La Real 2, Barça 4, aka “Curses. Foiled.”

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.

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Written by:

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.

17 Comments

  1. RT
    January 14, 2018

    Let me be the first to say, Kevin, what an article! I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and replaying this crazy match in my mind. Inspiring!

    • georgjorge
      January 15, 2018

      Fully agree!

      Very true about the mood after the 2-2 – La Real thinking, “if we can’t beat them with THAT, what are we going to do?”.

  2. Justice love
    January 14, 2018

    A great win at the cursed stadium in a heavy downpour. Suarez has show he is the number world class striker. His equalizer is far the goal of the first round, that was a class. Dembele was cool and direct, he has a barça DNA. I love watching him play. Kxevin do Messi need to win the world cup before we say he is greatest ever? For me is no. He is best ever and greatest footballer. Enersto Valverde is tactically genius. A good win at Anoeta the curse stadium . #visça_barça.

  3. Lionel Richie
    January 15, 2018

    Lovely writing.
    Suarez is back.
    Leo was already GOAT at age 24.

  4. Hristo
    January 15, 2018

    No. Dudes, watch the reply. The ball bounced off the wall of a defender creating looping trajectory.
    I’ve scored similar goals. When it’s raining the ball is much heavier. You lifted hight but the weight brings the ball down much faster.

    Watch the slow motion reply facing the Wall

    https://youtu.be/epClP8a_9UE

    • January 15, 2018

      Sorry, dont think the ball bounced off any defender. The video on the club site has a good video and some of the angles show it so clearly. Absolutely no touch other than Leo’s boot.
      the ball went so high, I think, Rulli couldnt see the ball because of the backllights and then it dipped. possibly with the weight of rain water of course..:)-
      Messi’s ball was perfectly weighed and Gome’s run was excellent and so was Suarez strike. Havent we seen exactly similar goals before though. Most recently I remember Villa making one such curling shot.
      However, Gomes is still not looking that brilliant. He still is bit slow with his mind and body. May be he will get there.
      Inspite of his goal, that game was not suited for Paullinho. I was really hoping he be subbed out.
      Absolutely unnecessary tackle from Pique. Was lucky to not get a red. Jim, your thoughts :)-

      • Jim
        January 15, 2018

        Yeah, pointless tackle at that stage and always likely to go wrong given the horrible state of the pitch by then, Fotobirajesh. I’ve seen reds given for those although I don’t think it was quite as bad as it sounded. The camera was right next to it so the sound was worse. Rule number one for me is that any player who rolls over is milking it and fine. If I was ever hurt in a tackle the last thing I wanted to do was roll about till I’d checked all my bits were still where they should be.

        Interesting side note is that Pique should have been nowhere near that player as he was TV’s man but he had for some unaccountable reason chosen to run in the other direction back to the defence, hence the speed at which Pique arrived. ( I’m reminded of the old story from the 60s in the old English Div 1. Was it ” Chopper” Harris who was reported after a diabolical late challenge -YouTube his one on Best – to have told the ref that he got there as quickly as he could ! On a side note, I’m not sure when Umtiti became the best CB in the world – must have missed that- and Pique is now only the third best at Barca ? He has been one of the top three all round CBs in world football for at least five or six years. Very rarely makes a mistake, positioning as good as I’ve seen and the only trouble he usually gets into is when his CB partner vacates the premises. Can’t remember the last time he did something on his own which cost a goal.

        Anyway, as far as the game was concerned I was a little concerned going in but only when I saw Iniesta was injured. Much happier btw, when I discovered he was injured. I have this thing with EV where I reckon he is mollycoddling Iniesta too much. There is such a thing as match fitness and you’re more likely to get injured if you’re not playing the full 90 on a regular basis and then are needed for it in one match. Also, if Iniesta feels he has been reduced in EV’s eyes to a bit player he’ll be gone at the end of the season. Btw, I don’t believe in the curse thing. There have been specific reasons in the last three or four visits why we haven’t done well.

        I thought we were horribly outplayed in the first half. We started at one tempo and they started at a much better one. Jordi Alba,who has been one of the players of the season, looked lethargic in the first ten and should have closed down a couple of crosses. Paulinho was criminally lazy at their first. He looked twice and saw that SR ( who I wouldn’t blame for that at all ) had two players to mark and still didn’t try to get back. The good thing for me was that after that you could see he cared because he sprinted back a couple of times to cover. The midfield was hopeless. Yes, their press was very good and because of that it was always going to end badly for them but seriously have a look at Rakitic, Gomes and Paulinho trying to control the ball against a press. As others have said Rakitic is a very lucky boy his lack of control didn’t cost us a goal.

        Messi and Suarez hardly got a kick in the first half and that can’t happen against the top sides. Iniesta badly missed there. Our goal came form one of the few times somebody was on the same wavelength as Suarez ( Alba) and then a great piece of work with the cross ball . If Paulinho attacked his defensive duties the way he does the opposition box he’d be world class. Not sure if EV was expecting this many goals from him but the guy is there time after time so credit to him. And that goal coming when it did was crucial. If they had got to half time without conceding I’d have been a lot more worried about the result.

        Once we had one and knowing that their press had cost a lot of energy I felt fairly relaxed about the second half ( mind you I did expect Iniesta on at halftime – why was he on the bench if he was injured ? Have we learned nothing ? ) we then took over and Suarez was everywhere really enjoying himself which was good to see. Two goals and an assist is great but his movement was outstanding throughout.

        I felt a little sorry for Messi until his goal as he was trying hard without success but he was obviously pleased he had broken his run without a FK goal. Great strike. To get curl to move it side to side, and, much harder, up to down is hard enough with a dry ball but with a wet one ?

        So we move on. Barring a lengthy injury to Messi or Suarez we should be okay in the league, especially with Coutinho coming in. I suggested early on that the main reason for pushing for him in January was rest for Iniesta without a huge drop in quality so we’ll see . Hacked off at Dembele first of all playing in such conditions and secondly if as suggested he had a niggle from the last match then it was suicide but it could have just been the usual bad luck of more minor injuries following return from a major one.

        The CL is a different kettle of fish. I’m much more confident that we can defend better than in previous years and with enough possession in forward areas nobody has more firepower than us but the midfield remains a slight concern. We had four, not three, in there in the first half and a mediocre team made them look mediocre. If Ini can stay fit then we can win it.

  5. PPos
    January 15, 2018

    NO way, It didn’t touch anyone. I just saw that replay and did see it in the live broadcast where the commentators were discussing the same thing. The spin on the ball was incredible and if it had touch the ball it would not have kept its upward trajectory. The real reason is that Messi is a wizard and can do all.

  6. TITO
    January 15, 2018

    In other news, Dembele is out for a month.
    I just knew it, and it was from Celta game. I saw him hold his leg just after the match finished.
    And, if he knew this, and still managed to not tell the doctors and the other staff because he wants to play….that’s another childish behavior, because it was similar to the previous injury when he kept quiet about his injury.

    • TITO
      January 15, 2018

      Correction.
      Not the Celta game, i think it was against Levante last week when he entered the last 20 minutes or so. I just catched that frame and i thought he felt some discomfort.

  7. January 15, 2018

    Hmm, I doubt the doctors didn’t check him after the Celta game, even if he didn’t say anything. Everyone saw him hold his leg, Valverde was asked about it after the game and said he was fine. These things happen, especially with young players still figuring out the limits of their bodies. Messi picked up a few of these injuries too when he was the same age. It is annoying and very unlucky but I wouldn’t blame the kid.

  8. Femflexi
    January 15, 2018

    What a match!. What a goal by Suarez! What a stunning freekick by Messi! What a beautiful article by kxevin! What a wet night! What beautiful joy and happiness this team us giving me!? I’m soo proud right now.
    I watched the match with a couple of guys and one of the lads told me we were gonna win even when we were 2-0 down and being outplayed, guess he saw something that I didn’t see. Oh WHAT A MATCH!!!

    • georgjorge
      January 15, 2018

      That’s the thing – this team inspires a lot of confidence. The Guardiola teams, as incredibly good as they were, had those games when they conceded an early goal and you just knew they were going to attack two banks of five the whole game without getting anywhere. Now, I can’t help feeling that no matter what, they’re going to win. Of course, half a season without losing a single game can do that…

  9. Femflexi
    January 15, 2018

    It just feels like we just won the treble!?
    I’m that happy

  10. Femflexi
    January 15, 2018

    Now it seems as if everyone is ready to die on the pitch they are giving their all for each other. This team seriously looks like they are out to prove something to everyone and EV is in on it just look at how bored the man looks sometimes like as if he already read the script and is merely watching the plot unfold. OH! what a season!!

  11. Lionel Richie
    January 16, 2018

    Pochettino will be next EE Manager.
    Harry Kane will come along.
    You can see it from a mile away.

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