For years, culers have said that they wouldn’t mind if the team lost, as long as it played the right way.
For years, many, including me, questioned the firmness of that resolve, that it would be tested when the team did that and lost.
Many, including me, were wrong. Barça was eliminated by Paris St. Germain in Champions League today, but it’s been a very long time since a negative result has left me feeling better about this team, a sentiment echoed by so many others today.
After the match, Koeman said “This team has a bright future.” What he didn’t do was take credit for putting in the work to lay the foundation for that future. But he didn’t have to. So many of us said that the goal, the only thing we wanted from this match was for a team to show up that looked ready to seize things by the scruff, that looked like it was ready to compete again on the European stage. We got that, and then some.
Barça made PSG look like the team that had me confident they would advance against when the draw was made. Lord knows what happened in that first leg but …
That isn’t true. We know exactly what happened since that first leg. A group of players became a team, with their manager instilling in them a system and a resolve, a feeling that if they did everything they were supposed to, they would win. Against PSG, they did almost everything. They didn’t finish. But the countless chances created, the moments that forced Keylor Navas to come up huge, Marquinhos diving in to save his team time and again … it was weird to have the impossible a few inches away, time and time again. Dest hit the crossbar, thanks to Navas. Dembele hit a hard, low shot that gets past a lot of keepers. Not Navas. Then Navas saved a Messi penalty. Dembele struck a shot directly at him that he should have put to either side. Goalmouth scrambles, a pair of crosses, one from Dembele and one from Alba, that just missed getting tapped home.
With all that went on, maybe the football gods just didn’t want us to have this, wanted us to look at our team and, even in its vanquished state, see them for what they are and be proud. Maybe. Or maybe fate and fortune just wanted us to have a different outcome, that this was always to be a reumntada too far. But what was magnificent was that almost every player who was called upon by Koeman stepped up. De Jong was a delight at sweeper, even as the sunshine and rainbows of him being more advanced would have probably been more effective.
Dest had his best match in the colors. Firpo subbed on and pocketed Mbappe. Messi mustered everything that he had in his aging body, including a laser of a golazo that was the only thing Navas didn’t have a chance to stop today. Much will be made of Dembele’s finishing, but in the role Koeman had him in he was constant danger, making the runs, presenting himself, making correct decisions on the ball. Busquets didn’t turn back the clock, but he showed a veteran in his pomp, raging against the dying of the light. And Pedri. The eternal Pedri.
Griezmann was effectively a midfielder today, and put in a solid shift. You can go right down the line and feel like a player had a good match, even as after the proceedings, focus will be on this or that, failure and blame, which isn’t something that interests me right now because it feels weird to say that I’m happy after this match because of how the team played. It didn’t play in that mythical “right way” that so many cradle to their bosoms like a beloved child, but it played the right way in that it showed fire, cohesion and spine, playing like a team that might be going out, but wasn’t going to do so without a fight. The idea of football as a game of inches has never beem more apparent today. It’s weird to say that the impossible was so close, but it was. An inch here, an inch there.
There is a structure to things now, a rightness that feels good. It’s easy to see something building and building, and it feels good, even as the team isn’t advancing in Champions League. The good feeling even extends to a new president, and something that makes a giant mess of a situation seem somehow not quite so grim in the here and now.
What we’re left with, when all is said and done, is pride. And love. Love for a team that not all that long ago was a disaster, a mess of a group that couldn’t find its way home from the Camp Nou, never mind to the upper reaches of the Liga table. It was a group playing so poorly that people were saying that a successful season would be just making the European spots, and maybe not Champions League. And then came Koeman. What we have is a group of players, a team, that sits in second place, six points back of the top, and is headed for the Copa final. It’s a group that is playing so much better than it was, with so much more assurance that it’s a marvel.
Koeman is right. This team does have a bright future, and he’s earned the right to be around to see at least another year of it. Pride is a weird thing, a good feeling that you carry away from something that didn’t always go the right way. “It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.” Turns out that isn’t just a bunch of hooey. Who knew?