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The rest of the season, aka “Dancing the sardana through a minefield”

So. The Classic win was immense, leaving Barça with a 4-point lead in the Liga standings and culers with much rejoicing. But here’s why you shouldn’t be planning that victory parade yet.

The rest of the season for Barça is a nasty collection of collisions. Let’s have a look, and compare to the RM run in later.

5 April, away to Celta
8 April, home for Almeria
11 April, away to Sevilla
15 April, away to PSG in Champions League
19 April, home for Valencia
21 April, home for PSG in Champions League
26 April, away to Espanyol
29 April, home for Getafe
3 May, away to Cordoba
10 May, home for La Real (we owe them one)
17 May, away to Atleti
24 May, hope for Depor
30 May, Copa final

If, and that’s a significant if, given the fixture congestion, Barça get past PSG, the semi-finals are 5-6 May and 12-13 May, putting them before La Real and Atleti.

Many declared the week that just finished, with City in Champions League and then the Classic as season-defining. No. The season-defining stretch is the two weeks from Celta to Valencia. In a dream world, Barça would get through those 5 matches without dropping points. If that happens, expect me to sprout wings and be able to save money on airfare by flying myself to Barcelona for elections this summer.

Celta will be right after international break, and Sevilla will be in their house, where they are unbeaten this season. Get past them and there’s a resurgent Valencia and of course, PSG waiting. RM has a comparative cake walk.

5 April, home for Granada
8 April, away to Rayo
12 April, home for Eibar
14 April, away to Atleti in Champions League
18 or 19 April, home for Malaga
22 April, home for Atleti in Champions League
25 April, away to Celta
28 April, home for Almeria
2 May, away to Sevilla
9 May, home for Valencia
16 May, away to Espanyol
23 May, home for Getafe

The days of the Liga “gimme” are gone, but I don’t think any culer would rather be looking at Granada, Rayo, Eibar and Malaga in league, than Celta, Almeria, Sevilla and Valencia. I’m sure that conspiracy theorists will be having a field day, but picking lineups that can get the job done while preserving key players for key matches is going to be a nightmare for Enrique. The news that Thomas Vermaelen trained with the squad today is of pretty much zero help, because in a system that bases its magic on its three forwards, you kinda need those dudes all the time.

Messi wants to play all the time anyhow. Suarez is actually benefiting from his ban that essentially makes him a half-season player this year. Neymar is the worry point, because his game doesn’t allow him to rest within matches as Messi’s does. He’s either going fast or he’s ineffective. An effective system that incorporates Pedro will need to be devised, and look for Xavi and Rafinha to play increasing roles as the season progresses.

The only consolation for culers will be that RM is going to drop points as well, but we shouldn’t forget that 8 matches ago, Barça was 4 points down to RM in the standings, and people were saying the Liga was lost. So, moderation in everything with the operative phrase of one match at a time. Personally, I will be feeling better about things if Barça can manage to survive the 4-match stretch from Sevilla to Espanyol. With 5 days rest before “traveling” to Espanyol, that should be a less fraught encounter.

What will happen? If I knew that I would put some money down on something or other. I have some ideas, though:

Wins against Almeria and Celta, though the latter will require some energy, leading to …
A draw against Sevilla in their house
Away draw at PSG
Home win against Valencia
Home win against PSG
Win at Espanyol, but it will be close, fraught and nasssssty
Win at Cordoba
Win against La Real (could be a draw if the Champions League semis happen.)
Loss to Atleti
Win to close out the season against Depor

You math majors will see that if RM runs the table for the 10 remaining matches, and assuming a win vs La Real rather than a draw, that would make RM Liga champions by virtue of the head-to-head goal differential at the tiebreaker. But if they run the table they would, frankly, have accomplished something extraordinary. So are you worried yet? Don’t be. One match at a time and as usual, speculation, caveats and quibbles are welcome.

Posted in Analysis, Champions League, La Liga, Thoughts40 Comments

Barça aesthetics: The judges have decided to give it a 2

enrique

After the cheering stops … no sooner have the echoes of the exultant roars of the very last goal dissipated than the ripping at the carcass begins.

Cruijff likes the result, but didn’t like the football. Various post-match recaps describe Barça as more RM-like than RM. Another says that this Classic put the knife well and fully into tika taka, and assuredly killing off that phrase wouldn’t be at all bad. On Revista the topic is the RM resurgence, how they look like a good team again with Luka Modric back.

Which side of the 2-1 scoreline was Barça on, and has it really come down to theoretical football? In the wake of everyone and their mamas talking tactics and formations, it seems that Barça didn’t really play football before 2008. In those Dark Ages the team stomped around the pitch like mastodons, working off cave drawings instead of actual formations.

In the wake of a Classic that Barça won to go 4 points ahead of RM, hunks are being flayed from the team’s hide from all quarters. It doesn’t even matter that the beast isn’t wounded, or damaged in any way. It COULD have been and WILL be.
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Posted in Analysis, Champions League, La Liga, Thoughts33 Comments

Classic tactics, and just how important IS the midfield today?

Mere hours away now, as that weird feeling starts to build. For me, the left corner of my mouth begins to twitch involuntarily, a stress reaction. So let’s think about some stuff, to take our minds off.

A great many things were different when these two teams last squared off. RM was the best team that anyone had ever seen except for maybe Guardiola’s Barça. Ronaldo was BdO rampant and Kroos was daisy-fresh.

On the Barça side of the aisle there was much uncertainty. Suarez started, even though he was nothing approximating match fit or confident, and Enrique was still figuring out the parts that he had to work with.

My, how times change. Time to look at some key battlegrounds for this one, and try to suss what might happen.
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Posted in Analysis, El Clasico, La Liga, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts60 Comments

El Clasico: the biggest, most meaningful match that doesn’t matter that much

The big one.

It’s almost time for the biggest match of the season that doesn’t matter anywhere near as much as people think it surely must, the Classic, Barça v RM, top of table vs second place.

You can ladle on all kinds of stuff, Messi/Ronaldo, Bale/Neymar, midfield vs midfield now that Modric is back, that flank battleground that tipped things in their favor as Marcelo ran rampant. TV stations are filling up hours and hours of coverage and supporters of both sides are worried sick, creating all sorts of ways that their team will lose, they all assert publicly as in their own fevered imaginations they are creating victory scenarios.

History needs this match — big, nasty and undiluted by the incessant frequency of recent seasons, when the two Liga giants seemed to be knocking heads every other week. How in the hell is anyone supposed to get ramped up to face a team in the Most Giantest Match EVAR, when just last month you faced that same team in … well … the BIGGEST MATCH EVAH!

This season, fate has conspired to return hyperbole to normal. Two Classics, home and away, unsullied by Copa or Champions League meetings, as it should be for two opponents made bedfellows by history, rancor and shared excellence.

At the beginning of the match, Barça will be sitting with a 1-point lead in the standings over RM, a lead that culers are worried about because they have already forgotten how they deemed their team a downright mess, a crisis-laden lot that would be lucky to finish third in the Liga. That’s in the past. In the present is a Liga that is in the balance, a Liga never won that was declared lost time and time again after an Anoeta assault followed by Malaga madness.

And so it will be again should Barça lose on Sunday.

But the reason that this match doesn’t really matter as much as so many people suggest is that it’s just another match in the standings. This isn’t like the Super Bowl of American football, a hype-fest in which gibbering loons slather a Roman-numeraled gladiator fest with mammoth piles of excess. The Classic is a regular-season match that history and animus makes into something more than it actually is.

Win or lose, both of the main title contenders (but don’t be shocked if Atleti makes that late-season run) will drop points this season. The Classic isn’t going to decide the Liga. The Mestalla is, the Sanchez Pichuan is, a host of other little grounds have the potential to upset the apple cart of expectations. Sevilla has not lost at home this season. Valencia is sitting and plotting, resurgent and rampant under its coach, Laurence Fishburne. There is worry at every weekend, disaster potential made all the more acute by Champions League quarterfinal matches that throw a Wednesday match in before a Saturday match.

The Classic is the big one. Let’s understand that. But it’s the big one for reasons that really have precious little to do with a mere 3 points in the standings. In the past, the situation of the Liga truly was minnows vs giants. When Barça and RM faced off in a world in which draws were the new losses, scoreboard stasis was the only hope that lesser sides had. The Classic WAS the league. Win that, and the lead, standings permitting, would be sufficient to make the victor’s supporters ready to plan victory parade routes.

These days, the Liga isn’t interested in rolling over and showing its belly. Some of this is due to giants hobbled a bit by form and aging superstars. Some of it is the talent assembly line that is Liga academies creating home-grown troublemakers. Pressure, form, injuries, rotation all combine to make the Liga more a gauntlet to be run than a procession to be enjoyed. It’s not only a lot more fun, but in many ways it robs the Classic of its league-deciding import even as the historic aspects of the match remain, and those are sufficient to made us giddy with anticipation.

Just look at the roster, man! Any team would be thrilled to have even one of the names that will be sitting on the bench for either side in this match, never mind the starting XIs. These are the best of the best, players who combine to make an everyday XI seem a fantasy football league where you got the cheat code and an unlimited budget in Football Manager. How can two groups of players of that quality meet, and that match NOT mean everything in the world.

The Classic is a victim of its own hype, and the supporters of each team fall prey to that inflation. It’s 3 points in the standings. Win the Classic and lose the Liga? It’s very possible as each combatant has three or four matches that could prove its undoing, even after this clash that will decide the fate of the world.

So should you worry about the outcome of this match? Well, hell yes, you should. It’s Them, the eternal rival, the Aging Peacock and the Cafeteria Lady, buttressed by the return of the Accountant and He Who Hits No One. RM is a very dangerous football team, made all the more so for having strengths that play to Barça weaknesses, multiple threats that can all scrabble at the lock of a defense that defends more by influence than actual defending.

But you should worry because you hate like fiery Hell to lose to that team, rather than because it will mean winning or losing the Liga, because it won’t. Win or lose, it won’t. Win, and Barça is 4 points to the good, with visits looming to Atleti, Sevilla and Valencia, not to mention the Catalan Derby. If RM win, Valencia is coming to town, not to mention that visit to Sevilla or a faceoff against traditional bogey team, Getafe.

I will bust out my luckiest kit, scream until I am hoarse and fall from things. But it will be because I hate the opponent. Not because I think winning or losing this match will be truly decisive.

What will happen?

It’s hard to say. On paper you have to favor RM, who was sitting at home watching Barça run around and press like crazy Sprites on Wednesday. Around the 40th minute is when that reality might start to creep in, and around the 70th minute is when the advantage might show for the fresher team.

When these teams first met, Barça was still this embryonic force fraught with uncertainty. Neymar scored early, then he and Messi missed bang-on excellent chances that had the potential to make that match a very, very different affair. That’s easy to forget, even as the Potential Game dooms us to speculative Hades. The 3-1 loss was closer and more interesting than the scoreline indicated.

For this match, form is an interesting thing. Some suggest that they are trending down while Barça is trending up. That remains to be seen. What isn’t in doubt is that the two most important players for each side are the secondary superstars, Bale and Neymar. If either has an exceptional match, I suspect his team will win. Jordi Alba will have to be at his Yaya-felling best, and Neymar will have to develop the swagger that he had in the early season, and edge that saw him scoring almost for fun.

Neymar will be Barça’s key player. Messi will be big match Messi. Count on that. The real question will be the effect that Neymar can have on the RM defense that still doesn’t quite know how to deal with his disruptive effect. If he has a good match and scores a goal, it’s easy to see a 3-1 Barça win. If his recent scoring form holds, things become a lot more complex.

An added problem is that the wide-open Barça attack will have to be reined in to keep from playing into RM’s hands. Want to play run-and-gun football? Whee! Let’s do this. The beauty of our team being able to play many different styles is that it will need to shift gears and keep the damn football. This won’t be easy against their midfield, which will feature a fresh Modric just back from injury, and a rested Kroos, not to mention the constant threat of Isco. Culers who discount their threat do so at their own peril.

I love this match, even as it fills my gut with bile and my heart with fear. Rationally, it’s only three stinkin’ points. But the Classic is ruled by irrationality, and that’s what makes it so beautiful, so compelling as a sporting event.

Posted in Analysis, El Clasico, La Liga, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts21 Comments

Take what you need, need what you take

In my day job at the Chicago Tribune I often work with our film critic, whom I tease with some regularity about his “job.” “You go to movies and interpret what you saw. That ain’t no job. That’s Saturday night.”

He takes it in good humor because he’s a super-nice guy, and he knows I’m kidding. But I got to thinking about interpretation and seeing what we see when a spate of “We still kinda suck” broke out like a brush fire, in Barça Twitter.

Interpretation is fascinating, because of the different experiences that people bring to a situation. You go to dinner and order a steak, with a salad and steak fries. It comes. You eat it, pay your bill, pat your tummy like a sated bear and drive home.

At the table next to you is a dining critic, who orders the exact same dish. He eats it, and in the weekend paper is a piece about the low-grade dog food that caused you to coo in contentment.

Both perspectives are perfectly valid. In a way, we return to the notion of subjectivity always being right, no matter the view. More interesting to explore is the idea of need, as in what do people need from a thing such as Barça. At its basest level, it’s validation. We follow this team and it wins, therefore we are better than you.

Adding layers of complexity to this is the Internet, with its blogs, comment spaces and social media, where suddenly people who until now were limited to haranguing friends with their views on Messi and how Barça is playing, have a forum. It’s fun, but it’s also the profoundest nonsense that too many take entirely too seriously. The professional journalists are working. Everybody else is just wanking.

But that forum also gives us a textbook example of expectation and how it affects what we see. Take as a for instance, when Barça dismantled Atleti at the Camp Nou. Atleti packed the midfield, ready to do battle there on the traditional battleground upon which football matches are won or lost. The midfield. Like the high ground of war textbooks, to win it is to win everything.

Barça bypassed the midfield. Or did it? Necessity or talented happenstance? Dependent upon what you wanted to see, it was tactical nous that outsmarted an opponent by simply bypassing the midfield, or you sighed into your martini at how Enrique has forsaken the midfield, the thing upon which Barça football is based.

It all depends on what you need from the team. Was Pep Guardiola a genius, or a good-but-lucky coach who parachuted into a team that was primed and ready to explode, a coach who couldn’t continue to get results as his team aged and opponents caught on? What do you need? In a recent poll, 16% of respondents thought that selling Messi was a good idea. So is it that 84% of people want to keep Messi, or 16% are crazy? What do you need from the Messi situation?

To be a football supporter is in many ways a prescription for perpetual unhappiness. A win is never just a win, a loss is never just a loss. Right or wrong ways are always part of the debate, again based on what someone wants to see. There is no right or wrong. When the dining critic says that the meal that you just had sucks, it doesn’t invalidate your perceived quality of said meal, or the satisfaction derived from ingesting it. It’s just another view of the same event. Back when I reviewed concerts, my favorite huffy response began, “I don’t know what show you saw, but … ”

“We won, but they got at our defense way too easily. The keeper had to make three saves. If he doesn’t do that, the match probably has a different outcome. We could easily have lost.”

An attacker is on a break and at the last instant Mascherano wins the ball with a slide tackle. One announcer will say, “Brilliant intervention by Mascherano, to win the ball and stop the attack.” Another announcer will say, “Yet another rash challenge where he dived in at the last. That could have been a penalty.” Funniest of all is that both assessments are right and wrong. They are subjective assessments of a reality. Only Mascherano knows what his intention was, and he ain’t talking about it.

There is a need to have Barça be something, represent something. When Tata Martino’s side beat Rayo 4-0 but lost possession, it was as if the scoreline didn’t matter, as something fundamentally off had occurred: Barça didn’t win possession. It is still, to my view, the absolutely apogee of football navel-gazing taken to its most absurd conclusion, and simultaneously the most flawless example of need-based analysis. But that need had a great many layers, all rooted in an extraordinary stretch of football by an excellent team that won everything.

The biggest flaw of Martino for many is that he wasn’t Pep Guardiola. He didn’t play the Guardiola way because he wasn’t Pep Guardiola. He saw the necessity for playing a different way and tried it, but he wasn’t … you know. So the Rayo match was a win that became a loss because of the need that people have to get something from a situation, so the situation is shaped to meet the need.

Xavi is correct when he says that Barça is neither as good as people say, or as bad as they say. Gary Neville, who has seen and played just a couple of football matches during his time, wrote a piece for the Telegraph that was more of an ode, a sonnet to the beauty of the way Barça played against City. Just the day before a Daily Mail columnist, Jeff Powell, wrote a column that in effect called Messi a flat-track bully beating up on a crap City, a never-will-be who hasn’t won a World Cup and isn’t even as good as Cristiano Ronaldo.

Two very different views of the same match, making it important that we think as much about what we need to see as what we actually “saw.” When Messi nutmegged James Milner, what did it mean except that Messi isn’t getting a holiday card from Milner? Interesting question.

So when people hold forth — including, and especially me — with views on what happened at a Barça match and what they think they might have seen, read it, but whistle the Bullshit Song while you do because again, reality is the scoreline. Everything else is interpretation.

Like legal action against the club, “Hey, wait, this team ain’t all that good” pops up right at the times when supporters are most happy and euphoric, linguistic cold water in giddy faces. “Stop that, fools. Things are far from being that good. Don’t believe results.” There is talk of the Treble, talk of a win on Sunday meaning the league, views that meet a need, in this case anticipation of a good event.

You go on a job interview and you think it went really well. You have your office picked out, and wonder how your first day will be. You’re negotiating salary in your mind, and mapping out the best transportation route to your new place of business. Then one week becomes two and you wonder if they somehow lost your phone number. You call, and hear that the position has been filled. And that’s that. Anticipation of a good event led to misunderstanding what actually happened. Maybe your dazzling answers to interview questions doomed you as too glib. Maybe your resolute, business-like quality was interpreted as being dour and sullen, making you a poor fit to be part of that group.

You will never know, but the need leads to an interpretation of a situation. The players are winning in spite of Enrique, or Enrique has created a situation in which the team can play a new, more dynamic way. Take what you need, just don’t misinterpret that acquisition as something other than what it is: your needs being met.

Posted in Analysis, Champions League, La Liga, Messi, Thoughts15 Comments

Barça 1, Manchester City 0 (3-1 agg.), aka “Results are results, but beauty is enduring”

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Imagine being Ivan Rakitic.

You are the best player on your team, a coveted midfielder who is chased by big clubs. You come to Barça and your aren’t even the best midfielder, never mind being the best player. You practice, you watch, and what must you think. You play a Champions League match in a knockout tie, and you make a run. As you make that run, you throw your arm up to ensure that your teammate sees you.

But that teammate is Lionel Messi. So he not only sees you, but he plops a pass to you so soft and perfect that it feels like you have forever to cushion it with your chest and calmly flick it over the onrushing opposition keeper. You have scored the opening, and eventually match-winnning goal.

Imagine being Ivan Rakitic.

We watch Messi and we marvel at him, but what must it be like to be a player who plays against him match after match, who has to wonder in his head what it must be like to play with, instead of against Messi, especially when he’s in one of those moods, where he wants to win. That Messi is a different Messi. That Messi wins a ball just outside of his own box and leads the break. That Messi runs, passes, defends, battles for possession and uses every tool in his immense bag of tricks to eviscerate the opponent.

Who wouldn’t want to play with that player? He doesn’t preen or pout. There are no on-pitch histrionics. If he gets fouled and doesn’t get the call, he gets up and resumes his business. His face doesn’t change whether he is having the match of his life, or a merely ordinary day. You wonder how that is possible, how when he is having a match such as he had today that he isn’t grinning, turning cartwheels and setting off an air horn whenever he gets the ball. “Woot! Party time!” I can’t remember a more dominant performance from a player who didn’t score. Most touches, most dribbles, most recovered balls by an attacker, most, most, most, most.

When people sit and debate who is the better player, Messi or Ronaldo, a lot of things get thrown about, but the simple reality is that Messi can dominate and completely control a match without putting a ball in the net. It happens often when he is That Messi, a newcomer to the world this season. The talk was always that Messi would, as he aged, develop into a 10 as a concession to a diminishing skill set. But nobody stopped to consider that he would do it in his prime, or that he would embrace the right side of the pitch as a launch pad rather than a jail.

People bring their own notions to the game. “Messi on the right is stupid. Enrique is a fool for not having Messi as close as possible to goal, etc, blablabla.” I, like many, like to write about football. I can even pretend that I know a wee something about tactics. But when someone whose money and ass are on the line makes a move such as putting Messi on the right, it’s probably for a reason. In this case, it has unleashed him. He isn’t running up the middle at a bank of defenders now. He has a fullback and maybe a midfielder to beat. And he has playmates in Neymar and Suarez.

Whatever people care to attribute the Messi “return,” such as it is, to, for me it’s easy as pie: he has a coach who understands, and has made him understand the potential that comes from Messi being on the right. If you are an opponent trying to figure out what to do with That Messi, it’s a problem because like his teammates, he’s abnormal in that good way.

messi

There was a passing sequence that occurred on the touch line that will never make a highlight reel as Barça played out of trouble, out of what seemed to be a Manchester City lockdown. But a flick, a backheel and a couple of one touches later, the ball was in the midfield in space, and City was scrambling yet again.

Much is made of style and manner when it comes to Barça. It is often said that the result doesn’t matter as much as the method from which the result was obtained. That is a statement that isn’t malleable. It isn’t a brickbat one time, then the silence of crickets at others. It’s a constant. This 1-0 match was a beatdown. That it could easily have been 6 or 7-0 for better finishing is, for me, immaterial. Barça played an exquisite match against a top-quality opponent in Europe, in a knockout round, and did it with style.

The result became the thing in some quarters, that the result and the match were somehow poor because there wasn’t a gaudy scoreline on the board. For me, that’s in error, as Barça was exquisite in almost completely controlling an opponent. In a Champions League knockout stage. The moment when Messi nutmegged James Milner and danced around him, leaving the opponent on hands and knees, defeated, typified this match overall. But this was having the cake and eating it, too — the result was the proper one, and the team played beautifully in achieving that result.

Manchester City started the match with 5 midfielders, and Barça still bossed the midfield. Manchester City got set pieces, things that used to be the bane of the Barça defense, but this new team is dealing with set pieces calmly and confidently, having only conceded 4 goals via set pieces (and scoring 11, which is also quite new). And this Barça wanted the ball. So when City had it, passes were contested and comfort was rare as the ball was pressed. Neymar fought for balls, Iniesta fought for balls, Jordi Alba went shoulder-to-shoulder with Toure Yaya, and the big man was felled like a giant sequoia.

City didn’t have a chance.

In the strange world of Barça Twitter, people were acting as though they did, as though that team was going to score two goals against Barça, the way it was playing tonight. On the biggest stage in European football, Barça out-everythinged Manchester City, defending Premier League champion. Outran, outfought, outpassed. Except for the penalty, a debatable call, every reasonable scoring chance that City could generate ended at the defense. And the penalty was saved by Ter Stegen. And that was that, because there was a psychological battle that ended with that deft bit of skill from Rakitic.

When Barça scored, City’s mission didn’t change. It still needed two goals. But the demeanor of the players changed. It must have felt to them like they had to score three times, like Barça could scamper about and threaten Joe Hart at will, while City had to walk a tightrope of kicking little feet with a ball that they never really felt in full possession of. It needed two goals, but City might as well have needed 10.

Method. Neymar finished for crap. But his all-pitch game brought to mind Thierry Henry when he was on the team. He ran, passed, stole, recovered, held up play and was an almost constant thorn in the side of City. If you focused on his finishing, you’d say he had a poor match. But the smart money would wager that Enrique pulled him aside and said, “Nice work. Thank you,” because Neymar put out for the colors. He was everywhere at both ends of the pitch. Again, method over results. Yes, he passed when he should have shot, and when he shot he should have done better with his shooting. But the mission that night wasn’t to score 6, but rather to not concede two.

In this, Neymar helped Barça stay on mission just as Iniesta did, in serving as a pit bull.

neymar

The Ghostface Iniesta was a spectral virtuoso who almost didn’t seem to exist on the corporeal plane as he danced with the ball. The physical aspects of his game were usually the result of an opponent saying “Enough,” and choosing Iniestabuse. Against Manchester City, time and again, he was fighting in midfield, taking balls back, shoving a foot in, at one moment putting Fernandinho on his butt and immediately rushing over to apologize. He probably sent him a fruit basket after the match with an apology card. “xoxo, Andres.”

The season until now has mostly been a focus on what this Barça is lacking compared to other, more idealized Barça teams. It is only recently that people have begun to notice what this team has, rather than what it lacks. People are beginning to evaluate this Barça in the context of a team that wants to achieve something, and they are liking what they see.

On the outside, all that we can do is speculate. Despite the vehemence of anyone’s assertion, the truly inside, in-the-know crowd is small. Everyone else is trying to read tea leaves. All that we have to go on, really, is competition and how the team comports itself, how it plays, the method that it uses to achieve a desired result. And on a night when a storied former coach was in the stands, this Barça separated itself from his Barça, even as some of the psychological characteristics, most notably the fight and hunger, were present. It was magic and magical, a team effort that for many will be lost in the fairy dust of a great player deciding to have his way with a theoretically powerful opponent.

Barça is a team on a mission. The success of that mission will depend, in the end, on so much, but mostly on the ministrations of a man who, like Rakitic, was in a very different situation last year. But this year, he’s putting the keys in the ignition and taking the wheel of a car, even as he, like us, is probably still not sure how fast this thing can go.

enrique

Posted in Analysis, Champions League, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts57 Comments

Eibar 0, Barça 2, aka “An acceptance of active stasis”

sr

Football is funny, because it likes nothing more than to confound us, to giggle at vehement prognostications and assertions that issue forth from bile-flecked keyboards.

This season has been something of an object lesson in that, no matter its eventual outcome. From notions that Messi is past it, to Pique being a worthless playboy and Enrique being a prat who needs to be fired, to his team not having a snowball’s chance in hell of beating Atleti to the latest, that Sergi Roberto is just a pile of hair and a smile.

Vidal Sassoon started today, in a spot that many speculated he might, in the hole that is usually occupied by Sergio Busquets. That he had an excellent match, including the most passes on the team (91) and a stellar completion rate on those passes (82 of them) was a surprise to many. But it’s just par for the course, when you think about it.

Yes, it was Eibar. As Sergi Roberto himself said, he always seems to play against Eibar and he wishes that Barça played them more often. But the thing about playing in the position that he occupied today is that it is opponent proof in many ways, because that position often operates independently and irrespectively of what an opponent does.

That position dictates tempo, picks out that first ball that starts an attack after taking the pass from a CB and serves as a relief valve. Though that player can be subject to direct pressure as he moves up the pitch, a tactic employed by some opponents against Busquets, as he sits there in the hole, the job is the thing and Sergi Roberto performed it quite well today. There were even some who liked his performance better than Mascherano’s in that same position, though there are certainly a different set of skills that Mascherano brings to the table, along with gobs of destructive force.

When we usually see SR, he’s in one of the more advanced midfield positions, the danger zones in which his skill set: physicality, picking out a nice forward pass come under all kinds of pressure from opponents and expectation. Anybody who fills that role should be named He Isn’t Xavi Dammit. Because when they aren’t, for who is, they are almost immediately deemed a failure. That even includes Rakitic, who continued his streak of excellent play today.

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Enrique won’t get credit for the squad management that allowed a tactical and player shift, but putting SR in the hole means that suddenly he has time and a broader view of the pitch, two of the things that can benefit a ‘tweener like him. It took an injury to a key player and a particular set of difficulties — Mascherano being one yellow away from suspension — to create the set of circumstances that resulted in his opportunity, a moment that should give culers pause and reflection.

A player is rarely as terrible as legend makes him out to be, mostly because the people whose job it is to make those kinds of decisions aren’t stupid, but also because the bar is absurdly high, almost jaw-droppingly so. Someone can sub for Xavi, a reference at his position, or Busquets, hailed by many as the best DM in the world. Or maybe Iniesta, Mr. Big Goal. So as SR stepped into the spotlight for his command performance, it was a role that was easy to enjoy as long as you had nothing invested in its outcome, i.e. “He sucks and that’s that.”

This was also true of the team’s performance today, a delicious bit of pragmatism that impressed, again if you let the expectations relax just a bit. This was never, ever going to be glittering football, nor should it have been. Teams have standards, and those standards exist despite the pragmatism of coaches and players. The blessing and the curse of Pep Guardiola is, frankly, those standards. The team played exactly the same beautiful way, and rarely relented, rarely played just good enough to win. Guardiola drove them, harried them and always, always demanded of their best. It’s the stuff that makes for legend coaches and storied team. But it’s also a psychological deep fryer that will eventually produce toast.

Enrique seems to have given the team carte blanche to be good enough, to understand that with the players that it has (large roster that is actually limited at the top, against top teams as is true of most squads) care must be taken if his charges are going to survive the pressure cooker that is this season, one on the perpetual brink.

In a rather surprising development, prompted by a Tweet from someone that really put it into perspective, I have come to accept Walking Messi as a reality of a complex situation. He wants to play all the time, and no coach wants to be the one to risk the wrath of Angry Messi. But much more than my objections to that is a reality that this year’s Barça and its pragmatism have shaped for me, broadening my view to encompass being good enough. This year’s team seems to have one standard: winning. All the rest is theory, semantics and gilded legend.

This fascinates as you watch a match such as Eibar, or Rayo last week, and see the social media hue and cry about things not being pretty and “this half sucks,” etc. But the match was exactly as it needed to be: a few moments of elevation to bring about a desired result, then enough effort to bring the result home.

The first goal, even if you allow that it wasn’t a penalty except in the technical letter of the law, came after one of those sequences of elevated play, a remarkable exchange of passes that found a heretofore staunch Eibar defense suddenly flummoxed and out of position. And Messi took the resultant penalty like a player who now understands that penalties matter. It was a rocket of a shot and an unstoppable PK from a player who until that point had missed 5 of his last 11 penalties.

We can even allow ourselves to giggle at the reality that Messi became pichichi on a penalty, a way of scoring that seems to be disdained by culers who nickname his rival for best in the game Penaldo. That Messi’s second goal came off a submarine header is just him trolling the football universe. Lost in the ruckus over that goal will be the flawless corner from Rakitic, a rainbow that wound up exactly where it had to be as Messi trailed the box ruckus to head home.

And then Barça resumed playing like a team that has not one, but two “season-defining” matches in the space of a week. Eibar hit the crossbar on a shot that really should have resulted in a goal, and Barça kept a clean sheet. Would Enrique have been vexed at the 1-2 scoreline? Probably not as much as culers who have unassailable standards that often butt heads with a shifting reality. Walking Messi is okay but Pragmatic Barça isn’t. Yet both are necessary realities for an ambitious team as once again, good enough to win is fine and dandy.

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HolycrapXavi!

When Xavi subbed in for Rakitic, who was pulled with the mid-week clash against City in mind, that was his 750th appearance for Barça. You sit, you think, you try to do math and you struggle with that kind of bonkers reality that a player has played 750 matches for the club that he loves. It’s remarkable.

Even more admirable is that even after those 750 matches, Xavi comes in, straps on the captain’s armband and does What Xavi Does. It’s even hard to explain what that is. Simply enough it’s passing and tempo control. But because Xavi had made it so much more and performs it at a level that will never be matched by any other player, it’s something that you don’t need to explain. It just happens.

It’s like That Run Messi made today. That run, like the way Xavi plays, is an inexplicable reaction to a set of circumstances, rooted in an extraordinary skill set that makes the exceptional just another day’s work.

That’s Xavi, and that’s awesome. Happy 750th, Maestro.

"I don't need that diagram. I AM that diagram."

“I don’t need that diagram. I AM that diagram.”

Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Messi, Thoughts50 Comments

Barça 6, Rayo 1, aka “Top of table on a perfect day”

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When RM lost yesterday, gifting Barça with a glorious opportunity to go top of table, it was almost charming the way many culers were still worried.

Pessimism is indeed part of the culer mindset. Barça can be 10 points ahead with two matches left, and culers would say, “Well, the Liga is considering that win is worth 6 points. We could still lose this!

But it’s Rayo, at the Camp Nou. After the story about the worldview of Rayo’s coach, the wonderful Paco Jemez, this past week, the only real question was the final score. Because under Jemez Rayo plays their style, an open, attacking game of football that is always playing to win. Jemez is no more interested in a draw than any good coach would be, and really doesn’t find much difference between a 1-0 loss and a 7-0 loss.

This was always, always going to be a win and so it was, at a canter rather than a gallop. Messi didn’t even play, really, and got a hat trick, even getting a do-over on a penalty that again raises a question about whether he should be the man taking them. Put another way, it’s the 85th minute of a Champions League knockout tie in the deciding leg and Barça get a penalty. How confident are culers, really and truly, with Messi stepping to the spot.

But even before the Messi penalty do-over the match was already 2-0 and done because Rayo, particularly given their scoring record against Barça and the simple quality gap between the two teams coupled with that team’s style of play … this match was a gimme that was graciously accepted.

Much more interesting to me, opponent and death wishes notwithstanding, is what a simple golazo does to a player. Since Luis Suarez notched that bicycle kick he has been unstoppable. The first goal that he scored today was stupefying because of the execution, but also the speed of thought combined with the execution. He pounced on a ball from Xavi and did an outside of the foot finish into the top corner.

It’s a goal that before the bicycle, Suarez doesn’t have the confidence to even attempt, let alone make. But it was a pure striker’s goal, just like his tally against Manchester City in Champions League.

My beyond-the-pitch views on whether Suarez should have been signed have not changed. But these views don’t make me blind to the reality that it has not been since Samuel Eto’o that Barça has had a striker of this quality. And it hasn’t been since that same Eto’o stomped the terra with Messi and Henry that we have had a front three with as much firepower and creativity.

Even more interesting is that Pedro is Pedro when it comes to scoring, a once-confident player who is now a coach’s dream for all that other stuff that he does, and Messi was still singing lullabies to Thiago in his head. This made the attack essentially Suarez, and he still notched that goal. He ran, pressed, passed, assisted, tried to assist when he shouldn’t have, then scored another goal that was quite a bit more difficult than it was made to look. He was my MOTM by a country mile today, Messi’s mostly sleepwalking hat trick notwithstanding, and can be summed up in a simple phrase: Suarez changes everything.

Cannibals on the loose!

Eto’o was wonderful. What made him wonderful was that he was a little bonkers, so you really didn’t know what to expect from him. His genius was either that or madness as he moved wayyy over there to set up a feint that would find him over here, in perfect position to lace home a shot or capitalize on a rebound opportunity. But he moved constantly, which made it almost impossible to play him.

What that movement also did was unsettle a defense, which made the lives of other attackers easier because defenders were always worried about that crazy dude running around behind them. Suarez brings back that kind of crazy. He even scores goals like Eto’o. On his second, he worked play, held himself onside then burst free at the exact right moment to be able to slot home. He created a goal by working a play with Jordi Alba, taking a pass in the box, controlling and holding the ball long enough to find shooting space then smoked a hard, low shot at the keeper. He didn’t score but did create a rebound chance that Messi tapped home.

Confidence is a weird thing. Before the bicycle, Suarez was associative almost to a fault, looking for the pass in the same ultimately frustrating way that Neymar did when he first arrived. It’s almost as if a player wants to prove that they fit into a Barça team whose reputation has been built on unselfish play and beautiful passing. And that need to blend leads to a seeming sublimation of self. We also saw it in Alexis Sanchez, who was most himself when Messi was out and he and Neymar could roam free.

After the goal, Suarez seemed to say to himself “Hey, wait … that’s right. I can do this stuff.” Since then he has been scoring for fun. But more than scoring, he has been influencing the match in ways that give him an indirectly direct effect on the scoreline, even more than before the bicycle. His role in that first goal against Villarreal is a perfect example as he burst into space and made the exact right pass to Messi. Think about how many other players — Pedro is one — who would have gone for the safe pass to a closer teammate, or held the ball up and then passed it back to midfield. Instead, Suarez went for the high-risk ball to Messi because he could see the potential in that pass.

What makes excellent players so isn’t talent, though that is certainly part of it. When Tiger Woods was himself, he hit shots that didn’t occur to anyone else. It wasn’t that other players didn’t have the talent to make those shots. They didn’t have the audacity to even consider them. That’s the difference.

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One year the Chicago Blackhawks played the Edmonton Oilers in the playoffs, during the Gretzky days. Gretzky was rolling up the wing on the break, and a Hawks defenseman had him cold. But Gretzky already knew. He stopped, pivoted and flicked the hockey equivalent of a backheel to a streaking teammate, who slotted the goal home. The pass took an unusual amount of skill, but it mostly required the belief that such a thing existed in your skill set.

Phil Schoen described the situation very well when he noted during a recent match that people were expecting Liverpool Suarez to show up, but Uruguay Suarez showed up instead. At Liverpool he was everything, and had to play that way. For his national team he has players that require a different, more associative all-pitch approach that in the context of a Barça in which everyone does everything, makes him potentially devastating.

Now what?

Barça is top of table. As Mascherano said after the match today, all 3 top teams are going to drop more points, and the Liga won’t be decided until late. He’s correct. Being top of table with 12 matches to go is immaterial. Counting chickens before they are hatched is foolhardy, so the bleating of culers after the Malaga defeat about a Liga being lost when it wasn’t even won, should make you giggle more than anything else. The entorno is happy right now, but don’t forget that at the beginning of the season and well into it, RM was the best team that anyone had ever seen, every bit as good as the great Guardiola sides.

Now, having dropped 5 points in the last 2 matches, RM is anything but. But now the tables are turned and people are overblowing Barça, daring to talk about a league title. Mascherano is right in that it isn’t over until it’s over. One thing that is reassuring is that for yet another match, Barça displayed the kind of level-headed pragmatism that points to a well-coached team.

Xavi and Iniesta were excellent today, which would come as no surprise in a match tailor-made for their skill sets and physical gifts. Xavi picked that assist to Suarez as only he can, and Iniesta was, as Ray Hudson described him in match commentary, “like smoke through a key hole.” Rayo is always the cure for what ails. No physicality, no pressing midfield, no attacking mids directly in an effort to starve the beast of food. Everything today was exactly as it was supposed to be.

iniesta

During the Rayo match particularly in the first half, there were mutterings about goals left on the table, Barça not playing well, etc, etc. From the seat in my man cave, no reason for any stress was in view. It was 1-0, Rayo was about as likely to score as I was and Barça was in second gear. Again, it’s worth asking about the gallon jug of effort that teams and players have, a jug that has to be metered out over the duration of a season in which a team is active in three competitions. Barça could have gone all out, ripped and ran and scored 4 or 5 goals by the half, but why? Rayo wasn’t going anywhere.

Given another, less-willing opponent with less pride, who might turtle up and go for the point that they arrived with creates a different picture. But Rayo was a practice scrimmage in the Catalan sun. Why not relax and save the effort for when it was really needed? I was at the Gamper match in which Eto’o suffered a severe injury while trying to ice the cake of a 5-0 Milan thrashing. My first thought … well, my second was “Well, that was stupid.”

There is a time to go all out and a time to relax and take what an opponent gives you. In many ways, that has been the operating mode for Barça this season, and not only on this lovely Sunday. The team is top of the table, a feat worked by taking what opponents have given. What’s next is a dozen matches, all finals really, when you consider that RM has the talent to go on a 12-match winning streak, just as Barça does.

It is pressure and how a team and its players manage it that makes a champion.

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Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Messi, Thoughts35 Comments

Villarreal 1, Barça 3, aka “Whaddaya know … a final!”

ney

Well, ain’t that just a kick in the teeth?

There are so many eminently logical reasons for the predictions that this season’s Barça team wouldn’t do well. But just as with upsets in sport, the theory all falls by the wayside when the kicking begins. And this match is interesting for the simple fact that it isn’t all that interesting. And that’s good.

It is almost impossible to overstate how lucky Barça is to have three attacking players of the quality of Messi, Neymar and Suarez playing for it at the same time. When people illustrate the complexities that face lesser teams, not only in the Liga but in football in general, a vicious world of the haves and have nots, they need only find an image of Messi, Neymar and Suarez celebrating.

Is it unfair? Good question. There is some extraordinary, star-kissed luck in that the best player in the game, and one of the best in history, was raised by and at Barça. Transferring Messi would be, and is, impossible. So you make him. But if you think about the teams that can afford almost 60m for Neymar and then 82m for Suarez, it’s a small list. And we’re on it. This is worth considering the next time culers snuffle indignantly at Flo Flo flinging money at yet another expensive bauble.

But in that fiscal madness exists some great fortune. The other day I was listening to “Mode to John” by the McCoy Tyner Band, from an album titled “Tender Moments” that is anything but tender. Jazz players used to call them “cutting contests,” when great players would knock heads, trading riffs, throwing down notes and solos to not only knock down the other musicians, but elevate them. This song features a spectacular band throwing down, each member elevated by the presence of the other. You don’t have to play as well when your trumpet player isn’t Lee Morgan.

In the wonderful James Brown documentary “Mr. Dynamite,” the back story of the incendiary Tami Show “Night Train” performance came out. The bassist and drummer said to each other, “Let’s see if they can keep up with us.” And when the song started, they hit it. Hard and fast. And you know what? James Brown could keep up, even if not all of the band could.

At Barça something similar exists, which has been alluded to in the past, the idea of “can you handle this?” Iniesta sees a hole and smokes the pass so that it can get through that hole. Can you deal with the ball that is coming at you? In many ways it’s an on-pitch cutting contest as great players make demand after demand of each other. “Can you handle it?” Our luck is in having such a group of players on the same team, at the same time.

The situation is such that Ivan Rakitic, who was by miles one of the best mids in La Liga last season, can be questioned for his quality, for not being up to the Barça stuff. It boggles the mind to consider that culers are lucky enough to have hitched emotional wagons to that group. And we’re lucky because Messi, Suarez and Neymar all have that rare thing, that baseline that is so high that even an ordinary match still makes them a formidable player. Moments of genius become things of wonder.

That first goal, that came less than 10 minutes into the match and decided the tie, was three long passes: one from the back to Suarez, who ran onto it then lofted one to Messi, who made a bit of space then dropped a rainbow at the feet of Neymar, who almost on the dead run executed a deft rainbow of a shot that nestled into the back of the net.

If you’re an opponent, what you want to say is something like, “Asshole!”

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It isn’t because of the goal. Lots of players on lots of teams score goals. It was the mazy, crazy, high-wire precision of the goal and how casual it looked as great players each asked the other, “What can you do?” The finish almost looked like Neymar just walked the ball in, but consider what it takes for Messi to, over a distance and with defenders surrounding a player, deduce how fast Neymar is running, whether a defender will be fast enough to get there and therefore, how far in front of Neymar the ball needs to be to be run onto. This doesn’t even take into account putting the right spin on the ball so that it sits there for Neymar to deal with.

The pass from Suarez. He had to control a long ball spanked at him in a way that didn’t make it possible for the defender to deal with it, see Messi in enough time and hit the ball hard enough to have it fall at Messi’s feet in a way that made it controllable.

It’s all fundamentally absurd when you really, really think about it. It’s also why I giggle at people who snark about “individual brilliance” as though it was something to be discounted as part of the team’s success, a flaw that is relied upon instead of marching sprites. Are you kidding me? We should be giddy with rapture that we live in a world where such magic is possible, and that we support a team whose players are capable of it. It isn’t a failing, but a celebration. We should put on a funny little hat, run around the room and dance a jig when stuff like that happens, because it’s rare. It might not seem so because we have players who can produce magic with such regularity, but goals such as that are special, special, moments in this beautiful game of ours.

In that moment, the time that it took 3 passes to fly through the air, the tie was over. Because Villarreal went from having to win 2-0, to needing to score 4 goals against this Barça. And it was at that point that our players became human.

Let’s say you have a job to do, something like loading 100 boxes into a truck in 9 hours. You hit a roll, you’re feeling great and those boxes are flying into the truck. You look up, two hours in and 91 boxes are already done. With 7 hours to go, what is going to happen? “Let’s go get drunk, boys! We have time!” Complacency is natural and human. I will guarantee you that every one of the 11 players on the pitch for Barça said, “Well, we can’t go get drunk, but we have 80 minutes to kill somehow.”

The task, at that point, became how to deliver a professional win. On Barça Twitter, the talking started about “playing like crap,” and “wake up,” and “sloppy, Villarreal is going to score.” They did, and so what? Jonathan Dos Santos will never score another goal like that in his playing career. If that is the kind of goal that it takes for Villarreal to score, it IS time to go get drunk.

People carped that they had chances, forgetting how easily our attackers found their way behind their back line. Chances went both ways. The unremarkable nature of that match was what was so lovely about it.

Before the match, there was talk that Barça needs to learn to put its foot on an opponent’s throat. That early goal did it.

When I started bicycle racing, I was like a colt unbound. I would win by 4, 6, 8 bike lengths. I got a coach, who came to watch me race for the first time. I raced, and won, and my coach said, “Stupid! Don’t waste energy. You only need to win by enough to be clear.” I always think about that when supporters castigate a team for being ahead by 2 goals, and wanting 6 goals. The tie is decided. Time to save energy for an away match in mere days, and other matches to come. Relaxation is allowed when the task is finished.

When Messi strolls about, people scream at those who wonder why, “He is resting within the match. He knows what he is doing.” So did the team yesterday. They, and Villarreal knew that Neymar’s goal ended that as a contest. Villarreal made a great show of it, but the fact that they started getting rough and petulant early made their views on the proceedings clear.

Some culers only relaxed in the aftermath of Pina’s deserved red card. I relaxed right after that Neymar goal and switched to “Don’t get anyone injured mode.” I figured Villarreal would win 2-1 going in, so the Dos Santos goal didn’t bother me. The Busquets injury did.

Irrespective of how you feel about the player, and there are some preternaturally stupid keyboard jockeys out there, polluting comments spaces with notions that Busquets somehow deserved that for being a cheat, that was a horror moment. It came, from as near as I can tell from watching and rewatching it, just one of those moments in a match in which something can go horribly wrong as two players go for the same ball. The good news is that Busquets will be out 4 weeks at the most, even as the bad news is that Barça is potentially without an essential player for the home Classic.

That bridge will be crossed when it comes, but for now, let’s just be pleased that Busquets didn’t suffer a more severe injury, and return to a match that wasn’t really much of one and the questions that it leaves us with.

Were naysayers silly?

I was one of them, and good question. I don’t think that people were counting on Messi on the right being so successful or the player cooperating with it so unreservedly. Nor was anyone figuring that Neymar would make the leap that he has this season, or that Suarez would come online so quickly. A team that gets a new coach, new philosophy and 8 new faces in the dressing room will usually need a season to acclimate, even more when a key part of the attack missed almost the entire first half of the season.

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It’s difficult to find even the most fervent culer who believed that the team would come together with the effectiveness to be competitive for a Treble. Few even believed that this team could beat Atleti. So what can I say? We were wrong. Silver isn’t in the cupboard yet, but this team has gone farther than I ever presumed it would.

Suarez is scoring. Now what?

This is the weird one. It usually takes a forward at Barça a year to bed in. Phil Schoen very astutely noted that everyone was expecting the Liverpool Suarez (the man) rather than the Uruguay Suarez (an active, integrative force that also scores goals). That difference is significant. If his scoring continues, it is a significant complexity for opponents. Before it was Neymar and Messi, and Suarez couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn. Even more significantly, most of his goals have been first-touch goals, which are usually unstoppable. Yikes.

For opponents, a confident striker moves differently than one who is having difficulties finishing. He seeks the spaces that vex defenses and becomes more of a threat. The sound that you just barely heard after Suarez scored yesterday, a pure striker’s goal, was dozens of clipboards being destroyed as coaches wondered, “NOW what?”

Injury situation?

A great many things go into keeping a top-flight football team injury free. Luck is part of it, as evinced by the Busquets situation yesterday. If he is slower, faster and same for the Villarreal player, nothing happens.

Fatigue plays a big part of it, which makes it high time to wonder if the rotation that was so vexing at the beginning of the season is paying dividends right now. Even Adriano is fit and ready for battle. There have been the usual minor prangs, but nothing significant. Which brings me to the last thing worth wondering about …

What of Enrique?

Anybody who isn’t already inclined to give him credit isn’t going to start now. But from my view, crises real or imaginary aside, it’s high time that his work with this team is acknowledged. No, the team isn’t scoring goals or winning matches in the “pure Barça way” that many crave. But I can’t be the only one surprised that the team is still in contention for the Treble.

Now, even mentioning that word is kinda absurd. It was a lightning bolt out of the blue when it happened in 08-09. Expecting it, or even discussing it with a straight face is kinda crazy. That kind of stuff doesn’t happen, even to a supporter still nursing a hangover from the last time that it happened. There are a great many twists and turns left in this season. Barça has a task that is as simple to say as it is impossible to consider: win out and win the Liga.

Barça has the most difficult remaining schedule in the Liga, including the Classic and Atleti away. The Sevilla and Espanyol matches are also away. And a pitfall can come in a surprising spot (Malaga at home … NOT La Real away).

The eventual fate of this team will be fun to watch. But its coach has it playing a style of football that is in many ways better equipped for success in context of the way the game is being played at present (packed, pressing midfields and high back lines). If that is blasphemy, so be it. To my view, that’s the case.

Holy crap, Busquets!

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This team will probably have to meet two big rivals in RM and City without a player who is, for many, almost as essential as Messi. What are the options?

— Mascherano: A very different kind of approach that would require a more 10-like role from Messi. The team overall would be less rhythmic, more risky and dynamic.

— Rakitic: An interesting option. He has the skills, and would probably result in a Xavi/Iniesta/Rakitic midfield that would necessitate Mascherano as that back line fireman.

— Rafinha: Don’t discount this possibility. His range, strength on the ball and ability to distribute makes this worth considering.

What isn’t worth considering is Sergi Samper, even as there have been mutterings of that sort in Barça Twitter. But the B team needs him, and Enrique will be loath to essay that kind of experimentation in the meat of the season. He’s a man who is, in effect, playing for his job with elections coming in the summer. The best way, after all, to make yourself fireproof is with a silver shield.

Posted in Analysis, Copa del Rey, Injuries, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts15 Comments

Granada 1, Barça 3, aka “Change is good”

raksua

“Why aren’t people happy with your team?”

It’s an interesting query that I had to deal with the other day on Champions League day, which is pretty the only time that a Prem-centric universe pays attention to those little guys from Spain. It was a struggle to come to grips with the answer, but finally came the distillation: the team is winning, but it isn’t winning in the right way.

What makes the above summary even more interesting is comparing the away match at Granada this year to last. Barça lost away to Granada last season, as it pranged the ball around in a half-assed tribute to a Way that used to be, patient midfield play in the form of a stylistic white flag from its then-coach, Gerardo Martino.

This year, Barça won off of the strength of three goals rooted in a dynamic brand of football. Yes, the passes came from a midfielder, but rather than the possession-based probing, the waiting for an opening and keeping the ball until one came, the pass reacted to the run of a dynamic forward, and struck.

WhoScored.com had Messi as MOTM, a selection that was as hilarious as it was myopic. Rakitic was MOTM in a walk for this watcher as he played a superb, dominant, all-pitch match. He was involved in all three goals as well as defense and possession, he was brilliant along with Suarez, even as the team wasn’t. Even more interesting is his midfielder display at a time when again, some observers of the team are suggesting that Enrique isn’t doing things in the right way.

Sergio Busquets had something very insightful to say on the matter, in a recent Guardian interview with Sid Lowe:

“ … at first under Guardiola, teams didn’t give us so much respect; they played openly. Now 95% of them wait, shut down, and counter-attack. It’s more difficult to play one-touch [so the new style] is partly a reaction to other teams. It’s a mix now. Team-mates are not as close to me, which has advantages and disadvantages. There’s more space and a lot more counter-attacks. We have players that can change the game. Messi, Neymar, Suárez … ”

Do you perform the same task in the same way irrespective of the personnel in place? Farmers don’t hitch carts to thoroughbreds. They have plowhorses for that. Change, and adaptability to change in a footballing world that reveres the past is something worth considering. The game respects the views of past greats on a game that they only see in the stands or on television. And people listen, rather than saying “But things are different now.” This is in part because there’s really no way to catch them out, but also because people want the past.

Just as old people want to be young again, culers cherish the days of the Capering Sprites and the lovely midfield triangles, elegant dissections of mostly willing opponents. It was only when those opponents decided to rise up against the oppression that complexities arose, and coaches took a shot at attempting to solve them. Tito Vilanova opened up the attack to make the game more vertical, a revolution that was interrupted by his illness.

Tata Martino came in and cranked the volume on verticalidad, a move that got him little more than scorn that reached its hilarious, absurd culmination in a 4-0 pasting of Rayo that was “bad” because the team lost the possession stats. And Martino, chastened, backed off the revolution that saw Barça roar into the break a record-setting side, and went back to plunking the ball around midfield against opponents who probably couldn’t believe their luck.

Luis Enrique came in, and didn’t give a damn what anyone said. He had a notion, wanted to not only build a Barça that was adaptable, but also build a Barça suited to the strengths of its attackers. He ignored the dogmatic ruckus raised by those who cherish the midfield elegance of bygone days because like Busquets, Enrique understands that the game has changed, that opponents are no longer willing to stand around and marvel at Xavi and Iniesta as they make curlicues. And even if they were, Xavi and Iniesta can’t make those curlicues any longer. They can no longer meet their own sepia-toned standard as time does what it does. But even beyond that, opponents force an adaptation that a team would be foolish not to undertake. It isn’t wrong to bang a ball to Neymar and let him do his thing. It’s just a different way of responding to a stimulus.

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There were a few Xavi comparisons made to the Rakitic performance today on social media, comparisons that I desperately wish hadn’t been made, because Xavi isn’t the point. Xavi is a brilliant player and a true Barça legend. But he isn’t and shouldn’t be a reference because he is, like he and Capering Sprites, a wonderful one-off that culers should blow the dust off of and unveil to remind people of a more beautiful, stylistic time.

Change is always necessary in response to a stimulus, and resistance to it is illogical. Many scoffed at Enrique for adapting to opponents, suggesting that “Barça has its style, and people should adapt to us.” Opponent after opponent did, and that was the problem. Adding to that is that at this point in time, Barça has the best, most dynamic attack in world football. To misuse that attack in service of a Way would be absurd and frankly, silly.

Look at today’s first goal. Alba banged a lovely, long pass for Suarez to run onto. Suarez just banged the ball into the box, something that I wish our attackers would do more often, a speculative spear of a lash at the ball that essentially said, “Something cool could happen here.” In the ensuing consternation, a defender made the wrong play on the ball and Rakitic slammed it home. A long pass and a cross.

The second goal was even “worse,” as Raktic again worked a give-and-go with Suarez that culminated in a lobbed ball over the top for Suarez to run onto. Then he finished, as the Footy Gods wept.

Speed, pace, versatility and dynamism are never, ever bad things, even at the expense of misguided notions of identity. What did people think of the long runs and dynamic passes over distance of Ronaldinho, or the long passes out into space for Thierry Henry and Samuel Eto’o to run onto? What did they make of Guardiola’s defenders, banging long, attack-starting passes out of the back? It’s worth wondering again. The short, triangle-based passing game was every bit as much a reaction to a stimulus as the way that Barça plays now is. An old person’s life isn’t “wrong” because they aren’t 25 again.

Granada, at home, came out ready to fight. Ray Hudson described it as an alley fight, which was very apt. They pushed, poked, charged, fouled and tried to make life as difficult as possible for a team that was coming off a high-energy midweek display against a top-quality European opponent. It was a team that Granada suspected wouldn’t be at its best, and it wasn’t.

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As intricate and lovely as the system of the recent past was, complexities arose when the team wasn’t functioning at its best, as the interrelated parts didn’t mesh. At Granada today, really only Rakitic and Suarez were standouts. Xavi was invisible and most ineffective because this wasn’t his kind of match. That was the opponent’s fault, rather than anything having to do with anything that Enrique did. Messi was off. Neymar was dynamic, but not as effective as he has been in the past. And still, Barça won.

That Barça won today in that very different way was no more “wrong” than when the team Barça defeated Atleti by, in essence, playing without a midfield. These situations are just part of the game, which is different from day to day, match to match, minute to minute. Adapt or die. It has been noted before that Barça is less secure and more dangerous this season. There is something about having the ball all the time that reassures. Even if they won’t let us score, at least they won’t score.

But it’s really a question of method vs results. The bottom line for many is that a successful team is objectively doing things the right way. It is only in the subjective realm that things such as not playing the right way enters the picture. The challenge is in defining that right way, applying a model or template to the way that a set of athletes goes about its business. That’s a challenge, because a team and its coaches are always going to adapt. The triangles came about because of a personnel change. Messi as false 9 came about because of personnel change. If a team could keep on winning by playing the exact same way all time, why wouldn’t it?

At what point is the system flawed because of what it is, rather than the people tasked with executing it. And what is the sin in changing that system to adapt and potentially triumph over a new set of demands.

That, of course, depends on who you ask. Granada for example, isn’t all all pleased with the Barça adaptation.

pedro

Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Messi, Thoughts26 Comments

The best league ever, and the failings of a GOAT

None of it matters.

Messi was absent from the UEFA Team of the Week, but Ronaldo was in there. So what.

Some don’t think that Messi is better than Ronaldo. So what.

The Premiership is called by many “best league in the world.” So what.

At the end of a remarkable week of football, in which Premiership teams dropped like flies in a firestorm, comes the blizzard of analysis pieces. “If it’s the best league in the world, what happened?”

The answers are simple and obvious, really. The running and industry that makes for excellent television as people sit down, ooh and aah as they watch a giant, high-def screen and tackles go flying in. The reason that Prem sides used to be better in Europe is that they had managers who understood that you have to play different ways when you go to Europe, rather than suffuse your side with the institutional arrogance attendant to being “best in the world.” Chelsea will go farther in Europe because its manager understands that a team has to play different ways in the league, as well as in Europe. It also has to play differently in the first leg at home, vs the second leg away, or vice versa.

Only a fool would give Barça the space that City allowed in that first half, and Pellegrini isn’t a fool. Is he a manager who believes in his side, to the extent of fully believing that they are equals to one of the best football clubs in the world? Yup. But that’s naïve, rather than foolish. Arsenal didn’t think that Monaco had a chance against them, and played like it. But just because Monaco is in Ligue 1 doesn’t mean they are terrible. It just means that they are in a league with a different set of requirements and standards of excellence.

Arsenal might still turn that tie, just as City might. The broader question, as people snuffle and snort about the Prem’s status, hot on the heels of a giant TV contract, is what does it matter? The Premiership exists in a vacuum. It isn’t the “best league in the world” because of any status bestowed by anyone. It’s the “best league in the world” because people became convinced that such a thing is true. You say it enough times and it becomes so. But if people already know that the Prem isn’t the best league in the world, why the surprise when its clubs get bounced from Europe? Do Prem neutrals find the “best league in the world” stuff just as seductive as Prem devotees?

If this wasn’t the case, the hand-wringing would be largely absent, replaced by a much simpler, “Duh.” Yes, we all like to pick on the rich kid, but the Prem got that status by understanding how to put on a show, marketing that league and not being run by jackasses. The language is also English. Yes, we know that given the dominance of foreigners in the Prem, language is a distinction lost to logic, but people don’t think that closely about the game. “It’s English. I speak English.” And the influential U.S. market becomes a monolingual slam dunk.

The Prem doesn’t have to be the best, people just have to think that it is, and the myopia will build. In many ways it’s like Formula One, a sport whose press is predominantly English, and whose roots are felt by many to be, even as the sport is one of the most truly international at every level.

A story came out Friday about the organizers of the British Grand Prix, which is customarily held at Silverstone, wondering what kind of championship F1 would be without Silverstone. There again, it’s a peculiar kind of myopia that comes from a status bestowed by tenure. F1 did just fine without Spa (Belgium). Why would it somehow be devalued because of the absence of Silverstone? It wouldn’t, any more than the Prem will be devalued because its teams are absent from the European stage.

The Prem is, in the U.S., on a major network in NBC. That means that any, all and everyone can see it. You don’t need cable, or a special sports tier as you do with La Liga. You can just turn on the TV, and there it is, available to people who might not even care about football. “Hey, looka those little guys go!” The matches are broadcast in crystalline HD, and miked in a way that makes “You’ll Never Walk Alone” positively spine-tingling. Meanwhile in La Liga you get vague echoes of what might be the sound of fans in a stadium.

A colleague who doesn’t give two craps about football suddenly stated talking to me about the Prem last season, when matches started being broadcast on NBC. You want marketing? That is marketing. People can snuffle all they like about the technical prowess of Spain, or the packed stadiums and screaming supporters of the Bayernsliga. Nobody cares because they can’t SEE it. It’s the same reason nobody cares about Europe and its effect on the Premiership. Liverpool won’t stop being a storied club because it got bounced out of the Europa League. Arsenal won’t stop being Arsenal because it lost to a Monaco side who will next have to have tryouts among its supporters to find a pair of CBs to rub together.

It doesn’t matter, because reality is what people believe.

The penalty of Messi

In the week’s Champions League football, Ronaldo scored a goal and Messi missed a penalty. Is making the Team of the Week as simple as that? Yep. Supporters crow about the goals that Messi scores. When someone hears that Messi dominated a match, the first question is “How many goals did he score?” “None.” “Then how did he dominate?” Goals are the currency that define greatness. It is in many ways hypocritical to crow about Messi becoming the all-time leading scorer, breaking this or that scoring record then snarl because the Ballon d’Or has been reduced to a goal scoring competition. He isn’t just goals, but the timing of the goals, the creation of the goals, all the stuff that he does in between the goals. Goals captivate, goals are the thing. So it makes sense that the most enduring image from the City match was Messi laying on his face, trying to burrow into the Etihad pitch. Why? He missed a penalty.

The two questions lingering are did that missed PK devalue the rest of his match to a degree sufficient to have him NOT make Team of the Week, and should we care? No, and no.

On an Internet where people can’t even suss whether a dress is black and blue or white and gold, how in hell are they going to parse whether a player is in fact GOAT. Many of them can barely find a picture of a goat. But the Internet has made affirmation more important than ever. It isn’t that we believe, it’s that we want others to believe. We argue, post statistics, scoff and snark. But at the end of it all, we are trying to convince someone that what we believe is “correct.” The Premiership has convinced people that it is the best league in the world, to the tune of a 5bn+ television package. That’s some convincing.

But as long as his supporters believe that Messi is the best, none of the rest of it matters. He missed a penalty that would have put the tie out of reach for City. Does that change anything? Depends on who you ask. If you believe that it does, it does. If you believe that it doesn’t then it doesn’t. The rest is a waste of bandwidth.

What’s interesting is the stat that of the 10 penalties Messi has taken after the 85th minute, he has missed half of them. Is a 50% conversion rate for penalties in the part of a match that makes converted ones potentially the most devastating an acceptable conversion rate for a player of Messi’s caliber? Here’s another question: what if Enrique suggested that Suarez start taking penalties?

When I raised that question on Twitter, the variety of responses was interesting. Some said “He’s the best, why would anyone else take them?” “It would be an insult.” But would it be? If Messi, as rumor has it, doesn’t like taking them, what’s the harm? Would it goad Messi into improving that aspect of his game? Would it pad Suarez’s goal totals now that Barca is getting penalties thanks to its altered playing style?

But there is danger afoot, Dr. Watson! A crisis even, if certain media critters are to tickle our credibility bones. “Penalties are as much mine as my PlayStation, dammit. Rip them from my sleeve-covered digits at your own peril, Asturian Man.”

The other complexity of course is how in the brimstone-scented hell can the Best Player Alive ™, the dude who bangs in massive goals at key times for his club like he’s booting a stray ball off the practice pitch, not also be an infallible demon from the spot? His lessers, the likes of Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic, who blasts rockets into various spots of the goal like he’s playing foot darts, step to the spot and you just look away, anticipating the partisan roar as a keeper dives for nothing. What the hell, Messi?

Is it as simple as a previously mentioned lack of perfection? That if he did all that AND banged the hell out of penalties, it just wouldn’t be fair. And what if he just needs something to work on? Michael Jordan wasn’t always automatic from the free throw line. Work, work and more work bred the player who, late in a basketball game, strolled to the free throw line, looked at an opponent who had been trash talking and said “This one’s for you, baby.” Jordan then closed his eyes and … swish. All net.

Are penalties a question of work, of honing that instinct just like a free throw? No, the free throw doesn’t have a multi-limbed colossus striving to outguess you, to leap to his feet in the aftermath and scream, “Yo gimme just got got, G! Hooooraw!” How is it that a player who successfully manages the audacious with a frequency that renders his merely exceptional goals mundane, pop a shot anywhere a keeper can get to it. Top corner? Sure. Corkscrew ball that curls off through the parking lot, comes in the back entrance and plops into the net? Okay. Off the post and in? Snore, but why not?

And yet, he misses. He’s missed them in friendlies, missed them with a Liga match on the line, missed them against Chelsea in Champions League. Why? Who knows. A penalty kick has never been automatic, never a guaranteed goal. But the percentage with which they are converted by mortal players hovers somewhere in the stratosphere. What’s the deal with the man who might truly go down in history as the best who ever played, for those who crave such a limiting definition.

And how wrong is someone who suggests that maybe, just maybe, a lesser being might be better equipped to grab a gimme.

Posted in Analysis, Champions League, La Liga, Messi, Thoughts29 Comments

Manchester City 1, Barça 2, aka “Finding the divine in the everyday”

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The ending was perfect.

In many ways seeing Messi laying there on the Etihad pitch raging at his penalty miss, prone in the aftermath of a putback attempt, was a perfect ending to this wonderful match. Because art shouldn’t be perfect. Art, like life, should contain flaws, and Barça is life. Messy, violent, sublime life that treats us to highs and lows, spits in our faces at inopportune times and presents us with joy sufficient to almost make our hearts burst.

And like art, its artisans paint with brightly colored boots for brushes, making the most delicate hatching marks across a green canvas as they seek to create simultaneous beauty as they sow destruction.

In the wake of a loss to Malaga, a casino visit and speculation about the state of a relationship between a coach and his star player, Barça set up to face Manchester City, a team that culers suspected might not be good enough but like that thing you know you want and will probably get, but don’t want to count on it because you might jinx it, few culers really wanted to confess to being flush with confidence at the outset of this repeat matchup of last season’s Champions League.

Some of the uncertainty was because of the Malaga tie, a loss in which the team’s coach discussed his tactics after the match as if they were some sort of formula rather than one of those footballing bolts out of the blue. “But Malaga isn’t even a Champions League side,” some said as those slivers of doubt crept in.

And then, for 45 magnificent minutes, Barça delivered a display of footballing divinity that had neutrals shaking their heads in wonderment. It was a delightful team performance that was helped by some naivete on the part of City and its coach, just as Malaga was helped on the weekend by a lot of flatness from Barça. These things happen. Busquets could sip tea as he decided what perfect pass to play. Alba was everywhere. Suarez scored a pair of goals, classic striker’s goals, and should have had a third. Rakitic was every bit the player he was at Sevilla, unleashed in a system that played to his strengths and an opponent who allowed such a thing to transpire.

Pique was magnificent, Ter Stegen coolly professional, But even in the face of all that beauty, only a fool wouldn’t admit that this was Messi’s match. His fingerprints were over both goals, and he had defensive stats that would put a defender to shame. He pranced and capered, nutmegged and passed, controlled and dominated. It was a night where he seemed unfettered by mortal constraints as City players tried everything to contain him only to find Messi, somehow, almost magically, on the other side of a tackle attempt as even efforts to foul him failed.

The first goal came from a lobbed pass into the box that found Kompany unprepared, perhaps thinking that the attempt would be absurd. The ball bounced around and fell onto a patch of open pitch, seeming to stop there as if to ask the question, “Who wants this?” Suarez stopped, pounced and it was 0-1. Lucky bounce, sure. Excellent movement, absolutely. But the perfection of that pass smacked of divinity. You don’t have to be a fan of Messi to be able to appreciate how extraordinary the things are that he does, things that make his ordinary days make liars out of those who defend him no matter what.

For the second goal, Rakitic took a pass and was instantly confronted by a couple of City defenders. With discretion being the better part of valor he passed the ball to Messi, who doesn’t seem to have notions of what can or can’t be done. Five defenders confronted him as he moved through them almost like a video game, as some kid with a joystick said “Cool! The cheat code!” Then he slid a pass to Alba, who assisted Suarez.

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Say that Messi didn’t have a good match because he was bottled up by defenders, then put the Vine of today’s moment on repeat and tell me again how a defense can stop Messi when he doesn’t want to be stopped. His nutmeg of David Silva was pure evil, this display coming in the wake of a written piece by Paul Scholes in which he describes how impossible it is to play against Lionel Messi, who essentially brought that piece to life.

After the match people rushed to the defense and praise of Messi as they always do almost no matter how he plays, like the obligatory standing ovation that greets a symphony orchestra by a crowd that doesn’t really know how to parse what they saw so it’s easier to leap to their feet and scream “Bravo!”

But Messi doesn’t need defending. Messi doesn’t need praise. Especially not after this match. If you can watch that player have that match, then sit and suggest that he isn’t extraordinary, it doesn’t matter how much anyone says, what kind of case is made for him. You either see it, or you don’t. And if you don’t see it, how can anyone really explain it to you?

Yet even after all that, the mistake would be to reduce this match to Messi, for other Barça players were also immense, even if not otherworldly. Suarez, seemingly revved up by the English air, was everywhere, from scoring to donkey work, tracking back and winning balls. Pique made a case for his return to the defensive elite, making those times when he was being dismissed as a poker-playing playboy with a pop star wife seem such a distant memory.

And Enrique got his tactics right as much as Pellegrini got his wrong as his attackers came running at Barça as if they believed that “defensive frailty” business. That Barça will make an error or two is a given, and a sharp opponent will need to capitalize on every one of them. But those brain lapses are different from the kind of frailty that too many supporters and pundits seem to take for granted. But City didn’t just leave space. Barça took it with a display of pretty passing and movement that called to mind another era, the kind of football that Enrique detractors snarled about this team not being able to play, forgetting that Enrique has struggled and rotated and coached to build a team that can play in many different ways to beat an opponent.

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Yes, history will ask whether Barça was guilty of hubris as they came out for the second half a diminished side that seemed almost surprised that City would evince the quality and effort that makes them a Premiership contender. They slowly worked their way back into the match, eventually pulling a goal back thanks to a comedy of errors as it seemed that every Barça defender had a chance to clear a ball that eventually fell to Aguero, who made no mistake as he slotted home. People gasped and suddenly paranoid culers began to mutter that perhaps, just perhaps, a 2-2 seemed more likely than a 1-3 as doubt reminded us of his residency, like that obnoxious relative who just won’t leave your guest room.

But to fret and worry and suddenly bay at the heavens would be to ignore the reality that City wasn’t in this match. The first could have ended 0-4 or 5, and only Joe Hart kept his team in the match with three excellent moments: two against Messi and one against Suarez. And yes, this tie could have, and probably should have been over, but the reality is that whether 0-2 or 1-2, away goals mean that City will still have to score twice at the Camp Nou while not conceding. I’m no oddsmaker but the possibility of that, given the necessity of the all-out kind of attack such a feat will require, strains credulity.

It’s easy to understand the doubt that creeps in. This team just lost to Malaga. Yes, it’s the same team that won 11 straight, beat Atleti three times and was on a roll, but disaster is just around the corner. We lost to Malaga! The beauty of football is that each and every match is a new beginning. A relegation candidate has a chance to beat the immense, talent-packed, monied colossus, just as an extraordinary footballing side has the potential to be, for a match or two, a week or two, a magical run of matches or few, better than its supporters expect it to be, better than the culer-described mess that it demands to be.

We are graced with one of the best football teams in the world. You need look no farther than the disappointment in a 1-2 result that wasn’t as close as the score indicated to understand that. Malaga returned home, hailed as conquering heroes. That win made their season. The win for Barça today somehow wasn’t enough. They got a goal, we should have scored more.

And yet for me, the result was almost beside the point. For a half, Barça achieved footballing divinity, making the game look easy against an opponent — a powerful, monied opponent boasting gobs of talent — who was doing everything in its power to make that game as difficult as possible. We seek beauty and elegance, seek those moments that lift us up and promise something extraordinary. It is often said that culers would rather lose with beauty than win ugly. Yet winning with moments of breathtaking beauty somehow leaves a supporter base wanting more, demanding more, somehow feeling cheated.

Ask me how I know Barça is better than even its supporters are willing to admit, and I will point to that feeling. It should have been more. That it wasn’t more isn’t the point. It’s the expectation that defines the feeling, and the beauty that makes it all so wonderful.

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Posted in Analysis, Champions League, Messi, Thoughts59 Comments

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