Over the course of a very few days, Barça has played the emotions of its supporters like a symphonic conductor building toward a crescendo. From a delightful beginning that became pants then magic again at Villarreal, a late Suarez bombazo salvaging a point, to today, when a late Suarez bombazo guaranteed full points, what a week it has been.
Is the Liga title done and dusted? Mathematically, no. But it has been done and dusted for some time now, for the simple reason that Barça might lose the occasional match, but doesn’t make a habit of dropping points. There is a legacy of consistent excellence that dates back to when a tacticurn man named Pep Guardiola took the reins, and has continued, through coach after coach.
If losing becomes a habit, so does winning, so does playing in a way that allows a team to achieve, week after week, match after match, season after season. It has failed to win the league only three times in that period since 2008, which is an astounding accomplishment, and one that gets lost in a great many things as we strive to parse and deal witih a team that doesn’t seem to know how to do much other than excel.
Against Atletico de Madrid, a team a lot like death and taxes in its reliability, many said that the league was on the line. If they won, the gap would be five points with seven matches left, and anything could happen. If they lost, that would be it. The “many” were misguided. Even with a loss, the likelihood of Barça dropping a five-point lead in seven matches would be so absurd as to beggar contemplation. But people were anxious to be able to see the “Hay, liga!” headlines, so this match had portents.
That it was undone by a moment of stupidity from a pantomime villain might seem fitting for the way that Atleti too often play, but it was a shame. The moment Diego Costa fouled Arthur, then made an appallingly scatalogical suggestion about the referee’s mother, that included supposition about her chosen line of work, red was the only option.
Whether that sending off changed the match is without question. Whether it would have altered the outcome is debatable. Before the sending off, Messi had sent in Alba, who hit the post, but should have scored. Coutinho was sent in, and he should have scored. More chances from open play were being created 11v11, before Atleti had to bunker down to try to preserve the draw. But Oblak. Always Oblak.
There was always the feeling that it was going to take something extraordinary to beat Jan Oblak, the best traditional keeper in the game and one who many consider the contextual “best,” in the same way so many rated Iker Casillas higher than Victor Valdes. He made some saves that looked routine but weren’t, moved faster than someone the size of a good-sized storage unit could. He was brilliant, and looked more than capable of salvaging his team a valuable point that might preserve the illusion for a while longer.
When his team went down to ten, his coach went for it, subbing on attackers, one then another, deciding that this would be it. For a man fond of discussing glandular capacity, it was a move. He pulled a fullback, choosing to take a chance on his team defending like the lions that they were.
It didn’t work because Valverde was also working his tactical acumen, shifting his team, pulling off Arthur for Malcom, who paid immediate dividends with darting runs that shifted the Atleti defenders, which created space for his teammates. Alenya came on, for control coupled with creativity, and fresh legs.
Atleti attacked selectively, never creating any real danger, but raising the kind of supporter hackles that react to an opponent having the ball, and seeing danger in that.
Finally, when everything was decided, it did indeed take an extraordinary moment to get the better of Oblak. And again, as with Villarreal, it was Luis Suarez, the forward for whom “Much Maligned” could be a middle name, had a moment of madness.
He took the ball just outside the box, and was attended by Thomas Partey, rather than the center back stalwarts who had been thwarting his ambition the entire match. Into that sliver of time, when Partey, who had been running his legs off, was slack in closing down, that moment when an attacker thinks differently than a defender, thinks, “Naaah. I wouldn’t hit that shot from there, not with my keeper.”
A defender closes everything down, because they have a different template that makes any ball, any attacker near the box cause for alarm. Partey slacked, and Suarez struck. It was a crazy, curling ball that went outside in, that slid just under the outstretched hand of Oblak, went off the post and in. It was a goal that the announcers didn’t have time to react to, that nobody had time to react to. It didn’t come from a sequence of passes or any logical buildup. Nothing about the goal was logical until it corkscrewed into the back of the net. Then it made perfect sense.
Suarez ripped of his shirt in exultation, not realizing that he was helping his cause in picking up the fifth yellow that would get him some rest between the Manchester United Champions League legs. Suarez was reacting to a moment that he knew had just won his team yet another league championship. Guaranteed.
The team gathered around him to live the moment. They all knew. But Messi, the master assassin, wanted to be sure. So he hovered, dribbled, danced and poked a shot past Oblak after a dribble that was a masterwork of misdirection. Was he going to pas? There were teammates in the box. Oblak had to perform a calculus, and got the answer wrong. An amazing goal for any other player was just a day at the office for Messi, and that was that.
Messi was decisive. Again. He elevated his game, deciding that he was tied of Atleti’s shifting, resolute Wall of Troy. He moved faster, with and without the ball, dared his teammates to come with him, to raise their volume, to make everything sharper. It was an edge that slashed, and showed the effect a great player can have on a match even when he isn’t the one striking the decisive blow. And they won. Again.
Coaches prefer to win leagues because the test is longer, more unrelenting, more consistent. If you win a league, your team has been the best over a sustained period of time. Week after week, almost without fail, Barça has not failed. We forget that because we parse and snarl, worry and whine. Nothing is good enough. It can’t be because if it was, what would we have to talk about?
Politics and hating boards, board members and presidents taint accomplishments, make things as remarkable as a treble something to be discarded because the wrong people were running the club, the wrong man running the team. We lose sight of what we are seeing, of a resolute bunch of exceptional athletes so used to winning that it’s almost all they know how to do, so they keep doing it.
Messi raised his game, because he could, because the moment demanded it. Suarez hit that absurd strike because he could, because the moment demanded it. It’s amazing, and we are lucky.
Atleti was valiant, but not good enough, as they haven’t been even as we worry about them like good, paranoid culers should. If Barça plays as well as it can, there isn’t a team in world football good enough to beat them. That is a weird reality that we still struggle to accept, and we probably always will. But we aren’t supposed to because if we did, what would we have to talk about?