolled back and plucked the ball out of his net casually, as if to say, “No worries. Plenty of time.” The feeling was similar to when Neymar ran into the net to take the ball out and resume play during the PSG comeback, the entire team saying with its mien, “Plenty of time. No worries.”
The comeback really began when Paulinho, the “worse signing than Douglas,” poked home a goal during the dying embers of the first half, a cruel time to concede. It was also a tally that extended his scoring lead among Liga midfielders, which isn’t bad for a complete and utter failure and a waste of money.
Meanwhile, vying for man of the match honors was Thomas Vermaelen, another complete and utter failure and a waste of money, continuing to have a magnificent season at LCB, thrust into the breach when Umtiti sent the culervere into a mood as broken as his hamstring. All Valverde could stuff into the hole was a player who was broken when he came from Arsenal, broke again and again at Barça and was rumored to be on the block in the winter window, until Umtiti probably saved his bacon by breaking spectacularly.
In many ways, Paulinho and Vermaelen are the epitome of this season, two players spitting in the face of their detractors. The former said that he was playing to silencer the naysayers. Vermaelen just wanted to play, to prove his worth to a team that everyone believed was far, far better than he was. Yet in every match he has started for Barça, he has been the best CB on the pitch. Today was no exception.
As the second half began, Barça came out all business, and after an initial flurry from La Real, settled down to the task at hand. No histrionics, no overt signs that they were ready to wreak havoc. Messi had been quiet the first half, but he didn’t look any different, nor did players eardrums look red from a verbal battering from their coach. Yet everything was different. The ball moved more sharply as did the players and suddenly, it happened: possession was turned and the counter was on.
Andre Gomes made a hard run into the center of the La Real box, right at the pair of central defenders who both locked on him. Meanwhile, the pass was stroked to Luis Suarez who cushioned a glowing rainbow of a strike into the far corner of the net for 2-2. It was a statement goal from a much-maligned player, one whose coach seemed determined to make everyone understand what he certainly told Suarez: we aren’t going anywhere without you, so play your way out of it.
What that statement goal said to La Real was, “We’re here. And you’re doomed.” Their players slumped a bit and their faces changed. They had played the match of their lives, Barça was reeling. Just a bit ago it was 2-0 and now it was 2-2 with a superior opponent just getting warmed up. The fouls started coming as the Barça movement increased pace, and great players became unplayable. Suarez was ridden to the turf like a bronco to stop a run into the box. Messi was triangulated by three players, all of whom raced to get the foul in.
The third goal was truly wicked as possession was turned, and the La Real keeper played the ball out of the back to the head of Vermaelen, who pinged it on a dime to Suarez. The Uruguayan ran at the defenders, now backpedaling frantically with Messi charging in hard opposite Suarez, waiting to slot home the slide-rule pass. The entire stadium leaned toward Messi, and Suarez smoked home. It was 3-2 and La Real was done as great players do what they do, and supporters lined up to eat crow, heaping helpings of the dust we lined up to kick on Suarez’s grave as he grinned, danced and fired his pantomime pistols into the sodden night sky.
Valverde once again made his substitutions and adjustments, changing the match in a way that gained control of it for his team, on a day when Iniesta wasn’t fully fit. Dembele and his pace forced La Real to sit back to respect it instead of pressing forward to grab the late equalizer. Digne came on to allow Alba the freedom to roam and harass, solidifying that side of the pitch in a way that stabilized the team’s foundation. The Mister got it right. Again.
But there was still a final card to be played, and everyone in the game knew who was going to play it as La Real tried, slashed and ran pridefully, battling to resurrect the curse. Suarez earned a free kick, and Messi placed the ball on the turf, a hefty distance from the La Real nets populated by Geronimo Rulli, an excellent keeper whose talents made a goal from that kind of distance unlikely.
He, like eveyrone else in the game, found out that Messi isn’t a dog, or a genius, or the greatest player to ever live, even as he is in fact all of those things. Messi is a witch. There is no other explanation for the way that ball moved after he struck it, bending in from an acute angle in an arc that began outSIDE the goal post, a strike so absurd that all Rulli could do was stand there, legs akimbo as the ball nestled into the net, comfortable at having been put there by its rightful owner.
It was a strike so crazy that nobody expected it, Ray Hudson seeming to need to catch up to it with a scream of delight that found an echo in the throats of culers everywhere. That Man made it 2-4, just as you somehow knew that he would as he placed his stamp on this match with a moment of sorcery that left mouths agape.
Remuntada? It is a word that seems reserved for a more august, more daunting occasion than the better team doing what it was supposed to do — dispatch the team fourteen places below it in the league standings. But this was no ordinary team in no ordinary stadium. This was cursed ground, and it took the ministrations of a witch to drive a stake into the Curse of the Anoeta.