When a basketball scorer is in a slump, sometimes free throws can shake them out, gimmes that require a repetitive motion over a controlled distance to bring back touch and feeling. Mallorca at the Camp Nou was the equivalent of free throws for Barça. a compliant gimme that was never going to stress, or make anything that interesting.
The five goals were all exquisite, as were the two from Mallorca, in a match that almost had the feel of an all-star or legends game. Let’s give the folks a show, and not stress each other too much.
On a day when Messi presented his sixth Ballon d’Or, cantankerous spawn in hand, he also scored a hat trick. But it wasn’t just an ordinary hat trick, even as it was an ordinary hat trick in the Messi context. The first goal was a blast from an oblique angle from outside the box, almost as if he was giving himself something to do, some sort of challenge other than stroking it past a dead-to-rights keeper from inside the box.
The second goal came after a hard(ish) foul, and words exchanged with the Mallorca coach, who apparently either forgot, or has never heard that dictum, “You won’t like him when he’s angry.” Shortly after that, Messi unfurled an elegant glissando of a shot, again from distance, as if to purge his pique. This second goal brought to mind memories of Michael Jordan who, after a hard foul, stepped up to the free throw line, said “This one’s for you, baby,” to the player who hacked him. Then he closed his eyes and sank the free throw. Never give great players an edge.
Finally, the last goal was a bombazo from inside the box, struck with more fury and venom than the two from distance, a ball that he strode onto and exploded through. It clanged off the bottom of the crossbar and in, hit with too much force to do anything except find the back of the net.
Messi’s goals defy opponent, each one a work of art that renders any speculation about the quality of those facing him superfluous. He stroked one home from distance against Atleti just as he did Mallorca, in a game that for him seems almost private, a man, a ball and a goal. It’s a math equation to be solved via application of force and logical trajectories. He does it so often that he looks bewildered when shots don’t go in, like the universe is messed up or something. Mallorca was stuck down in 17th place at the start of the day’s proceedings, but goals such as the ones scored today don’t care about opponent. Boom.
The first was also a thing of beauty as well as the second assist of the season for Ter Stegen, who took the ball and saw an opening. Griezmann, understanding that the run dictates the pass, bolted, and Ter Stegen found him. One acceleration and a rainbow later, Barça had the lead and was off to the races.
Luis Suarez scored a goal that will be on every highlight reel everywhere, for some time to come, a backheel arc of a shot that had curve and dip, an astonishing bit of skill that terminated a De Jong sparkle show. And a grand time was had by all, as long as you didn’t look too closely. We’re having too much fun to. But if the goals were of the highest quality, the play and manner of play took advantage of the fact that it was Mallorca. Everything was free and easy, executed in plenty of space. One move featured ten passes around the box, eight of them one-touch. Fast, pretty and made easy by an opponent without sufficient quality to do anything except chase, and maybe foul before anything bad happened. The Mallorca keeper had 13 saves, a statistic that stuns, considering that five shots got past him.
But we shouldn’t look too closely at the lack of structure that still manifested itself, that still found Barça looking like a pickup or national team, playing off instinct and skill rather than ambition born of tactical soundness. Things seemed improvised, haphazard and at times almost lucky.
The two Mallorca goals were worrying because both were taken at their ease, the first a scythe through a pasture of a midfield as the striker strode into the box to unleash a shot that a reactive Lenglet, a step slow, could only stick a desperate leg out for. He contacted the ball enough to deflect it, helping it past Ter Stegen.
That second Mallorca goal looked like something they were doing for fun in training, as they essentially ran down the pitch, untroubled, crossed and scored. And it was Mallorca doing this, not a European giant or Liga colossus. The press was absent, and attackers were confronted by an old, slow team in which nobody had enough pace to chase, obstruct or really bother anything. Both Mallorca goals were worrying, not in the context of the non-contest, but for what they might portend.
What was interesting about the Atleti match last weekend was how Barça withstood the 30 minute onslaught from Atleti, then found tactical solutions to the quandary presented. There still weren’t real solutions, but there were effective ways to mitigate the damange the opponent could do, which was a start. But as a team, Barça is still too slow, and a midfield containing Rakitic and Busquets doesn’t help that matter at all, nor a back line of Pique and Lenglet. Junior Firpo was the only player on the pitch with enough pace to solve problems. Thank the stars for Mallorca, and a day of fun.
Even as this was a match to be enjoyed, and a BeIN studio commentator wondered where the “Valverde out” crowd was, he needn’t have. That crowd is intact, that crowd still understands the danger presented by a flawed, old, slow team rolled out by a manager who has the tools to help some of those deficiencies but is too fond of the old and familiar.
Barça needs to get its groove back, and this is the third win in a row, the first over Dortmund, an opponent everyone was worried about. The second was over Atleti, an opponent everyone was worried about. Then came Mallorca, an opponent nobody except the most pessimistic was worried about. Journalist Lee Roden reminded us on Twitter that Luis Enrique’s treble team didn’t really gel until after the holiday break. But that team felt different. It was a jet waiting to take off, and Suarez added soome high-octane fuel. This team too often feels like a game of Jenga, with one block precariously holding up the entire structure.
Can a team strolling to victories, that is leading the league and has already won its Champions League group, the most difficult in the tournament with a match left to play, be troubling? Yep. And it is. But for now, it’s worth relaxing and reliving, worrying about tomorrow when it comes, because today was all about fun, and beauty.