Archive | Messi

Perfection, Barça and notions of stability, aka “Foundations are important”

"What did that Dutch guy say about us?" "Dunno."

“What did that Dutch guy say about us?” “Dunno.”

There is as much danger in being overly pessimistic as there is in getting overly excited, but it’s very safe to say that there isn’t a culer who, even in a most optimistic moment, would have thought that after 5 matches Barça would be perfect: 5 wins and 0 goals conceded.

Last season Barça delivered the best start in the history of the club as a Christmas present, before fizzling to a trophyless conclusion. Whether you want to place the blame on the loss of Valdes, heartache, fatigue physical and psychological or whatever is up to you. Maybe it was all of the above.

Yet it isn’t misguided to suggest that this season feels different, even if the future might yet make this gaudy start a fond memory. Let’s have a few looks at feelings and why they matter:
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Posted in Champions League, La Liga, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts81 Comments

Celebrating without wrecking: Munir El Haddadi, aka “The next nothing”

"Hi, Mom! Am I famous yet?" (Photo by Miguuel Ruiz for FC Barcelona)

“Hi, Mom! Am I famous yet?” (Photo by Miguuel Ruiz for FC Barcelona)

Football is a weird, often absurd thing that makes us forget what it in fact is, which is entertainment.

As young people caper about a flawlessly manicured lawn in a quest for an inflated sphere, the next fat paycheck and maybe, just maybe, glory, supporters forget all of that. We clutch our replica shirts, scream invective or exultation after the result of an athletic clash which is nothing more than an entertaining game. Yes, football is life. But it is, at its core, a game.

Within that game things happen, moments of magic that elevate via that weird, vicarious thrill that makes us live through the athletes or teams that we support. Sometimes, like an electric shock an athlete jolts us into life and because of how the sporting world exists now, via 140-character blasts that vie for attention like newspaper headlines in massive print, there is hype. And where there is hype, there is scorn and cynicism, sarcasm and calls for calm.

It has happened before and will happen again, just as it is happening right now to Munir El Haddadi.
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Posted in La Liga, Messi, Thoughts13 Comments

GOATS, success, failure and Lionel Messi, aka “Be here now.”


The World Cup is over and now the debates begin about Messi, roiling tempests that reduce the actual winner of the tournament to a seeming afterthought.

And they are so predictable that it’s almost lazy, as if by rote the same lines are drawn by the same groups of people:

– Look at the stats. He’s the best.
– He failed on the big stage, so he isn’t the GOAT.
– Y’all need to leave him alone, he is still the GOAT.
– Etc, etc, ad infinitum.

The truth is that there is no truth. It’s all immaterial.
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Posted in Messi, Thoughts, World Cup280 Comments

Misunderstanding Messi, aka “You don’t get it, but that’s okay. Hardly anyone does.”


Messi doesn’t care. If you want to understand Messi, understand that.

It took a while for me to figure that out, but this most recent World Cup brought a lot into perspective for me regarding Lionel Messi. There have been some excellent articles on him: a piece that goes back to Rosario, a statistical breakdown that concludes Messi is impossible. And even before that, a lot of writing about a person, an entity, a thing that is impossible to put into words and next to impossible to be neutral about, because DID YOU SEE WHAT HE JUST DID??!!.

But I don’t think anyone can understand Messi because there’s nothing to understand. He just wants the ball.

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Posted in Messi, Supposition, Thoughts208 Comments

Buses and institutional arrogance, aka “Barça take planes, not buses”


This has been the Champions League and week in which football has taken it on the chin.

– Chelsea beat Liverpool.
– RM stomped Bayern

It has also been a week in which the phrase “parking the bus” has acquired a heretofore unseen malleability as counterattacking football has become “parking the bus,” for reasons that are certainly valid in the heads of the folks who misuse it.

“Parking the bus” is when an inferior team stacks 10 behind the ball, with no real interest, barring some fluke, in scoring. You see it in league matches sometimes, when a team has an unlikely lead in a knockout tie. You might also see it when a cynical coach tactically misplays the first leg of a Champions League knockout tie (cough! Mourinho. cough!) A parked bus doesn’t want anything to happen as differentiated from counterattacking football, which wants something to happen but waits for an opportunity.
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Posted in Champions League, La Liga, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts41 Comments

The malleability of absolution, aka “If one is responsible, then everyone is”



So. Barça ended a 3-match losing skid with something that wasn’t as much a comeback as a bit of common sense rearing its head.

“Hey, what say we stop hitting the ball directly AT the keeper.”

Messi scored a goal so all is right in the culer world again, but for me something more interesting happened — not for the first time, but for the first time a confluence of happy events conspired — two players who are objects of scorn had the temerity to have very good matches. Song and Mascherano.

For me yesterday’s match was different because I didn’t watch it live, instead choosing to take advantage of a picture-postcard Chicago day to log 60 miles on the bicycle. This gave me the rather extreme pleasure of being able to watch the match, and scroll through my social mad-ia timeline as things transpired and quite frankly, laugh.
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Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts223 Comments

Goldilocks and the Camp Nou, aka “The case for Neymar”


Neymar has a problem.
Neymar IS a problem.

Whichever (or both) of those sentences you think true, there is one thing we can agree on: Neymar is a galvanizing figure on the world football stage. When he came to Barça at the beginning of this season for a pile of cash, nobody knew what to expect.

Cruijff said that Neymar and Messi were incompatible. Others cried luxury purchase, that the club needed a CB more than a Brazilian with malleable hair and an Instagram fetish.

Still others said that he was one of the best players in the world even at the tender age of 21, with associative play of the type that could fit in very effectively at Barça.

He came, and then came the contract, an ongoing legal wrangle that makes both of this piece’s opening sentences true.
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Posted in Analysis, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts49 Comments

Real Madrid 3, Barça 4, aka “The space race”


Wow. Just … wow.

It is rare that a Classic lives up to the billing. At the nexus of all the hype, all the reams of verbiage and speculation have in the past, resulted in high-volume bits of drollery. Even the first Classic this season was, truth to tell, kinda boring unless you were culer. It was 2-1, and Barça pretty much put the match on lockdown.

But Bale was knocked, RM was still finding its way, pundits said. They are playing great right now, and know what is at stake. Bale is fit and productive, Ronaldo is in rare form. Barça on the other hand, is beleagured, set upon even by people who were presumed to be friends. It’s easy to see why pretty much everyone said that RM was going to win today.

I Tweeted before the match that we were going to win 1-2, and would walk it if Alba brought his defensive game today. Why? Because this club has not, this season, lost a big match. And there is absolutely no reason to think that they were going to lose this one, because Barça still has the best players in the world. Is Barça the best team in the world right now? No. But it is a team that is made up of players who are the best or among the best at their position.

Valdes, Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Alba, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, Neymar, Messi. That is a fantasy football side that you buy if you have an unlimited budget in Football Manager, rather than one that a manager can routinely call upon. People bet against that team, call it inadequate, say that it can’t defend, can’t attack, can’t do this or that. And when it confounds its critics, the cries of “Yeah, but …” begin, nitpicks at this or that player.

I have said it before and will say it again: you go all in with love. There shouldn’t be half measures to cushion the blow should a bad outcome happen. It diminishes the potential joy. Go all in. I believed this team would win because I believe this team can win every match that it plays. Just look at the roster.

As we know, it doesn’t win every match that it plays, because those great players are also human beings. Can’t say that such knowledge will ever affect the belief I have in this team. And it showed why today in a glorious moment, made more so by a very simple fact: win or go home. The Liga is either 1 point, or insurmountable at 4 or 7 with 9 matches left.

So those little geniuses won. But they didn’t just win by outplaying their more physical, bigger, stronger opponents. They won by controlling space more effectively than their opponent. Every key play in the match today was the result of space — taken or created — being used to positive effect. RM ran and slashed, while Barça picked and plucked.


31 games without defeat. The last time RM was beaten was the last time that they played us. There are now 9 matches left in the season. The big winner today was Atletico, who are now top and have the head-to-head tiebreaker against RM, but they play us in the last match of the season.

“We weren’t always in the right shape on the pitch, and we paid the price,” said Ancelotti. Spot on.

The consequence of being in that wrong shape was opportunity and difficulty.

Space: The contested frontier

In just one example, look at the astonishing pass (14:35) that Xavi puts right on Messi’s boot. When Xavi looks up, he sees that Messi is in between two RM players, with nobody covering the inside. The run is just begging, and when Messi makes it, the ball is already on the way. It lands directly on his boot, and you would have bet your house on Messi making the score 0-2 instead of bending the ball wide. And yet, there it was, space being used and ceded, as only the Gods know what possessed them to let Messi get behind the back line, unmarked.

Truth be told it was a pass that few players in the world can make, a pass that maybe you just don’t account for in your Probability Factors. But it happened, and was another symbolic moment in a match absolutely filled with them.

Look at earlier in the match, when the first goal came. At the moment when Messi is about to receive the ball that he is going to spank to Iniesta for the first goal, if you pause the image (at 6:08), Iniesta is all alone on the left side, trotting with purpose like a sleeper. The RM players are ball focused, with four players around Messi. Bale just let Iniesta sashay past him to begin the run, and when Messi gets the ball he already knows what is going to happen, and so does Iniesta.

Iniesta takes the pass in acres of space, and detonates past Diego Lopez to give Barça a 0-1 lead. Just like that, in the 7th minute. Can RM be forgiven for thinking that Iniesta doesn’t score goals, or did someone not do their job on that run? Either way, space was crucial.

Even before that it was clear the kind of match it was going to be, as Messi (again) laid out a pass for Neymar to run onto, a ball into space created by player movement. In the past, in more violent times, a tighter back line probably cuts out both those passes, or Arebeloa just knocks Iniesta over. In this match, today, a goal was the result, a goal that defined the proceedings.

Carvajal pointed at Bale as Ray Hudson screamed, “The mad magic of Barcelona comes out, with beautiful football!” And so it did as more than 20 passes were strung together, up and back, passes that made a pressing, ball-hawking RM defense move and pay attention, waiting for the sleeper. Neymar on the right was an interesting decision from Tata Martino, almost one that optimists could suggest shifted attention to that side of the pitch, with just a mere creator on the left in Iniesta, while hell raisers in Neymar and Alves were on the right.


When RM equalized, again space was used and ceded. But rather than making space with passing and control, Di Maria did a slash-and-burn run, facilitated by an exquisite flip pass from Bale. At the moment Di Maria crosses the ball, there are players looking at him. Neymar was trotting back, while Alves was laying off. Space. So Di Maria put the ball directly onto Benzema’s head, whereupon he made space by outleaping Mascherano. 1-1.

Shockingly, the same thing happens again, and Benzema tags us for a brace in less than 10 minutes, all because of space, poorly controlled.

Whenever a goal is conceded, goats are looked for. Mascherano was the whipping post on this goal but if you look at the situation when Di Maria lays in his cross, Benzema is on the dead run, already to the inside of Mascherano, who didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of outjumping the bigger, stronger Benzema. Pressure on the passer from Neymar (trotting) or Alves (watching) might have prevented such an accurate cross but there again, space conceded, and taken advantage of.

“You cannot give Benzema that amount of space,” said Ray Hudson after their go-ahead goal and he was absolutely right. But the space creation started with quality. This pitch was filled with great players. How can anyone really, truly expect this match to NOT have goals, NOT have great plays? Spectacular players make things happen, things that create an advantage for their team.


Pundits mutter that Barça relies upon great individual players doing their thing rather than team excellence. That isn’t a valid argument for me, because why the hell do you have those kinds of players if you aren’t going to let them do what they do? The first Barça goal was team and system. The second was individual wonder, as Neymar and Messi did the kind of craziness that they do, in phone booth-like spaces. The final, go-ahead goal was Iniesta being his own absurd self, forcing an error from yet another world-class player.

Look at that second goal. Messi did a high-speed give and go, bounced off an RM defender, stumbled, regained control of the ball and slammed it to Neymar who somehow controlled it while surrounded by 3 defenders, then did a crazy sort of side-foot pass to Messi, who slammed it home. You can take every X and O in the world, diagram stuff and whiteboard plays in practice. But the goal came down to two top-class players deciding to make some magic.

Rather than seeing those moments of solo magic as some sort of failing, I see it as a broadened success window. If that whole team thing doesn’t work, give it to a genius and let him do his thing. Our geniuses were slightly better than their geniuses, with one in particular standing above all: Messi.

For me the worst use of space by RM was in how much they ceded to Messi. Maybe they read Marca, who said before the match that Messi was in crap form. But pass after pass, when he got the ball he had space to move, space to pick passes and make runs without fear of a rugby tackle or cleat to the Achilles. In one absurd moment (18:32) Messi AND Neymar have gobs of space to play with, as Fabregas runs into his own bubble on the left side. Messi plays it to Neymar, who is stopped by a last-ditch tackle in the box.

Complicating matters is that Barça continued to play as a team that includes the best player alive. And that best player decided that he didn’t care how he hurt an opponent. He scored goals in the run of play. He scored a hat trick, two from penalties. But most impressive for me is the stupefying passes that he laid on, one for Iniesta on his goal, the other for Neymar in the red card incident.

“You don’t need to love these players, people, but you should marvel at them,” says Hudson.


Tactics and selection headaches

Knowledgeable people say that Ancelotti got the tactics wrong. Culers screamed that Martino got the starting XI wrong. Maybe they are all right. The space was odd, to be sure. But was that because of a system that worked? People always think that teams play in a vacuum. “So and so can’t defend.” Ronaldo makes his living making defenders seem inadequate. Messi makes them seem invisible. These top-class players will wreak havoc with any coach’s game plan.

But boy, were people out for Martino. “Should have started Sanchez,” “Going for name players instead of relying on form.” But Martino knew what he was doing. In a match in which teams can play to a standoff, talented 1v1 players can make a difference. Neymar set up Messi for the tying goal, then drew the penalty that put RM down to 10. Yes, he was laggardly in tracking back in the first half, but clearly got a talking to before the second half. Neymar was decisive even as he wasn’t brilliant, because of potential that was respected by an opponent, potential that created space.

When Pedro was brought on for Neymar, the difference was clear. Pedro got the ball, did a feint or two and passed it back to midfield. That is what he was supposed to do at that point in the match, in a substitution that was as much defensive as offensive.

Was Mourinho right?

Classics under Mourinho were nasty, violent, contentious affairs. And finally, he beat us by playing a different kind of football. It distracted, bowled over and turned talented sprites into unfocused whiners. And it worked.

Ancelotti came into this match riding a 31-match unbeaten streak. The last team that beat them was us. They were, by all accounts in brilliant form, and many people whose opinions I trust had us losing this match. Ancelotti came out to play a football match, because he had football players. He pressed, played a high line, attacked and lost.

There were fouls, but things didn’t really acquire an edge until late in the match, when the outcome was beginning to feel like a done deal. But 95% of the match was two teams, each with their own style of play, running at each other like gladiators.

And Mourinho had to be watching and thinking, “See, told you they can’t be beaten by playing football.”


There were three penalties and one red card in this match, a match that was nonetheless well officiated. Culers usually mutter about an official who keeps his whistle in his pocket because it benefits the opponent. But in a more cleanly played, balanced match, that same ref can benefit us as much as the opponent. So it was today.

The penalties are most contentious, of course. When Ronaldo got his penalty, dragging the leg and being clipped by Alves, my first reaction was to suggest that Messi or Neymar get into the RM box at the first opportunity, to force the official to make that same call on the other end. Neymar did, and got the call. Supporters of each club will say that no, theirs was justified. But the Neymar and Ronaldo penalties were pretty much the same, a dragged leg and player looking for contact in the box. Yes, Ronaldo was fouled outside the box, but between continuation and the pace of the play, you try making that judgment call.

The Iniesta penalty was a flat-out mugging. So. Was the controversy that the visiting team got not one, but TWO penalties in RM’s house? That is the only rational contention that anyone could have. All three were penalties, correctly adjudged. Play was allowed to flow, niggling calls weren’t being made and a great match of football was the result. Controversy? There will always be controversy in a Classic. But today’s, for me, didn’t come from the officiating.

Quality in abundance

Individual performances in such a dynamic match are easy and difficult to evaluate. Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets were delights. For a player who is past it and doesn’t make forward passes, I wonder who that was playing today.

Alba continues to be the defender many hoped he would be, holding down that side of the pitch and roaming, a la Abidal.

Pique was excellent today, even keeping Benzema from a first-half hat trick with an off the line clearance.

Mascherano was strong, even having the audacity to take a poke at goal from distance.

Neymar wasn’t great, even as he was decisive, and Valdes, truth be told, didn’t have much to do but did make a couple of fine saves.

Yes, those players all made errors. Of course they did. When you square off against excellent players, they will make you create some errors, but don’t be mistaken: this team rose to the occasion with quality and style.

What now?

Now it’s a Liga horse race in which Atletico has the upper hand. Win out and they win the Liga. It’s simple for them. But they play us the last match of the season, a match that could well, if we win, result in the RM winning the championship. And wouldn’t THAT just be a kettle of crap?

But for now, there are 9 matches left. The top two teams are level on points and the third-place team, Barça, is but a single point off the top. Every match is a final is usually a cliche, but not in this case. 9 matches to decide the league, and we can delight in being fully in love with a team that has found its form.

Posted in El Clasico, La Liga, Messi, Review130 Comments

Barça 7, Osasuna 0, aka “It’s the little things”


I won’t begin, for an instant, to pretend that I didn’t expect Barça to win this match.

–They were at home against Osasuna, a team that doesn’t travel well.
–I think that those who want to write this team and its coach off are nuts.
–The group appears to be coming out of a collective trough.
–It’s what professionals are supposed to do.

Nonetheless the match brought me great joy, not because it was a victory, but because for the first time in a long time, our sprites looked like they enjoyed playing football. I won’t presume that I would be able to chronicle the human side of today’s win as eloquently as Eric Coffin-Gould did over at TotalBarça.

All I can point to is the Messi smile.

This has, quite frankly, been a long, long season. From board squabbles and stadium referendums, legal actions and NeymarGate, players leaving, personal tragedies and heartbreak, this has been ridiculous. That, through all that crap have come moments of searing beauty makes you wonder how the people who do them, actually manage to accomplish such feats.

And then, Messi smiled. A genuine, “Gosh, this is fun” smile that made you realize how much of this season we have watched him trudging around the pitch, head down and grim-faced, visage set not in determination but in something else foreign. He broke another record today, but I don’t think he was smiling because of that.

Every week we watch, marvel, carp, piss and moan. I have said that it is multimillionaires capering about, playing a game. But it’s also a job. Just like you get up on Monday morning, sigh and get dressed for work, so do they. It strikes me that just because fools like me think that it would be fun to play football for a living, to be able to do tricks and make people cheer, doesn’t mean that it’s so. It’s a job, a job that isn’t always whistle while you work.

And I got to thinking about why Messi smiled, and came to my own conclusion, as writers are wont to do. For me, he smiled because for the first time in a very long time, the game was fun. It wasn’t fun because of the lopsided scoreline. It was fun because of the glee of possibility. When a conductor and an orchestra bask in the rumble of a well-earned standing ovation, they are thinking, every last one of them, “Holy crap, we did it! We didn’t just play the piece. We played that piece of music in a way that changed lives, just for a moment.”

One lovely summer night, at the end of a spectacular reading of the Mahler Symphony No. 2, people were applauding like crazy for the Grant Park Symphony as I cursed my critical reserve that doesn’t really allow me to clap at performances. But I rose to my feet and, with one hand, gave the devil horns salute, that metal tribute that says to the band, “You killed that shit. You, my friend, are metal as hell.”

A young violinist saw me, pointed me out to a friend and, from behind huge grins, gave me a nod. If I was at the Camp Nou today, it would have been devil horns for everyone, because that performance was metal. It was “this is what we do.”

Messi smiled because he was part of that collective wonder that is created by in-form performers. He scored three goals, but my delight was in seeing the thrill he got from celebrating the goals that teammates scored. Was it a monkey being lifted from the team’s back? Was it the realization that yes, they still have the capability to obliterate an opponent? All of the above? Dunno, but yell at me all you like for reading so much into a smile, but that grin made the match for me.

Does anyone who has a dream job realize how lucky that they are to have that job? Good question. I love what I do. I would do it for free. Every now and again, I get paid and say to myself, “Wow. AND money?” Football players must do that, as well, even if it isn’t always 7-0 scorelines and goals for everyone, even as they also have those “Oh, crap … work!” days.

Ray Hudson, during his match commentary, focused on a simple word in describing how the team played against Manchester City, and again against Osasuna: hunger.


People bristle when our team’s hunger is questioned, as they should. Saying that players don’t want something is a complex allegation. It also isn’t true. There is never a time that players don’t want to win, even as there are times when they aren’t physically or mentally capable of doing everything necessary to ensure a positive result.

So La Real, mad and seeking vengeance, play out of their collective minds and beat us. Then Valladolid come in and take advantage of a still-down team, and grab a one-goal win. And the world comes to an end. Players should be sold, #Tata out trends on Twitter and it is, simply put, bedlam.

And whether it was a collective mirror check, or the realization that “Hey, this is going to be it for many of us,” or all of the above, the hunger returned. They didn’t just trot against City … they ran. Watching that match and looking at the 50/50 balls that were ceded against La Real and Valladolid with almost a “Sure, go ahead,” were attacked with fire against City. Can fear and worry make a team focus? Certainly.

Tata Martino said in his presser last week, that the best way to fire up his team is to doubt it, so people who don’t want Barça to play well should stop saying bad things about it. Who hasn’t done something to spite someone, right? “I’ll show YOU.”

But a lack of hunger doesn’t imply a lack of wanting to win. A friend and cycling mentor said to me that some riders walk up to the pain door, look and shrink away. Others open it, then decide it’s too much. The winners don’t even think about kicking the door down and striding through it. You don’t win because you are better or more talented than your opponent. That is just part of it. You win because at that moment in the competition when it’s on the line you say to yourself, “I want this enough to do anything for it.” Then you do. If you couple that desire with effort, that defines hunger.

And to hell with tactics. It wasn’t tika taka, it wasn’t counterattacking, it was everything all at once. Long balls for Pedro to run onto; a long pass launched by Valdes that Pedro tracked down; Messi being a bull; Iniesta unleashing a piledriver that had something extra on it from outside the box … goals scored in all kinds of ways, from team goals to individual brilliance by a team who was saying, with its collective play, “It doesn’t matter what you say, it doesn’t matter how you play. We are better than you, and here’s why.”


You watch that from the bench if you are on that team, and you marvel. So Song comes on and kicks ass, because he has the hunger. He doesn’t want to let down the side. Tello comes on and scores a marvel of a goal, because he doesn’t want to let down the side. The cliche “all for one and one for all” in the context of a football team seeking to be its absolute best, isn’t a cliche at all, but rather the way things are.

People will say “The team still needs a CB,” “This result doesn’t hide the team’s problems,” etc, etc, and they will be right. I also don’t care. We have the players that we have, players who on their day, are fully capable of beating any club in the world.

Even as faith-filled culers know that, we are also clueless as to the ultimate fate of this team. It could win a Treble, it could win nothing at all. But I do know this: those who come to bury this team, should, as blitzen said on Twitter, put away their shovels. Because the hunger is back, and it’s a lovely thing.


Posted in La Liga, Messi, Thoughts47 Comments

Barça 2, Manchester City 1 (4-1 agg.), aka “Taking care of business”


So much doubt, so much worry, so much anguish all at the roots of a moment of collective human frailty. When Barça lost to Valladolid this weekend past, it was more than a loss. It was like the starting pistol in a race to establish culpability. Something is wrong, whose fault is it. And we know something is wrong, because a history-making football club lost to a relegation side.

Whose fault is it, and oh my, Manchester City is coming to down with “only” a two-goal lead to overcome. By cracky, they can do that in their sleep, especially with Aguero back to fitness and in the lineup. Oh, my!
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Posted in Champions League, Messi, Review, Thoughts133 Comments

Lost Ballons and departures, aka “Ain’t the vicarious life grand?”


Football is us. It explains so much, really … the passion, the way we defend our teams and players, our views of those teams and players. It’s a game that we carry in our hearts and minds. It’s pure.

And because it is us, it makes us feel things that are in many ways, irrational. We take a player to heart so that when things happen, it feels like they happen to us, in a strange way. “How DARE they not give Messi the Ballon d’Or?! He is the best!”

It also makes us feel it more acutely when players we lionize are suddenly not those players any longer and sometimes stuff starts to make sense, even as you don’t really believe that it does, as you grasp for tenuous links to make seeming crazy talk make just a shard of sense.

What is the job of a football club? It depends on who you ask. To win? Okay. To make money? Sure. To provide a gentle place for its iconic players to be put out to pasture?

Hang on there, ace. Surely even the most devoted supporter of a player can see how that last isn’t even remotely compatible with that whole winning business.

On yet another level, a football club and the team that represents us, exists to meet a need that so many of us have — to feel something. We don the replica kit, find our way to a gathering place, or hunch over a laptop and a fuzzy stream that gets Whack-A-Moled by those pesky rights managers, and we are united in that one thing … Barça.
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Posted in Messi, Thoughts, Transfers/Transfer Rumors115 Comments

Renewals, aka “Renewing vows and taking stock of a longtime love”

Photo: Miguel Ruiz, FC Barcelona

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.

Posted in La Liga, Messi, Team News, Thoughts81 Comments

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