The victory that sent FC Barcelona to the Copa del Rey final against an opponent to be determined, was a weird one on the surface.
Real Madrid, mostly in the person of Vinicius Jr., ran rings around the Barcelona defense, peppered it with fantastic chances and it was only by the grace of all available deities and appalling finishing by the Brazilian wunderkind, that this second leg wasn’t a rout.
This view needs a shot on goal, a keeper save, a chance in the box as a sign of the apocalypse. To apply a bit of perspective on that, Ter Stegen made two excellent saves, and Vinicius had a surprising miss from about six yards out. If Ter Stegen doesn’t make the saves and Vincius finishes that chance, guess what? Real Madrid still lose. Because Luis Suarez and Dembele, and a team that isn’t as bad as so many think.
Before the match, the difficulty for Barcelona was clear. They weren’t going anywhere without Suarez. Yes, there is Messi, but if we assume that Messi is going to be Messi (he wasn’t in this match), Suarez provides essential goals against defenses set up to keep Messi from killing them. His form being in the trough meant that defenses could break down and focus on Messi, because Suarez being off also stranded Dembele, who looks to feed the nine before even considering his own shot.
That simple dink against Sevilla, like a streak basketball shooter who starts by making free throws, seems to have gotten Suarez off the mark, leaving aside the tactical reasons that allow him to thrive against Madrid, with something like 13 goals in 14 matches against the eternal rival.
Suarez was moving quickly and precisely in the first half, one in which Barça was lucky to have gone it at zeroes by the end of. His dodgy first touch was now calm and collected, and he had a sense of being where the ball was. Dembele slid a slick pass that Suarez deftly laid off for Sergi Roberto, that was only a key intervention away from being a goal. He was just off darting onto another Dembele cross.
Biorhythms, form, who knows what it was but like flipping a switch, the man who could barely control a ball, who misplaced all but the most basic of passes, was back to looking like the most dangerous nine in the game, and just in time.
The first goal was unlikely, and against the run of play only for those not paying attention. Barça had possession, created danger and looked to exploit the space created behind the Real Madrid attacks. The match was more balanced than it seemed until suddenly, an explosive Dembele run as brutal as any made by Vinicius Jr., exposed spaces in the Real Madrid back line. Suarez made a quick, smart run to the exact spot Dembele was about to place a flawless pass, and smoked a finish into the near side.
This was an absurdly difficult goal. Even if Navas was leaning, banking on Suarez going for the other corner, the Uruguayan had to beat Ramos to the spot AND shoot, hard and low. Any time for anything, including backlift, and Ramos clears the ball. That he smoked that shot into a tiny window was the sign of a man suddenly on form again.
One of the best things about that goal was in the wake of the celebration, as Messi hung back to personally show extra love to Dembele, to make him understand that his captain knew, and appreciated the man who made the goal. Captains don’t always run around and scream at people. Captains lead by example, by play and by leadership, letting teammates know when they get the job done.
Suddenly it was 0-1, 1-2 on aggregate. Barcelona not only had the away goal, but they had the lead in the tie. It was also a goal that seemed to do something. Semedo went from being afraid of the Vinicius runs to making the decision to play his usual game and attack the attacker. It worked. Busquets had playing space, Rakitic provided a measure of control, even if it wasn’t that traditional Barcelona midfield dominance, and a balanced match tilted in favor of the Blaugrana.
As the Madrid attacks grew more intense and desperate, it didn’t take an astute observer to see what was going to happen next. Another Dembele run, another pinpoint pass and another goal. That it was an own goal does nothing to allay the intensity and devastation of the attack. As with Vinicius before Semedo stiffened his backbone, there was no answer for the pace and precision of Dembele. He put that pass in a spot where either Suarez or Varane was going to knock it into the net. Varane did.
At 0-2 and 1-3 on aggregate, Madrid was going to need three unanswered goals to turn this tie, a feat that wasn’t going to happen now that control of the match had irrevocably tilted. Real Madrid wasn’t a better team, or even as good a team going into the match, a gap that widened into a chasm underscored by another deft, dynamic Suarez run that resulted in a penalty takedown from, of all people, Casemiro, the player who makes a living out of being invisible to referees.
And the captain donned his cape again. Messi has almost every record worth having, but what is interesting is that he has never scored against Real Madrid in Copa del Rey play. Ever. Messi always takes the Barça penalties but on this day, he handed off to Suarez.
What made that so delightful, so captain like is that it showed that Messi didn’t care about personal objectives. While they might come along as a course of team success, his interest in them as a unique thing is nonexistent. Messi also recognized that his friend was having a spectacular match, and deserved to cap it off by putting the sword into the eternal rival. A lesser player, even one cognizant as you know Messi was of having an off match, would still have taken the penalty. Of course. But Messi is as happy to cede the spotlight as he is to bask in its glow. The team comes first. Always. Suarez helps make the team go, and a captain feeds the hot man.
The delicious Panenka that Suarez deftly lifted past Navas was in many ways cruel. The ball seemed to take forever to nestle into the back of the net, a time spent in the air that surely would allow Navas to claw something magical from his bag of tricks. No. It was 0-3, a scoreline that with Messi being off on the day, would seem surprising until you remembered the away match where Messi came off the bench with his team up 1-5.
Real Madrid made the fatal error of playing Barcelona as an equal. Hubris, pride and tradition all dictated that this happen, but in reality the teams aren’t equal. Madrid was never going to sit deep with a block of five defenders and a packed midfield as the likes of Valladolid would, and that would be their downfall, just like the last Copa opponent that played Barcelona as an equal and got tonked.
Playing Barcelona as an equal means allowing playing space you shouldn’t, running space you dare not, shooting opportunities that are foolhardy. And more likely than not, Barça will do what it does, which is to take advantage of that brashness to take you down.
Valverde made selection errors, opting for the Lyon lineup, even though Madrid played in a way that rendered Sergi Roberto mostly superfluous, a footballing Peter Pan trapped in Never Never Land. He wasn’t really helping in attack, wasn’t really helping in defense or possession as the way Madrid attacked and defended left him with little to do.
Dembele set up on the left because Jordi Alba was needed to play a more defensive role, which worked, but it still puts Dembele on his weaker side and deprives the attack of the dynamic Alba overlaps. But it was noteworthy that once Dembele moved to the right, things really took off for the Barcelona attack.
In yet another bit of unlikeliness, even as Suarez was involved in all three goals scored for Barcelona, my man of the match was Ter Stegen, who kept his team in it until it was able to put the knife in. He stopped Benzema off an open chance, snuffed out another potential chance, distributed with intelligence and danger, and played like what he is, which is the best keeper in the game.
And even as we pick at their flaws, don’t rate various players and think the current coach should really be someone else, we forget that FC Barcelona is, on its day, the best team in football. That it beat Real Madrid essentially without its best player (Messi had no involvement in any of the goals) underscores the quality of that team as well as the value of its aged but still vital striker.
This Barcelona team is also confounding, even as it is set up for another domestic double, with the treble also in play. As supporters, it makes us bonkers that we have no idea what team is going to show up. But that’s also the fun of it in many ways, that capriciousness that makes each match an adventure.