Appreciating this Barça team is to appreciate a certain kind of luxury, an ease that makes it necessary to see, not just watch. Barça visited Eibar, a cabbage patch with chunks of turf missing, a quite actual ground that was only watered when a downpour visited.
Eibar, seventh in the Liga table and not patsy Eibar any longer, was at home and in the midst of a compelling run of form, sniffing around European spots. And they came at Barça. They ran, and pressed, and gave everything that they had, running, passing and fouling, battling and engaging in the kind of physical play that works against Barça for a while, until the luxurious moments come.
The quality of Barça is such that they can let teams huff and puff, and do what they do. And a fanbase can get distressed, talk about form and endeavor to draw inferences for a big Champions League match coming up.
But if you watch, if you really watch, you have to wonder if Barça didn’t work harder in training this week. There was an ease to the match that the team played, a match in which points were never going to be dropped. Possession was ceded, defenders did what they had to do. The only real chance Eibar had at goal was a blast from distance, off the bar by Orellana. If it was on target, Ter Stegen would have pushed it over. The only stress was among the fanbase. “Eibar has the ball! What is going on??!!” It felt in many ways like the 4-0 beatdown of Rayo Vallecano in the Martino days, that was apocalyptic because Rayo won the possession battle. People watched, but didn’t see.
Barça had to relax, had to be calm, had to conserve energy for the match to come. And they had to do it on the pitch, while ensuring that they didn’t drop points. So the defense had to do a bit more work than we usually see, the opponent got to run around with the ball more than usual. The luxury of the quality that Barça boasts is that the team can play that kind of match, keep a clean sheet, extend its Liga unbeaten run to 31 matches and be nice and rested for Chelsea.
There were moments. Early in the match, Messi played Suarez in with an absurd pass, one of those moments that make you think Messi is a clairvoyant, as there is no other explanation for matters. Suarez, so stunned at the arrival of the ball, checked to see if he was offside before letting the chance go begging due to hesitation. And Eibar kept coming, brave and crazy, deciding to press the better team at home, to ride its excellent form and get in faces.
And Messi did it again. His second pass to Suarez was even better than the first, a crazy bit of geometry with the exact amount of pace and guile to eke its way past the outstretched leg of the desperate defender, right into the path of Suarez, who made no mistake. He rounded the keeper and slotted home. It was a moment, like when a pro soccer player visits a local pub league and kicks around with the group, every now and again showing some skill to remind the punters of the state of things.
It is difficult to watch pragmatic Barça, because of expectation. Running, gunning, dancing, possession, the slice and dice of the blaugrana maelstrom, the beauty. Pragmatic Barça isn’t interested in that, breaking the rules by looking ahead, even as coaches such as Valverde say, “We aren’t looking ahead.” Yes, they are, which explains why the team was in sashay mode, extending enough to get it done against a difficult opponent. If you watched the match and saw what was happening, you went away impressed with just how good this team is — good enough to half-ass the seventh-placed team in Liga and win with a clean sheet.
Valverde started Paulinho, and people snarled. When he made an error, Barça Twitter reacted with scorn. When he did the things Valverde needed him to do, put him in the lineup for, the interceptions, the work, the midfield holdup play and defensive work, there was silence. There is still the notion that Barça doesn’t need that kind of stuff, even as a pair of stories, one from Sid Lowe and the other from Samuel Marsden, both discussed the value of the defensive structure and solidity that Valverde has brought to the team. Because life ain’t all champagne.
Sparkles. Busquets hit Messi with a exquisite ball, which Messi slotted through to Suarez before continuing his stealth run. As Suarez in the box set off the alarm bells, there was Messi. He got the ball, and spanked a shot that already had the Eibar defender gesticulating in exasperation. SPANG! Post. The 33rd post of the season for Barça and the 16th for Messi, the most of his career, setting records even when he isn’t trying to.
To understand Barça and what it did yesterday, find the 40:42 mark of the first half. Eibar played a searching ball forward that fell to Umtiti. He let it run, looking for passing space, then slid it to Alba, who slid it to Iniesta who, pinned in by the sideline and a pair of Eibar players, volleyed a pass into space for Busquets, who played a deft, quicksilver 1-2 with a scurrying Alba. Then it was, in open space, Suarez to Paulinho to Rakitic to Messi, who played yet another diagonal slide rule ball through a sliver of space to Alba, who was (incorrectly) called offside, the official with the flag like a party-pooping parent. It was the most dazzling sequence of the match, an end-to-end display so beautiful it deserved a goal.
It wasn’t commented on by many in the Barça social media world, but it was stunning. It was also one of the few times that the team stepped on the gas to get out of third gear. The team you support is good. Really good. And they got it done, even as more Liga opponents will wonder about the futility of pressing Barça, of not just sitting in a deep block and parrying. Because what’s the point? Eibar, in the top quarter of La Liga, tried to play Barça like something approaching an equal, and got sashayed to death.
Some will say there was a time when you didn’t have to apply context as you watched Barça, who have forgotten those dour away Champions League setups from Pep Guardiola, where the team drew and people screamed, craving champagne and getting fizzy water. Pragmatism over the course of a long season works.
Coutinho came on for Iniesta and lit up the pitch, even as the quality of his effort was noteworthy for its zeal, as he almost looked at his teammates like, “Hey, guys! Why so casual?”
Before the match, Valverde spoke of the team needing a mental break as much as a physical one, something manifested in the lack of precision on display in the recent run of dropped points. The team looked stressed. Against Eibar, it looked controlled and ready. What does that mean for the upcoming Chelsea match? Who knows. But watching them against Eibar, if you watched and really saw, should leave you a lot more confident than at the end of the Getafe slog.