Again it was Stamford Bridge, again it was chaos, again it was Andres Iniesta to make order of that seeming chaos.
Football is an unspeakably cruel game, particularly if you are Chelsea and its coach, Antonio Conte. They got it 99 percent right. The tactics were spot on, the execution verging on flawless. It was a brilliant, completely selfless performance from his team as it devoted itself to, just like a Liga minnow and anyone else with sense lining up against Barça, defending and coming out to play when safe. There was Willian doing Willian things, a player without a real position, listed on the team chart not as a forward, mid or winger, but Dude Who Messes Shit Up. Two off the post, one just inside it, like a marksman lining up the shot.
Even Conte’s decision to start a relative bairn worked. It all did, right up until it didn’t, right up until that young’un, flush with the ambition of youth, tried an ill-advised long diagonal that sullied perfection, that doomed Chelsea to be 99 percent effective and damage their Champions League hopes.
Football is only rarely a game of execution, of two teams squaring off and forcing excellence by dint of what they do. Usually it comes down to key mistakes, and someone capitalizing on them. Willian’s post endeavors both came from sloppy giveaways in the Barça midfield and athletic, quick players moving to capitalize on them. The Willian goal came from a ridiculous marking error, as no Barça player seemed sure of who to pick out on a corner. Hazard sussed the danger, even as it wasn’t all that hard since Willian was standing there by himself, wondering if it was something he said.
The Barça goal wasn’t a wonder strike, a legendary smite that sparked a baby boom. It was a ridiculous pass from a defender, particularly at that moment of the match, and two great players made the opponent pay. Coaches and tacticians will talk about things in the emotionless sterility of analysis, but all you needed to do was look at the faces of the Chelsea players after that goal, really the only clear look that Barça got all night, to understand the humanity of this game we love. They all looked like they had been gut punched. And they had. It’s walking back to your table with drinks, stumbling over the chair as you set them down and spilling everything.
They understood in that instant that now, instead of going to the Camp Nou and controlling, defending with nine behind the ball as they did, inviting Barça to make futile runs into the teeth of a machine, they have to play to win, play to score a goal. Yes, the tie is more delicately balanced at 1-1 than it would have been had Barça got a second, but Chelsea will still have to play to win, play to score. Play to advance.
They looked gutted because they understood what happened — they played a brilliant match as a unit, as individuals, as Barça didn’t. Clunky, slow, ponderous in possession, loose with the ball, mental lapses galore. There was never going to be a better time to beat this Barça. But in that moment of laxity, it came down to a pair who had been there before, doing what they do.
It seemed Iniesta, who labored for most of the match, looking like the 33-year-old midfielder that he is, had a moment of purity. It was captain on captain, and Iniesta won the race, correctly judging the trajectory of the wayward pass more effectively than his Chelsea counterpart, and knowing exactly what to do. Suarez was there, hovering at the edge of being offside, his usual place in the world. There was also the possibility that Suarez would do what Suarez does all too often, which is not score goals that he should. Then it became a geometry equation, spaces and angles. Iniesta spotted Messi, inexplicably running free to make the Willian moment of freedom suddenly the second most gobsmacking period of the match.
He went for the sure thing.
Pity Courtois, who had no idea what to do. The memory of the Iniestazo still echoes in the rafters of Stamford Bridge. So there was that. Then there was Suarez, lethal, predatory, lurking at the edge of his vision. And Messi. Always Messi. Courtois had to do his own math. Once Iniesta passed Messi the ball, was the greatest player in the game going to shoot, or feed Suarez? Note Courtois’ reaction, as he fell in the direction of Suarez. Messi as playmaker is now as lethal as Messi as goalscorer.
Unpacking that goal is an amazing thing, particularly as it all started with a young player and was finished by veterans. Azpilicueta knew, and desperately went for the ball. Iniesta knew, and just as desperately went for the ball. Andreas Christensen knew, and ran to atone. Rudiger knew, Courtois knew. Everyone knew. And that knowing helped nothing, didn’t save them, because great players are thus because they are also hard-hearted assassins who will ruin you in a sliver of time.
People who didn’t see the match will see the scoreline and figure it was the usual boring match of football. One team scored, then the other, then everyone went home. But the match was spectacular, even if Barça wasn’t.
The world of Barça social media detests Paulinho. He is everything for them. Substituting him will lead to goodness and glory, because he is the anomaly, the donkey in a world of show ponies. Ugh. And yesterday’s match in the world of Barça Twitter, became about Paulinho. Every pass, every dribble, everything except when he did the things that made clear why Valverde started him. People don’t care about those things, because that’s donkey work. A team such as Barça shouldn’t need donkey work. This just isn’t true.
This piece by Mike Goodman does a brilliant job of explaining Paulinho. Not that anyone cares. Aesthetes detest donkeys. Keita was a donkey for Guardiola, like Fernandinho is now. Great teams need donkeys. Messi loves playing with Paulinho, because Messi understands the value of a donkey. Donkeys aren’t pretty. They draw carts. “Why isn’t a race horse pulling that cart? It would arrive a lot faster.” Because the race horse is busy, being a race horse.
At one moment of the match, a pass was made at the edge of the Chelsea box. And there was Paulinho, harassing and battling to win the ball loose and feed Suarez, who couldn’t make magic. Donkey work. It was uncommented on, except by me. It is exactly what Paulinho does. He had two header chances, neither particularly great. People screamed about one, even though a header from that range is never going to beat a keeper of Courtois’ quality. But it became a miss, a chance that would have been turned by a player who isn’t a … donkey.
After the match, Valverde is essence said, “Of course I started Paulinho, because my team needs what he does. So deal with it.” Barça didn’t play well. The Chelsea mids and wingers were outrunning, outworking their Barça counterparts. Almost every loose ball went to a Chelsea player. It was athletics vs aesthetics in many ways, and athletics was winning. Without wing play, everything was funnelled through Messi, which meant the middle of the pitch, which is exactly where Chelsea wanted everything to go, with its stacked banks of four and five players, just waiting. Head it away, kick it away. Alba was kept busy, too busy to become a legit attacking force. Valverde subbed in Aleix Vidal in an effort to gain some pace and width. It worked a little bit, but it was still too central, too ponderous, everything moving too slowly to not be easily parried by Chelsea, who looked quite comfortable, until that one moment.
Messi to Iniesta became Iniesta to Messi almost ten years hence, and the Bridge was silenced again, by the same duo, older and wiser, but no less lethal. Everything to play for at the Camp Nou? Of course. But Chelsea played 99 percent of a perfect match, and thanks to away goals, they lost. Do they have another perfect match in them, and will it be perfect enough to keep Barça from doing what it does?
In seasons past, with a Barça team not as secure at the back, we could be confident in saying that Barça will score, and that will be that. This Barça, the one so carefully constructed by its calm Mister, is secure. The Camp Nou leg could easily be a scoreless draw not because any buses were parked, but because a team that is secure at the back, just didn’t score a goal. Chelsea went from secure and confident to damaged and worried because of two moments: a kid being a kid, and its coach being conservative, deciding that what has worked until now would continue to work, especially after his team had gotten a goal.
It’s like nobody understands, even after decades of cruelty, how cruel football can be, and the magnificence that exists within the parameters of that cruelty. And those moments make for excellence, and drama, and being able to say, after a titanic clash such as this one — what a match.