Posted on 07 January 2014.
Photo: Miguel Ruiz, FC Barcelona
Every year when my new soci card arrives in the mail, it always feel like hitting the reset button for my love of this club. This year there is a particularly strong resonance, as a lot has happened recently to underscore notions of renewals and fresh starts. As I’m not all that fond of lengthy preambles, let’s dive right in.
Messi is back
It has been 58 days since the Best Player Alive™ has been stomping on the terra for Barça. In many ways it hasn’t seemed all that long as the club has cruised along, growing into a force that finds several players with double-digit goal totals and Alexis Sanchez the latest attacker to notch a hat trick. Messi is in the squad for the Copa match vs Getafe, and interestingly enough, his return poses a number of questions best explained by a journalist who, at the Tuesday presser, asked Martino whether Messi would upset the team’s balance.
Prima facie, it’s an absurd question, but if you look at the root of it, it’s pretty logical. These next few matches and the Messi re-integration are going to tell us exactly what kind of coach Tata Martino is, and what kind of a team he has fashioned.
We all recall the days when the team couldn’t even go to the loo without Messi, much less compete and win matches easily. The injuries began last season, and the club struggled mightily, needing his presence to turn the trick against PSG, getting poleaxed by Bayern as the offense, without a focus, just became a series of midfield passing drills. He returned, and it was business as usual, which wasn’t all that good, really, even as it was successful in the results column, because it reinforced Messidependencia. “I have to pee really bad. Is Messi around? Can’t go without him.”
When he reinjured himself, the club gradually began to learn. Different players stepped forward. Pedro’s confidence started coming back. Sanchez started playing as he did for Chile, all speed, guile and “Wheeee!” Fabregas became more of a force, and you could see the club growing. This season, Neymar was added, and under a new coach, the growth continued. Speculation was that Messi would benefit from the Second Superstar factor, but the first part of the season proved to be unsettled for the Little Giant.
Then came the new injury, 58 days, more than 8 weeks, without the offensive linchpin. I remember the dire predictions, hand wringing and rending of garments at the time. Some folks said that if there was ever a fixture list that could deal with him being knocked, this is it. And so it was, with the only two blemishes coming at Ajax, where the team was mentally unprepared to play a match that didn’t matter a lot; Athletic, where early dominance led to a loss of concentration and a 1-0 loss. And even those two matches taught the team something, judging by the Celtic hammering and the Liga performances after the Athletic loss. The focus is greater, the killer instinct growing.
And now, Messi is back. As many of us have said, it would be a 24-karat, stone cold bummer if the team returned to passing the ball to Messi and moving out of the way. It would also be a significant regression. So when the journalist asked whether Messi would upset that balance, that is what he meant. This team is rolling. Ideally, adding Messi to that mix should make it significantly more dangerous. If it does, then we will know that Martino rocked it. If it doesn’t, we will know that he isn’t working the system properly, that he hasn’t prepared his team for the return of its best player, because here’s the thing: It it still FC Barcelona, rather than FC Messi. Our titan plays for the team. Far too often, the team was playing for him, which hamstrung it when it mattered.
Martino is doing the right thing, planning to give Messi some minutes in a Copa tie. That is brilliant. Low-pressure match, (hopefully) don’t start him, establish that this is a team that doesn’t need him to rock and roll. “I’m back!” “Excellent! We missed you. Now go work in with those guys, and let’s add you to the mix.”
The player seems renewed, his teammates have already seemed renewed. Martino is more relaxed on and off the pitch, as journos note his more laid-back demeanor during pressers. He seems happier, even outside of that massive grin after the Sanchez free kick goal vs Elche. For me, I wonder if part of the reason for that improved demeanor is that it is his team now. Not Guardiola’s remnants, not Vilanova’s, but his. He is no longer a caretaker but the Mister, as the team has bought into what he is trying to do, and working hard at it.
We will learn a lot from how Messi returns, and it all starts Wednesday.
Second half of the season
Yeah, not technically, blablablabla. Barça is where it has been for seeming perpetuity — top of the table. But this time it is only on goal differential, as the club is in a points draw with second-place Atleti.
In many ways, we and Atleti are two clubs in very different situations. As Martino rightly said in a presser today, the work being done by Simeone with his squad is more impressive than what is being done by Martino and the squad that he has. In many ways, you almost wonder if Simeone would do as well with such a star-studded squad. That Atleti team is a mirror image of its black-clad boss. There is a massive chip is on their shoulder as they play with cohesion, like a fist ready to punch you in the face. I like that team a lot, and love that a third team is chomping at the bit. Here’s hoping that Valencia deal happens, and we can add a fourth team to the mix.
But our situation is that we are in need of a revamp, really, which makes us different from Atleti. Martino came in with a squad that he probably wouldn’t have picked were he starting from scratch. There are aging warriors, legacy promotions, squad players, geniuses, superstars and whatever Jonathan Dos Santos is. From that group that he had to get to know on the fly, decide how to deploy and then get them to work on those notions, he has made a remarkable team.
Some say we won’t know how they really are until deep into Champions League, but I call nonsense on that one. I already know. This team is absolutely wonderful to watch, an improved model from last season not just because of the addition of Neymar. I really do wonder if Tito Vilanova would not have evolved this group into something similar to what Martino has — a vibrant cadre of versatility that can score with two passes or 30, one that scoffs at purists as it goes about its merry way. And yes, I find it interesting that the essentially same squad under Vilanova was going every bit as vertical, and nobody was lecturing him about abandoning the team’s style, etc, etc, but that’s a notion for another day.
Martino and Simeone are both making a fist, but in their own way as each team capitalizes on adversity of a sort. Atleti is “no respect,” as people doubt they are going to be in for the long haul, just as they doubted that they would still be around at mid-season. At this point, the expectation was that it would be business as usual, but the wrong team from the capitol city is staring at a 5-point deficit and Atleti is chugging along. With every match, they want to prove the doubters wrong, want to rub faces in it. They are a nasty bunch, built exactly as needed.
Barça has its own adversity, its own “us against the world,” a world that also doubts. It doubts them, saying they are on the way out, that Bayern stamped the expiration date on some Catalan asses, that everybody is aging, not physical enough and have been found out. The coach is betraying The Way. Off the pitch, the crap has flown fast and furious, and it has all worked magic. The picture and videos from the training sessions show a mood not really seen since Guardiola, a lightness and confidence, a camaraderie that defines a team all pulling in the same direction. Our warriors have as much to prove as Atleti. Whether you are trying get to the top, or prove that you still deserve to be there, the chip on the shoulder is roughly the same size and weight.
Looka that board!
Everyone has the capacity to learn, even a set of moneygrubbing, bespectacled trolls. Our board, famous for saying the wrong thing with a steel-toed vigor that is almost admirable for its persistence, got a smack upside the dome from The Flea that Roared.
Cruijff, Guardiola, Abidal, Valdes have all left or will be leaving. Iniesta, during his negotiations, spoke of a missing “feeling.” Still, things went on, foot in mouth. Then Faus went a bit too far, and boom! Let him have it with all barrels, young squire, and a number of things happened: Faus went quiet; Rosell spoke out in support of Messi and his family; other board members did as well; the club stepped up with a renewal offer, unprompted; the Trolls have been silent.
Time will tell whether the silence is because they have been sharpening their pencils as they prepare to storm the ramparts of culer outrage with yet another assault. But the part of me that friends call Pollyanna likes to believe that they have learned something … how to manage a team of sensitive superstars that are NOT just employees, but culers and socis who love their club with the same passion, MORE passion, than any supporter could possibly muster.
Mes que un club. It is for the players at the core, the Masia graduates, the faces who, when anyone mentions modern-day Barça, come to mind almost as if part of the crest — from Xavi’s spiky, gelled dome to Iniesta’s translucent one, from Puyol’s craggy aerie to Pedro’s windmills. When Rosell was running for office, he proudly would have his soci number as part of his backdrop during pre-election presentations. But for a long time he didn’t act like a soci or culer. He acted like a nasty little man with a vendetta. Of late, he has been increasingly presidential, and it’s a good thing.
Yes, there is much going on that I do not like. That goes without saying. But in this prattle about renewal, I would be remiss in not giving full credit to the men who run our club. The gold star for “most improved board” is in the mail. Now don’t do anything to make me take it back.
November is just around the corner, sorta
There is a referendum coming that you might have heard just a little something about, as in 10 months, a people will get the chance to decide whether they are to become a nation again. At present, Catalunya has two national teams, Barça and the Catalunya NT. It used to be that really it only had one but the mood, the feeling, strikes me as different now.
A lot will happen between now and November, and I leave the speculation about that to the politicians and pundits. Some have wondered where Barça will play after November’s referendum, though why, I have no idea, just as I have no doubt that La Liga will welcome our beloved club with open arms. Look at Monaco and Ligue 1. No, there isn’t any rancor in that case, true. Politics is politics, but money is money. Only a blinkered fool would let one of the richest clubs in the world leave the nest, even if a couple of clubs from the capitol city probably wouldn’t mind.