In dispatching Manchester United without expending much more energy than a mid-tempo training session, Barcelona did exactly what they were supposed to.
In the reams of press expended describing the unlikely notions of United somehow overturning the tie as they did against Paris St.-Germain, the ability to ignore the obvious took some doing. Barça was vastly superior than United not only at every position, but tactically as well. And Barcelona had Messi.
There is no player who understands a moment better than him, who understands the necessity of quelling unease not only among a fanbase but teammates. He skinned people alive in creating a goal that would be a wonder goal for almost every player in football. Would it make Messi’s Top 50? Debatable.
At United, after the early Chris Smalling challenge that left Messi dazed and bloody (a few questions about concussion protocol could be asked of football and UEFA — again), he wasn’t himself. So he didn’t wreck United as he would have then, so he made up for lost time and senses on his home ground, the same space where he promised to do all he could to bring home the cup with the big ears. United was never a worry.
But because no fan base in football does worry like that of Barcelona, there was worry. The early sleepies by the team, that allowed Rashford to skim a shot off the post, were attributable to that rest week Barça had. Any athlete will tell you that after a rest week, it takes a bit of time to get to the physical point where you can take fullest advantage of the rest. Even had that Rashford goal gone in, the outcome was inevitable, mostly because football is usually cruel to hopeful supporters of an inferior team.
The match was essentially over when Messi decided to show United what life was like when he is in possession of his full faculties, treating the United defense like so many tackling dummies and lacing a curly bit of brilliance past the grasp of David de Gea. The only remaining question was how much, and by when.
De Gea could almost be said to have the desire to put his teammates out of their own misery with a howler of such magnificence, it probably could silence packs of wolves. It was 2-0, and the massive mountain that United would have needed to climb while wearing flip-flops, became a greased wall. It would have been merciful for the ref to have called both captains and their coaches to the sideline and said, “Look. We know how this is going to end. Should we just go out for snacks?”
Instead, there was more football, including Coutinho doing exactly what Coutinho does, to a United defense that seems to have forgotten what Coutinho does. So rather than mimicing Liga defenders, who have learned to just picket line him into oblivion, they allowed him space to smoke a curler into the far corner. There is a Coutinho Goal, just as there is a Robben Goal.
The aftermath of the goal was more interesting than the strike itself as Coutinho made it abundantly clear to the Camp Nou faithful what he thought of their ongoing assessments of his efforts for the team. The players surrounded him in a group hug in a humanitarian gesture, but the Brazilian’s sentiment was clear: eff you guys.
In Coutinho’s defense, he has been playing better and better, repaying the faith of his coach and allowing Dembele to become in reality the enfant terrible so many already think that he is. When the starting lineup was announced and Coutinho was in it, there was the predictable huffery, even if Valverde’s decision made sense, precisely because of the improvement in Coutinho’s game of late.
When in doubt, do nothing isn’t just the beloved credo of Valverde. Coutinho has been forcing things less, choosing to simply pass the ball back to midfield for the reset. He has been tracking back more effectively as well. Combine this reality with the other grim admission that Dembele can’t be trusted with the ball fully against a pacey counterattacking team, and the inferior player’s inclusion in the starting XI made sense.
After that second goal, both teams seemed to understand what was going to happen. United kept trying, playing and fouling, and Barça kept stroking the ball around in an aesthetic display that should have been more appreciated than it was. This is exactly what we want from them: decide a big match early, do some rondos and go home. It was exactly what they should have done last year in Rome, but didn’t. That this match, this season demonstrated how much was learned from that one bad outing should not be underestimated.
But success just brings another opportunity to worry about failure. Unless Porto does something even more unfathomable than the task that faced United, Liverpool will be the next opponent, and fear will once again stalk the land.
For now, let’s enjoy the bliss and tranquility of a job well done, in precisely the right manner, with precious little expenditure of energy.
The day of football got even better as Ajax dispatched Juventus in a result that many considered unlikely, mostly because they probably missed Ajax dismantling Real Madrid.
The glorious luck of the draw for Ajax is that in Real Madrid and then Juventus, they got aging colossi who were also a bit smug as they faced up to the irrepressible kids. The vets were unprepared for the energy and vigor that the young’uns brought to the task, and suffered.
In reality, the Juventus match could have ended with the same scoreline (or worse) as the Madrid slaughter, but man, anyone who doesn’t think kids make poor decisions should have seen Ajax in the final third. Yow! But that the decisive goal was slammed home off the noggin of Matthijs de Ligt, the centerback who by all rumor and accounts will be joining his teammate Frenkie de Jong in Barcelona this summer? THAT is something tasty.
The post-match reaction was predictable, and also strident and weird in its slavish devotion to, and incessant mention of the late, great Johann Cruijff. Let’s be clear about what happened against Madrid and Juventus: a young, dynamic team played attacking football in the tradition of not only its club, but Barcelona, the club with which it shares a spiritual link.
That football was loads of fun to watch, and deserves to be appreciated on its own merit, not as any sort of philosophical proof. That does the fantastic accomplishment of Ajax a disservice. On Twitter, someone noted in my mentions that they wished Barcelona could play like Ajax. Barça does, when an opponent allows, and isn’t cowering on the rocks, arrayed in a “none shall pass” low block. We have seen that precise kind of football this season, even if appreciation of it has been muted, or greeted with “Hmph. Why can’t they play like that all the time?”
Ajax was fantastic to watch, and the result was wonderful. The joy of football allows us to appreciate the game and its results as a complete moment of bliss. The Ajax victory atop that of Barcelona made it a perfect day of football. There is joy in just letting that thing be the thing.