“I don’t remember being applauded at a rival stadium before. Thankful and happy because a win is important.” — Lionel Messi
Here’s the thing about great players. Nothing is normal for them. Where normal players see a game, great players see a blizzard of possibilities, floating around in the air like a snow globe. We have seen it before, Tiger Woods smoking shots that would never occur to anyone else, Michael Jordan hitting shots that just make your draw drop.
Late in the match, in the dying embers of a Betis beatdown, Messi’s team was up 1-3. Raktic just rolled the ball to Messi who, on the run, just stroked through the ball. It was a chip. It wasn’t just a chip. It was a chip from the edge of the box, a rainbow over a tall-ass keeper, across the face of the goal, into the far corner.
“Which of your goals was most difficult,” Messi was asked in the post-game. “I’m just happy that they were goals, that we won,” he replied.
In a symphony, things build to a crescendo, though music, though movements, through strains of beauty. His first goal was an astounding free kick with perfect pace and placement, into the upper corner. It was stunning.
His second goal was an outside of the foot blast into the corner, an amazing strike.
But it was his third goal that was the highest note, and the perfect examplar for a match in which Barcelona was brilliant from top to bottom. And as with Messi’s goal that upended how we view the possibilities available from a footballer, his team upended a view of a match plan.
As usual, we grumbled about the starting eleven. But Valverde got it right. It was a setup designed to take advantage of the defensive naivete of Betis, the spaces that team leaves open at the back as it was steaming to more than 50 percent possession. Betis won possession in the battle, and culers aren’t really sure how to deal with their team not having the ball all of the time. And there was the perception of danger, even when there wasn’t any danger at all. Even the lone goal shouldn’t have been, as Alba overran the clearance.
Vidal was in the eleven, and so many wanted to see Alenya, myself included. We still are reluctant to understand what we aren’t willing to consider. Vidal raised hell. He fought for every ball, forced turnovers, battled for possession, disrupted Betis in key areas of the field in ways that Alenya would not have been able to.
After the Camp Nou win, people talked about Betis playing better Barcelona football than Barcelona. At the beginning of this match, there were social media comments that Betis was passing the ball so much better than Barcelona. None of that mattered. Arthur earned a foul, and Messi smote the ball. And that was that.
Betis had possession again, gobs and gobs of it, marching right up right to the edge of the Barça box, then everything was parried away. Valverde stacked the midfield to deal with their midfield pressure and apply a press to control play, rather than possession. It will be easy to attribute this victory to the genius of Messi, and he was astonishing. A hat trick of goals that make your jaw drop. But a much-maligned, and perpetually maligned coach got the match plan right, and he got the starting lineup right.
But how to deal with this? Dunno. How do you deal with a player deciding to rainbow chip a keeper across the face of the goal off the run? Dunno. His teammates, who see him every day in training, didn’t know how to deal with it. Lenglet put his hands to his head, stunned. And a stadium, filled with people baying for their home team, rose to its feet to fete the enemy. How do you consider a striker who many want to see shot from a cannon to another team, delivering a backheel assist? Dunno.
Expectations are a weird thing. So is dogma. There is the dogmatic expectation of a certain way of playing, resistance to a team that doesn’t play in that fashion, resistance to a coach who doesn’t set up his team in a way that hews to dogma. And we don’t know how to manage those because too often, we approach things based on what we think we know, rather than what we see.
Suarez stumbled, fumbled, and ran. He missed an easy goal, then made a mazy, crazy run that concluded with a lovely finish. He is often called the worst best player in football, which in many ways is apt. He doesn’t make sense. How can a player who seems like he can’t control a simple pass, then do something like that, something like that backheel assist? Dunno.
The Betis coach, Quique Setien, is on the most-wanted list for culers who hew to a particular dogma. This is the same coach whose head might be on the chopping block, who was being whistled by his team’s supporters, even as they cheered the best player for the opponent after a moment of genius. Nothing makes sense.
A while ago, a young repoter asked me, just before heading out on assignment, “What story do you want?” My reply was, “The story that is there.” If we expect something, it becomes what we look for, instead of understanding what is there. Valverde coached Setien off the pitch, unless there are things you value such as passing and possession, rather than victories and a bag of goals. To be sure, there is an expectation of a way of playing attendant to Barcelona. It it time to recalibrate?
Messi constantly makes us recalibrate what we expect to see from an attacking player. We run out of words. One BeIN Sport commentator, Andres Cordero, says that he is just going to Tweet in hieroglyphics from now on, since words just can’t suffice. We don’t expect anything from Messi. We just watch him, and appreciate the moment that is there. At what point will we do this with the team that we all love so much?
Barça has a ten-point lead in the league with ten matches left. It is also in the Copa del Rey final, and matched up against a beatable opponent in the Champions League quarterfinals. The treble is a real thing, just like it was last season until a wild night in Rome. Today’s match was fantastic, and a lot of fun, almost as fun as the Messi goals. Are we not entertained?