Messi and psychological might

May 1, 2013, Bayern Munich tonked Barcelona by a 0-3 scoreline at the Camp Nou.

May 1, 2018, as recounted by Ben Hayward in his quite, quite good breakdown of the first leg, the Barcelona team was on the bus, celebrating their domestic double, and they were mad. Mad that it wasn’t a treble in play.

May 1, 2019, Barcelona tonked Liverpool at the Camp Nou, 3-0, doing much of the work to ensure a Champions League final appearance.

Given the numerology present in portents, it’s probably the Football Gods that decided Barça wasn’t going to get a fourth goal. The symmetry was too delectable.

Last season, Barcelona beat Roma 4-1 at the Camp Nou in the first leg of the quarterfinal. That away goal was crucial. At the time, some of us also said that it provided a template for Roma to proceed, something that proved prophetic.

Some of us also said, in the wake of a debacle that has left a fanbase still traumatized, that the team took in the lessons from that night, applied them and learned. What the world witnessed as Barcelona faced down Liverpool, was the result of those lessons. It’s more about psychology than anything else.

After the match, Valverde even quipped a bit about Roma last year when asked about the result. He understands where his team is, understands that there has never been a group of players more physically and psychologically prepared to not fail than the one he is blessed enough to be managing right now. More importantly, the players understand that.

When Messi stood in front of a packed Camp Nou and all but promised that the team would do all that it could to hoist the cup with the big ears, the crowd cheered. Many of us wondered about the effect that would have on the season. But now, with the Liga title wrapped up and his team sitting in the catbird’s seat, Messi is looking pretty smart.

There is always talk of a “statement” match, that players and teams seize moments during which they choose to define how things are going to go. It was clear from the moment the ball was kicked that we were seeing a different Messi. In all of the talk about him being too quiet to be a captain from people craving the in-your-face mien of a player such as Puyol, there was no doubt that Messi was captain.

This was Messi’s first match on the biggest European stage as captain, and he led as a captain does, not with words but with deeds. He moved as if electrified, seemingly everywhere all at once, passing, goading, challenging, cajoling. He made one second-half run, all alone, at the entire Liverpool team. At the time it was seen as “Where the hell is everyone?” But Messi knew. His team was flagging, Liverpool was into the match with possession and danger, and Messi made a statement. “I’m here, and I will take these people on all by myself if I have to. I will not be denied.”

The psychology of a football team gets discussed a lot, as does that nebulous thing called want. Want is fascinating because in sporting discussion, pundits act as though want alone is sufficient. “He wanted it more,” we hear a lot, and it’s all kind of silly. Does the loser not want it as much as the winner? What role does talent play in the want equation?

Perhaps what they mean is that a player is prepared to give everything? Again, they all are. How are you going to be at the level if you aren’t? Liverpool wanted it as much as Barcelona did. The idea of “want” is too often confused with psychological strength, the power of the mind to give a body that little bit extra.

June 11, 1997, the Chicago Bulls were playing the Utah Jazz in the NBA Finals, and Michael Jordan was ill. It was the fifth game of a series that was tied at two apiece, and there was no way Jordan wasn’t going to play, even as he clearly wasn’t himself. He sweated copiously, tried to rest on the court. The Jazz ran out to a 16-point lead before Jordan brought them back, all the way back, finally draining a 3-pointer with about a minute left that gave his team a lead it wouldn’t relinquish.

After making that shot, he almost collapsed, leading to iconic images of him being supported, held up by teammate Scottie Pippen. Did Jordan want it that much? No. But his talent, combined with a psychological might, allowed him to propel his body, for just the exact amount of time needed, to perform something extraordinary.

Watch this video of Dutch track cyclist Jeffrey Hoogland riding the kilometer time trial in 2018. The thing to note is after the ride as much as the ride. He set a world record, then had to be helped off the bike, such was the intensity of the effort. Then he collapsed.

Whatever exceptional quality it is that makes an athlete capable of plumbing the depths of their capabilities — and it isn’t something that we see often because it isn’t routinely possible — we saw from Messi in that first leg against Liverpool. He took a hard foul from James Milner, and as he sat on the sidelines, as teammates had his back howling at the ref, he smiled. Why? Who knows. The ideal narrative would be a captain understanding, and appreciating the other lions in the pride. Or maybe he was thinking about how much he was about to get in that ass.

We can wrack our brains to try to think of another Messi performance to equal that intensity. There are some candidates, but all fall short for a few reasons having to do with history and a moment. As captain who made a promise, Messi simply wasn’t going to let his team fail. That free kick he took was amazing. More amazing (as Jurgen Klopp also noted) was the goal for 2-0. Suarez pranged a shot off the bar with his knee, that fell directly to Messi.

Luck? A fluke? Watch Messi during the Suarez run as he follows up. Notice how intently he watches the ball as he follows Van Dijk to the front of the goal. Think of the thousands of balls that Messi has watched, the knowledge he must have. That ball came off the crossbar and Messi knew exactly where to be. He must have seemed to appear by magic to Van Dijk, who wilted under the realization that he could have made the same move, but to deny the goal.

Wasn’t going to happen, not on this night.

Dembele missed the fourth goal, just as Barcelona missed a few opportunities to go up by four goals. And there is worry, that four goals is somehow insurmountable while three goals is danger. For this team, a 1-0 would have been enough to advance, because this team is rock-hard. They aren’t playing with anger, but they are playing with scars, because you can be scarred without being traumatized. Grab that hot pot handle once, and you learn. The wound heals, but the scar remains. You don’t need to look at that scar to remember, but there it is.

Roma is long gone. If the first leg against Liverpool didn’t convince observers of the depth and strength of this Barcelona team, nothing will. It’s Messi’s team in the sense that they are ready to follow him. He is its captain and talisman. Yesterday, he made it very clear how much he wants to keep his promise to the fans, made so many months and matches ago. His teammates understand, their manager has gotten them ready, giving them the platform, mental and physical, from which to launch the assault.

Next week, you can expect Barcelona to book its trip to the Champions League finals, because no team has been more psychologically ready to take that next step.

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In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.