Success is misery or glory, dependent upon who you ask. At Old Trafford, the mythical Theatre of Dreams, something strange happened. It was another case of Barça Rashomon.
For only the sixth time in the club’s history, FC Barcelona won an away leg in the Champions League quarterfinals. In the last eleven times since 2009 in the Champions League quarters, FC Barcelona has won three times.
FC Barcelona had 62 percent possession, with 93 percent passing accuracy, and one goal, an own goal that came at the end of a 40+pass epic of constructive elegance.
Manchester United had zero shots on goal. At home. At one point, late in the match, when Barcelona was working rondos like they were doing passing drills in training, Valverde’s last substitute, Carles Alenya, was waiting to get in. He was standing on the sideline, waiting, and waiting, and waiting, and … It got so absurd that he shared a laugh with the fourth official. He finally got in, with about 20 seconds left in injury time.
Statistically, it was an extraordinary day. In terms of what it meant for the team’s potential for advancing past the quarterfinals for the first time in three seasons, it was exceptional — an away goal and a clean sheet. This all happened on the same day that, a year ago, came the wild, lost night in Rome.
Aesthetically, it was a failure. Philosophically, it was a bit more complex.
Coming through a hellacious period of four matches in just over a week. Barcelona tallied three wins and a draw. The most recent, just before the team faced United, was a Liga-clinching 2-0 victory over Atletico de Madrid, a brutal challenge that was physical and intense, that required a lot from a team that took a stand against the onslaught of doubt and worry.
During this run by the team, aesthetic purity was difficult to come by. Its last sighting was the 5-1 home thrashing of Lyon to make the Champions League quarterfinals. Villarreal was the sole draw, salvaged by an absurd last-minute bombazo from Luis Suarez. They beat Espanyol, beat Betis, beat Atleti and now, beat United.
There were no glitterbombs, and there was precious little joy from a fanbase expecting something other than winning, even if winning is pretty much all that it has been used to over the past seasons. Barcelona has lost three times this season, and sits atop the Liga, separated by eleven points from second place Atleti.
United came into the match with eight days’ rest, and younger legs, even if less quality. They jumped, fought, pressed and worked, looking to work the same home magic that allowed them to flip a tie against Paris St.-Germain and advance. And they drew Barcelona. Tough luck.
Chris Smalling tried to equalize things early for United by going in hard on Messi. Rock-hard. A “clattering,” the English press called it. Messi went to the sideline, blood running. He returned to the match, dried blood still caked on his face, and continued, clearly diminished. It turns out that his damage was such that he was having a difficult time breathing for the duration of the match. And still, he worked, and he ran.
Messi didn’t care about aesthetics. He was a man on a mission, one that he spoke about at the Gamper introduction ceremonies, when he promised to do all that he could to help his team win that cherished bauble. And he did. All that he could.
Gerard Pique is enjoying one of his best seasons for the club, and played what might be his best match of the season in an MOTM performance. It’s a safe bet that he doesn’t care about aesthetics, either. Nelson Semedo hit the ground running, sparkling like a personal glitter bomb, playing possibly his best match in the colors, holding it down on the defensive end, wreaking havoc on the offensive end.
There was a period when United found their way back into the match, when their rest, energy and youth allowed them to have the upper hand, even if they created precious little danger. But there was the perception of danger, because whenever an opponent has the ball to Barça supporters, there is danger, because there is worry.
At some point, we lost faith in our team. At the root of the culer paranoia that hangs with us like the air that we breathe, there is a loss of faith. It was there once, replaced by this fragile uncertainty that doesn’t let us truly enjoy anything, even outclassing a United team with more rest and younger legs, at home.
We screamed for substitutions, and Valverde made them, substitutions that changed the match. Again. Sergio Busquets went from this frail, aged, gangly thing, making errors and driving supporters batty. “Get him off the pitch,” they clamored, but Valverde had a different idea. He subbed on Sergi Roberto and Arturo Vidal, and suddenly Busquets looked better. He had less to do. Vidal fought for every ball, worked everything loose. Sergi Roberto made smart runs, did thhose Masia things that make the only team that he has ever known go.
And Barcelona kept the ball. And won. Again. Valverde made it work. His team made it work, because they had to. They had to for us, they had to for their legacy, they had to for their coach, for themselves. And they did it, on the day last year when everything came crashing down for them.
After the match, speaking about Roma, Valverde said the team dealt with it for a moment, then moved on. We who support, follow and adore them, haven’t moved on. We might never. But this match against United, this match today, was something special, even if it wasn’t festoooned with the glitter bombs that we expected, that we anticipated against a United side that isn’t as good as this Barcelona team but could run, huff and puff their way to something approaching not as much inequality as should have been present.
Both teams fought hard. The day before, Pep Guardiola and his Manchester City team lost 1-0 away to Tottenham Hotspur. They would have killed for the result that Barcelona earned today. Didn’t happen. Today, Barcelona got it done, even if the mood among most supporters was more like a defeat, not that any of that matters to the people for whom it matters most: the team and its coach. They understand what they did, the significance of today, of the accomplishment, of winning a year to the day of an awful day.
It wasn’t pretty, but it mattered. How much, we have yet to see.