As you settle in to watch Barça face off against Napoli in Champions League today, be sure to take time to savor this one. It’s the last, best shot for a few iconic players, and the last best shot for a team playing a particular system of football.
When Pep Guardiola was handed the keys to a car that he made into a Ferrari, it was a machine built from hunger, ability and genius. Over the years, through neglect, poor planning, misplaced affection and hubris, that Ferrari has become a Ford Fiesta. Mind, you can win a rally stage with a Fiesta, but that will take one crazy, genius driver behind the wheel.
Of that great team, only Messi, Pique and Busquets remain. And only the most optimistic don’t think they’re being fitted for gold watches. When Messi talked explicitly about his retirement in an interview earlier this year, it wasn’t absent-minded chatter. He already knows, it’s easy to suspect, when his end date is. No player will ever have a more perfect sendoff than Xavi, who retired amid the confetti of another treble celebration, his work done. It was remarkable, and something that won’t happen for the remaining trio.
But they will approach this Champions League campaign with extra energy, extra verve, knowing what so many are unwilling to fully admit, which is that they’re entering the twilight. This should be the last season for Pique and Busquets as automatic starters. And how much longer do we suspect Messi is willing to bang his head against a wall? So as the team squares off against Napoli, expect the exceptional from Messi, Pique and Busquets, and expect them to set an example for their teammates.
Barça is heading into this tie with 14 fit first team players, which pretty much lays out the lineup for Quique Setien. He will have choices to make at a couple of positions: Lenglet v Umtiti, whether to start Vidal. But with one fit fullback on either side of the pitch, Pique and Ter Stegen being obvious choices as well as Messi and Griezmann, you know what Setien is, essentially, going to do. That makes this Champions League tie even more than it usually is, about execution. Mike Tyson didn’t win boxing matches because he had a better plan. He won matches because he executed that plan. “I’m going to punch you in the face until you fall down.” Then he did it.
Setien’s team knows what it has to do, knows how it has to play. What it doesn’t know is how effectively it will be able to execute. If it plays to the standard of the Eibar match on the weekend, the tie will be over before the plane lifts off for the return leg in Barcelona. The veterans know this. This team is entering a European knockout with an astonishing legacy of failure compared to the quality of the team. For this group to not have won a European title since the 14-15 season is ridiculous. And this team is the weakest of any of them, even as it’s entering a knockout stage in which everyone is diminished. In the last two seasons, Barça was the best team in Europe. It necessitated a historic collapse, two of them, for the team to not realize its destiny. Rome and Anfield were a question of psychology, not football. Everything that could go wrong, did, and it only got worse. The biggest questions in both situations were on-pitch leadership. In Rome, Iniesta said, “If we keep playing like this, we’re going to lose.” And nobody took it upon themselves to be that person, that leader.
Leadership sometimes isn’t leading by example. It’s grabbing someone’s shirt and saying, “Let’s effing GO!” When they are having doubt, it’s getting in their face and saying, “You screwed up. Now you get another chance. Let’s do this.” It didn’t happen in Rome. At Anfield, from the first goal, the same absence of leadership manifested itself. Players looked around, worried, instead of digging spikes into the terra and saying, “Not this time.”
Quite a lot has changed in a year, including the expectations of a fanbase. We expect failure. Admit it or not, at the first sign of adversity, we will say, “Here we go again.” But this year feels different, and not just because of the twilight of great players. There are just a couple of things going on at the club, things that will, it’s easy to suspect, unite the team against a common enemy in the board that hasn’t equipped it for the task at hand. Its captain has said that he doesn’t believe the team is adequate for the task at hand, which is winning Champions League. Setien wasn’t brought in to secure another Liga, best known in the past decade as the FC Barcelona Invitational. He was brought in for a mentality change, the subtle psychological shift that can be the difference between the same old same old, and a new beginning.
A managerial change that should have been made in summer was made in January in the hopes of effecting a change in what players believe is possible in hands of a new steward.
Belief is a weird thing. The players know, as do the rest of is, that the team is going to go as far as Messi can take it. He almost, and really should have, been enough by himself against Liverpool last season, a team whose reputation has been elevated by the abject collapse of an opponent in a return leg. And if ever there was a time for a team to say, “Not today,” it is now. Inter and Chelsea led to Manchester United. Sometimes, the best thing about failure is that it leads to success. Learning from mistakes, even when and especially when the mistakes are mental, so often leads to success. And this, the weakest Barça team in some time in terms of roster strength, might be as psychologically well-equipped for success as any team since when Luis Enrique created a marauding group of thugs. And the veterans shall lead them.
Messi knows, Busquets knows, Pique knows. They, along with Ter Stegen, will be the most crucial players in the coming Champions League campaign. Other players will matter tactically, particularly De Jong and Griezmann. But the cues will come from the veterans. Predictions are complex because football is a crazy game, but it’s hard to imagine the veterans failing their team for a third year in a row.
A fascinating YouTube video for all the reasons you’d never expect, was a German cycling sprinter, Maximilian Levy, talking about completing an Ironman triathlon. Not only was it something so completely out of his specialty, which is to ride 200 meters faster than his opponent, it was two other sports. Levy talked about blowing up in the first 5k of the marathon, and taking off the watch he was using to track his splits, and just resolving to do it, saying to himself that, essentially, if he quit, how was he going to be able to live with the idea that he quit? So he kept going. Failure wasn’t an option.
For three players who are about to run out of chances, looking at their world where so much is about to change, from teammates to tactics to club presidents to managers, it’s difficult to imagine failure being an option.