It took a minute. An entire match of football in which a pair of antagonists knocked heads for more than 90 minutes, was turned on its head in a minute by the outsized influence of a mite of a player, whose influence is as colossal as his physical stature is ordinary.
Some of us fools doubted it, even if you had to know that from when Messi entered, time was the only issue. It felt like the football gods realized that something was amiss as they sat atop their Olympus, discussing the actions of mortal men.
Even after having watched it, it was bewildering. It was Messi. A team played crap for 85 minutes, then its talisman came on and everything changed.
So what did happen? In the Barca Twitterverse as well as at the San Francisco Penya, in whose company I enjoyed the match, it was easy: Paulinho. It’s worth having a look at that, what he was doing along with what everyone else was doing. Let’s look at the first Sevilla danger, which came in the 22nd minute.
After a Barca corner the ball banged off the referee, falling to the feet of a Sevilla attacker. Because everyone was pushed up, the ensuing counterattack came down to foot speed, ball movement and cutting off angles. Jordi Alba, on the right side, was losing a footrace and tried a tackle that was brushed off. From then it was a bust-out, and Sergi Roberto didn’t track the overlap.
The second shot on that Sevilla attack came when players, particularly Iniesta, were laggardly about chasing the loose ball and closing down, so the pass into the box was uncontested, finding a Sevilla player in the midst of a disorganized Barca defense. Barca, because of how it plays corners, will always be vulnerable. it’s easy to stop. Don’t play like Barca.
Paulinho, Pique, Umtiti, everybody was in the box. The fastest player on the pitch, Dembele, was just trotting after the Sevilla counter. On the second shot, Paulinho was sloppy in tracking the loose man, a sin that would rear its head again later.
The second bit of Sevilla danger was also after a corner. Again, it was cleared long. Again, a Barca player lost the battle for the loose ball as Rakitic got punked by N’Zonzi. At the moment this happened, Sevilla is in a three-on-two situation, and the two are Iniesta and Sergi Roberto, possibly the slowest players on the pitch for Barca. Everyone else was chasing. It was another mess.
The possession game was working for Barca until the final third, when questionable decisions were being made against Sevilla’s two banks of four defenders. The biggest problem that Barca was facing was, simply enough, ball control and decision making. Every significant Sevilla attack came after a corner with everyone being pushed up for Barca, or losing possession in a difficult spot with out-of-position teammates.
Of all the matches remaining (even the coming Classic) that were going to trip up Barca, Sevilla had the highest mayhem potential. Away from home against a tough opponent, with key players just off an international break in which most of the first team was on duty. Pique, Alba, Iniesta, Coutinho, Paulinho, Umtiti, Dembele, Suarez, Ter Stegen. Sergi Roberto was the only member of the XI not dispatched for international duty.
In other words, this match was always going to be crap. Paulinho was poor. Everyone was poor. Lost possession, sloppy passes, everyone out of position. Dembele was sharp on the ball but lazy off it. The other problem Barca had is a familiar one: pace. This is a slow team, which makes it all the more imperative that it revere possession. It didn’t against Sevilla. Coutinho was particularly culpable in this regard. A Barca player can be given a pass with a defender at his back, retain possession and move the ball on. Coutinho, usually more secure, was off in that regard yesterday. Sevilla was able to benefit time and again.
The first Sevilla goal began with a sloppy pass from Jordi Alba led to turned possession. His tackle effort went awry and Sevilla was off to the races. The man was allowed running space until Iniesta and Rakitic come steaming into the frame. The cross-pitch pass pings between Sevilla attackers, with Sergi Roberto on his own. Where is Dembele at this moment? Trotting, looking a bit lost. As the Sevilla player is marked by Sergi Roberto, if Dembele sprints over he can team with Sergi Roberto to contest that pass. Instead, Sergi Roberto has to worry about two men, and chooses to watch the one with the ball.
Meanwhile, Paulinho is also ball watching, so he loses contain on the man that he should have been marking. Umtiti sees it happening and decides too late,”Oh, crap.” A sharper Ter Stegen probably pops out to smother or bat away the slow rolling pass. That didn’t happen either. That goal was a crap show of shouldas. Where did the crap begin? Take your pick, from crappy turnover and tackle attempt to slack marking to stationary defenders. It was a smorgasbord of ineptitude.
One of the S.F. Penya members said that Paulinho doesn’t do anything when Barca has the ball. He never does. He moves the ball on, helps regain and retain possession and acts as a wall for teammates. He also makes runs in the channels into the box. This is what he does every match, and Valverde plays him every match because of these attributes. None of this stops anyone somehow expecting that today is going to be the day that Paulinho starts playing like Iniesta, or any other skilled midfielder on the Barca squad. That is never going to happen, as angry as his presence makes culers, who fill Twitter with invective after the match. Paulinho seems to add nothing, yet Valverde chooses to use him time and again. So we can either try to figure just what his value is, or fume impotently after yet another match in which he features, and doesn’t do what we think he ought.
His principal sins against Sevilla were, aside from leaving his marker on the goal, leaving his midfield mates stranded as his legs got draggy. Iniesta took fouls because he had nowhere to put the ball as Paulinho stood there watching. He was less effective in closing down space, and should have been subbed off long before he was.
And yet, Barca was poor as a team. Paulinho is an easy target because he is the outlier. That is easy to understand. The second Sevilla goal was even crappier than the first for Barca. Ter Stegen cleared a pass directly to a Sevilla player. In the ensuing attack, neither Pique nor Umtiti covered themselves in glory. The 2-0 lead was no less than Sevilla deserved.
Meanwhile, as Muriel celebrated the second goal that he was sure was the winner, Messi was standing, about to come on for his scheduled run out before the Roma match in midweek. He stood there, watching. You can’t say he was hardening his heart, as it is already hard. Sevilla’s white shirts probably didn’t help their case all that much, either.
Messi came on for Dembele. And we screamed bloody murder. Why take off that pace and creativity? Coutinho had suddenly sprung into life just before Messi entered, an entrance that seemed to catalyze the rest of the team. Sevilla was on the back foot as a run from Messi fed Coutinho, who fed Suarez, forcing an intervention from a Sevilla defender. Everyone suddenly had more space and energy, because of, for lack of a better descriptive, the “Oh, shit!” factor. Another chance came. When Sevilla got the ball the spaces were tighter, the fights for the ball by Barca players harder. Even an excellent attack for them in the wake of a stupid Pique tackle attempt came to nothing, as if everything was just waiting.
Suddenly Barca wasn’t losing fights for the ball. But the biggest difference was playing space. Messi was surrounded as Sevilla was determined to not let Messi beat them. And he did anyway.
Sports people are fond of talking about intangibles, things beyond physical effort and execution, things that lift a player or group of players. Intangibles are often human. Messi holds everyone to a higher standard, and they work harder to meet that standard. The opponent worries more because the best player alive is in the game, and everything is different, mistakes potentially more expensive. And a goal mouth scramble led to a Pique chance.
Sevilla didn’t create a single chance that didn’t come from catching Barca on the break, after a turnover or set piece. Once the team tuned up those weak spots with more careful possession, that was that. But they had more time on the ball, because of Messi and the worry. And Valverde watched.
BeIN, in the 71st minute, posted its player of the match voting. It was three Sevilla players, and Pique. They, like so many others, didn’t see a way out for Barca. Messi was on and 15 minutes later it was still 2-0 to the home side. Sevilla missed another chance off yet another break from yet another turnover and still Valverde watched. At about the 75th minute, everything seemed to turn. Sevilla was on the back foot, ball movement less secure, turnovers more frequent. It was time for the next move, Denis Suarez on for Paulinho. How did Valverde know Denis Suarez was going to play like the player everyone has been expecting to see for so long? Who knows. But he did. His runs were sharp and incisive, darts into the Sevilla box that set those players sitting on their heels in cement.
But there was still more to be done, the last step. Time dragged on, and it was still 2-0. Hope was getting dimmer as the recriminations began, why risk Messi when the team is going to lose anyhow, there is too much danger. And Sevilla kept coming, consistently less effective. At the end of one attack they passed the ball back into their own end, looking to bleed time, play for the win they knew was theirs.
The last play came when Alcacer came on for Iniesta. Navas was also subbed off for Sevilla, to the applause and handshakes of teammates, who had no idea what was coming. Alcacer brought even more movement. Sevilla got the ball on a break and Alcacer was flying up the right side to track back and help turn possession. And Barca attacked. Then Sevilla. But this time, Barca defenders were in position. Time slipped away, too fast for one side, too slowly for another. And Valverde watched.
Minutes passed, the 85th came and went. Coutinho turned it over again, but this time Denis Suarez was there to help regain possession. And Barca attacked. Coutinho danced, a set piece came tantalizingly close. Denis Suarez made a slashing run into the box to signal intent, he and Alcacer involved in the incisive play that set up the set piece. The 88th came and with it a set piece, a loose ball that fell to Suarez, who made no mistake. Suddenly it was 2-1 and the team in the lead had become the hunted.
Then came the run, again involving Coutinho, who spanked a hard, low pass that seemed to roll past player after player until it arrived at the only logical destination: Messi. His left foot was unerring as he smoked a low, hard curler just inside the near post, just past the outstretched hand of the Sevilla keeper. In about a minute, everything was different. The illusion of time was different. Sevilla was willing it to pass more quickly for a different reason, suddenly worried about a 2-0 lead becoming a 2-3 loss.
This was an astonishing match of football. If someone had told you that at the beginning of the season, surveying the wreckage of a summer window and the uncertainty, that Barca would be unbeaten with eight Liga matches left, you would have laughed. Long and loud. They weren’t even supposed to be in the running for a league title that looks more and more certain.
Is Messi carrying this team? No, unless you consider the psychological effect of playing with the greatest player in the game. He’s like a demanding parent whose favor you want to win, a benevolent deity who can grant you temporary immortality from the reflected glow of his aura. He makes everything and everyone around him better. In that respect, Messi is carrying this team. The best demands the best. Sevilla found this out. So did more than a few doubting culers. And Messi celebrated yet another goal as he always does. To him, the impossible is normal.
You’d think we’d be used to it by now, but may that never happen.