Archive | Messi

Sports, failure and a collective psyche

The Copa America match that featured Argentina vs Paraguay was, for this neutral, endlessly fascinating throughout, and entertaining after the final result.

After the match, of course, it was the expected, “Tata Martino screwed up.” But a very interesting Tweet from a pair of hyper-intelligent minds (and BFB mods) got me to thinking:

“What really gets me about the last 10 years as an Argentina supporter is the repeated self-sabotage. Bad subs, Maradona, the Tevez issue …”

And the reply:

“Is there a common denominator, or just history repeating? Different coaches, different players, similar patterns.”
Continue Reading

Posted in Analysis, Copa America, Messi, Thoughts21 Comments

Life isn’t like the movies … sometimes, it’s better

Sit down at a word processor and write the story of this Barça season, then shake your head. It’s crazy.

It’s always difficult to speak for everyone in a group, but these days are a pretty bizarre ride for this here culer.

And by “these days” I mean the last decade, from Ronaldinho’s samba football and Guardiola’s divine triangles to “Get em!” Enrique. What a time to be a culer, no matter when you came to the club.

It’s why it’s appalling when people want to make new fans somehow feel lesser because of when they came to the club. My interest in Barça started when the club was happy just to make Europe, much less dominate it. But that makes my joy no more or less real and valid than someone who just started following the club because they like Messi, and thought Guardiola was cool. Hell, people who are newer supporters find a lack of success even more wrenching than those who understand trophyless seasons and failure.

The culerverse is a big place.

But it’s still a bizarre ride because in this fairy tale season, a club and a team have embodied every single aspect of sport, and life. It’s still even deeper than that.

On April 27, 2014, Barça faced off against Villarreal. It was two days after the death of the club’s beloved Mister, Tito Vilanova. In a dark back room of a Chicago pub, lit only by the glow of flat-panel television sets, I sat on a bar stool and tried to hold it together during the moment of silence that preceded the match. It was impossible, just as it is impossible right now, as I type this.

And yet, in thinking about that time, staring at a laptop screen made blurry by a veil of tears and then thinking about today, comes the reminder that being culer is about everything. It’s rage, anger, mistrust, suspicion, delight, giddiness, exultation. It’s feeling betrayal as a favorite player is sold, it’s being happy when something wonderful happens to a millionaire in short pants who has no idea that you even exist. Sport consumes us because it is life, a crazy movie that lasts 90 minutes, breathless cliffhanger and love story.

I don’t care about the personal lives of the players, but you don’t have to look very hard to see magic and symbolism in the Iniestas welcoming a new child into the world in this amazing season, after the sadness of a miscarriage during a year that seemed cursed. If you were to write a story of a team and a season, this Barça and this season, and try to sell it as a book or movie, it would be rejected. “Make it more like real life, and we’ll think about it.”

Right down to Xavi lifting the Champions League trophy this has been a year of magic, culminating in making history and a club legend going out on top. This stuff is impossible to write. You wouldn’t dare. Too cheesy. The team’s last Champions League trophy was hoisted by a man who kicked cancer in the teeth, who left a note in the locker room of the stadium that hosted the final, a promissory note of greatness. And when that team’s Captain marched up to the podium, handing over the captain’s armband and letting that player hoist the trophy … “Make this story more like real life, and we’ll think about it.”

Xavi is past it. So many believed it. The line of fools has a spot reserved for me. Because Enrique knew better, he asked Xavi to stay. And when that player entered the pitch to finish what his successor in Iniesta started, to restore order and help the team that he spent his entire playing career at achieve ultimate success, the team that he almost left for fear he wouldn’t make it there …

“Make this story more like real life, and we’ll think about it.”

Belief and doubt. Even the most pessimistic among us has, deep down in their heart, hope and belief. You have to. People stomp around on Twitter, asserting that something is NEVER going to happen, but even they hope that it does. That’s the magic of it all, placing your joy in the hands of a complete stranger, then hugging a complete stranger when that joy is realized. But being culer is, in these emotional ways, no different than being a supporter of any other club. It would be wrong of us to assume otherwise, but it would also be wrong of us to feel those special moments any less, tears of joy and heartbreak. Their being universal helps us understand and explain them more easily.

Sport is life. I know people who don’t like sports, and it’s a little difficult to grasp their reasoning, because sport is life. In a match you can go from unparalleled joy to heartbreak in a few rotations of a spherical object. Great players do great things, great players fail. Journeymen have moments of divinity and become, for a few moments, superhuman. They often just as quickly return to mere mortality. It’s magic. The movies love sport because that world is bigger than real life in ways that make sane folks shake their heads. “No way. That didn’t just happen.”

It’s weird to wake up the day after something, and check to make sure it actually happened. Barça won a treble yesterday. Its supporters have a team for the ages, a team impossible to assemble so it was grown on-site, hewn from diminutive players who would have come up short elsewhere. Its superstar needed medical intervention to reach “normal” size, even as he is still physically a small man striding among giants, even as he has grown into the best player in the game, a genius who sets records and makes history with metronomic regularity.

Naaaah! Make this story more like real life, and we’ll think about it.

Posted in Champions League, La Liga, Messi, Thoughts24 Comments

Barça 3, Juventus 1, aka “This team stands on its own”

“I don’t know if I will stay, but I am happy at the moment.”
— Luis Enrique

“I haven’t yet decided my future.”
— Dani Alves

Those two quotes seem an odd way to start a piece on a glorious, history-making day, but they are also the perfect way to conclude the uncertainty that came to define this season, one that has ended in glittering, celebratory fashion. Having just cleaned up the streamers and confetti from the last celebration at the Camp Nou, came another one. And now, another one.

People will line up to recreate history and flay a chunk off the carcass of this team, linking it to Barça now that it has had success. But for me, this is a team that deserves … that has earned the right to stand on its own.

Rijkaard had his own wonderful period, and so did Guardiola. But really, the era that each Barça trainer embodied ended when they left, when their team tasted failure. In hitting the reset button two times after Guardiola, only Vilanova could be said to be something of a continuation, but even he set about revolutionizing the way the team went about its tasks.

Enrique came in and did his own thing, even as you can point to the similarities to the first Treble season:

— First-year coach
— Exceptional success
— Attention paid to fitness and psychology
— A dynamic front three that stretched the pitch

You can even point to parallel goals between the two teams, the first a ping-ponging paragon of unselfish perfection that essentially walked the ball into the net (Rakitic/Iniesta); the second an aggressive, out-of-nothing scramble (Suarez/Eto’o); the third a bust-out and slot home by the left winger (Henry/Neymar).

The parallels are so easy, so seductive and yet, do Luis Enrique’s Barça team a disservice. This team came together, forged on the anvil of adversity real or imagined (same effect). It played its own way even as it followed many of the Barça tenets of attractive, attacking, possession football. But even if you don’t presume that the Guardiola era ended when that great coach left the club, surely it ended psychologically when Barça put Guardiola’s Bayern Munich side to the sword.

This has been a season of exorcism, from the unparalleled joy after a season of heartbreak last year, to paying back debts to teams owed them (Atleti, Bayern) to setting off on an astounding run that found this Barça a true champion of champions, adding the champion of Italy to the other notches on its gaudy belt buckle. It has also been a fairy tale, as Xavi, a selfless legend who completely devoted himself to the club that he loves, gets to go out with a treble, the shrieks of the Camp Nou crowd ringing in his ears and now, today, one more chance to hoist a piece of silver as the Capita of the FC Barcelona football team.

It is just one more aspect of a fairy-tale season.

In making history, this Barça team was like itself in that it wasn’t at its best, but found a way to win a match that it had to. Messi wasn’t anything approaching his dynamic, all-pitch best, even Luis Suarez seemed somewhat overawed by the moment. This was a day for the other guys: Iniesta, Rakitic, Neymar, Busquets, Alves, Pique, putting in work to ensure success. Today as with the rest of this season, Barça played and won as a team.

Culers were warned that Juventus wouldn’t be pushovers, and they weren’t. Its legendary keeper, Gigi Buffon, came up colossal on three separate occasions that would probably have found other keepers lacking, leading to a second half that would have been all over but the shouting and trophy presentation. But he kept them around, and when they scored a quality team goal, it was suddenly game on, and tucker and pucker time for culers.

But just like the match in which the only goals were set pieces, or a late, late goal was forged from an ugly scramble on the goal line, this team managed to find the back of the net as it almost always has. 60 matches, 50 wins, 4 draws and 6 losses. That is an amazing record that is not only the best by any coach in Barça history, but a gauntlet that the team has thrown down for itself. Nowhere to go but down, drowning in a miasma of expectations and resurrected #luchoout hashtags.

That time will come later. For now, let this team be on its own, let it dance, and sing and get drunk atop double decker buses, make speeches at the Camp Nou and do all the silly stuff that victors do to celebrate with their supporters. They have earned it, just as they have earned the right to be champions on their own. This is about Enrique and Barça football. Be proud.

Posted in Analysis, Champions League, Messi, Thoughts32 Comments

Does it matter if Barça wins today?

Calm, calm, everywhere calm.

All over Barça social media is an eerie feeling on the day of an immense match: calm. People can wonder why such a thing is going on, but it’s easy for someone who has tracked the arc of this season to place a finger on it. This magnificent season is something of a surprise gift, a months-long party in which surprise guests and presents just keep showing up.

When the season started it was with a new coach and a new staff, plus eight new transfers into the team. Nobody knew how everything was going to go. Some idiots even predicted, notions with roots in logic, that this would be another silverless season, but just you wait until next year.

Things got off to a good start and the team was playing well, even if it wasn’t playing in the way many wanted it to. RM was playing out of this world football, and some pundits were declaring the season over even before it started. The season began with doubt, and wrapped doubt around it like a comfortable old blanket.

And then, something weird happened. Many trace the season turnaround to the mess at Anoeta. To my view, Anoeta was as expected as a tax bill. If you watched carefully, it was evident that the team was coming together in a way that was going to make for interesting football for the remainder of the season. The fitness was evident, the mental toughness was evident. This was a team getting ready for battle.

There has been talk of SMS messages exchanged, talks between Enrique and Messi, Xavi and Messi, the Dalai Lama and the team, who the hell knows. But when a training regimen begins to take shape and bear fruit, you see it. And it isn’t just fitness. It’s confidence. You look over and see your opponent bent over, breathing hard as you stand there, ready to go. You’re ready, you’re waiting.

When RM came back to earth due to injuries and fatigue (sound familiar, culers?), Barça was there to pounce. It seemed like this team took off like a rocket because people were too busy seeing what they wanted to see instead of what was actually there.

The team went 8-1-1 in its first 10 matches, with 9 clean sheets. Losses to PSG, RM and Celta at home got tongues wagging, because of impatience and lack of understanding. When you build a training plan, you put in the work. More often than not you will get the results, but as the plan takes shape and the program builds, there will be bumps that are expected. How an athlete deals with those bumps is what will define the success of his season.

The smart runner understands that a lost race, despite being fit and ready, doesn’t mean the season is lost and he should binge on gelato and donuts. He understands it’s a temporary glitch, and confidence in the plan is required.

In the 11 matches leading to Anoeta, Barça was 10-0-1 with 6 clean sheets, wins over Valencia at their ground and a 5-1 stonking of Sevilla. But so busy were the people extracting philosophical pounds of flesh (an irony given how vehemently the culerverse took after Ibrahimovic for labeling Guardiola “philosopher”) that many wound up missing what was going on.

Anoeta came after an extended international break, courtesy of a Jordi Alba own goal. “Why didn’t he start Messi, Suarez, etc.” ignores the fact that they entered the match in the second half against what should have been a more fatigued La Real, and couldn’t make anything happen.

But in the culerverse, it was Armageddon. The screams rang long and loud. There was insufficient patience with anything from too many supporters, no real effort to understand of what was going on. It’s understandable and inexplicable at the same time. The team was getting results, but not in the right way. More philosophy. Individual brilliance was terrible, except when Messi scored a brilliant solo goal.

It was a period that found the culerverse and the entorno at their absolute worst.

Some fools dared to say that something cool was coming, and folks should calm down. They were called idiots and defenders, and then … something cool started to happen. The gifts that had really been coming all season for those open to receiving them, started flowing and people started paying attention. Barça beat Atleti, then beat them again, eventually going 4-0 against a team that single-handedly ruined the silver rush last season. It beat RM via one of those goals that the philosophers found vile. It put on a clinic against Manchester City, playing precisely the kind of football the philosophers said it couldn’t play, and wasn’t playing. Beat Atleti to make the Copa final, beat the team of ubermen coached by the genius in Bayern Munich and suddenly, it was real.

The first treble season whooshed by in a “Wait, what just happened” rush. This potential treble season was so busy wallowing in a miasma of disbelief, squabbling and expectation that for things to have reached this point seems surprising. A different kind of “Wait, what just happened?”

So why wouldn’t some folks be calm about something so completely unexpected? Where did THAT come from? The easy answer is right over there, but you weren’t looking for it. The more difficult answer finds its notion in the traditional Buddhist saying, to “be here now.”

Football is fond of comparing, fond of ranking. Enrique Barça vs Guardiola’s. Messi vs Ronaldo. Messi vs Maradona. Barça vs Milan. This goal vs that goal. And suddenly, the world is awash in everything except the wonder of the moment. People scoff at those who say a win, ANY win, is pretty wonderful no matter how it comes. Theory is easy for the victor, but ask the vanquished about style points vs 3 points. Sport exists in the moment. It’s an athlete’s single-minded focus, it’s a supporter suddenly finding religion in the last minute of a scoreless final, it’s the reality of right here, right now.

Football will never stop comparing, even if it should. Because while we’re sitting there, wondering how the hot fudge sundae that we are having ranks against the all-time best hot fudge sundaes that we have ever had, we’re missing out on savoring one hell of a treat.

So many culers are calm because this wasn’t supposed to happen. For many, this season has been so wonderful that it doesn’t even matter much if Barça is able to beat Juventus today. I am one of those culers. This has been a magnificent roller coaster of a season that has ended in a series of magical moments, from Xavi hoisting the Liga trophy at his last Camp Nou appearance in the colors, to a record-setting front three and a diminutive genius cementing his status as best in the game. So much. So, so much that it’s easy to feel sated, besotted as joy splashes over a fanbase.

And now, here we are. Here we ALL are. No rivalries, no rancor, just a group united in its love for a team. In mere hours, it all begins. When you have doubt, when you worry, when you want to rage against the universe, remember this season and all that has come before this moment, breathe deep, and believe.

Posted in Champions League, La Liga, Messi, Thoughts31 Comments

Did this season, this Messi, begin with a simple look?

trophy

A look. A lot of things begin with a look. A friend had an Aussie named Jazz, and if another dog looked at Jazz and held eye contact, it was on.

An award-winning portrait captured Lionel Messi during the World Cup final ceremonies, looking at the championship Cup trophy. In his face you can see longing, a bit of anger and more than a bit of determination. Fast-forward to the current Barça season, when people who observed Messi early on, said that he was “connected.” It’s not all that difficult to wonder if a season as the ultimate team leader and undisputed best player in football was born from that moment of global failure.

As with the famed “Messi es un perro” article, like my friend’s Aussie, if you cross Messi, it’s on. Foul him, and you can expect a dribble. Attack Neymar, and watch him rush to his teammate’s defense. He is as likely to eviscerate you with a header pass as a mazy slalom solo goal, and he has mastered the diagonal rainbow to a rushing Jordi Alba or Neymar. Messi’s focus this season has been preternatural and complete. He’s an indispensable part of Barça, and an immense ingredient to the team’s success, even as you can and should take issue with those who lay it all at his feet.

Messi is disarming. You watch him score goals such as the one that he did against Athletic, and you can’t process it. He does things that ordinary players don’t even have the ability to consider. In thinking about Lionel Messi, when contemplating he and what he does, you have to think of the many great athletes who came before him, players who defined a game in ways that leave it forever changed. Those greats weren’t just great because of performance. They were great because their regard for boundaries was meaningless because their skill set gave them a different set of restrictions. When Tiger Woods hit some of the shots that he tried, in his prime. When Michael Jordan drove to the basket against the Lakers in the NBA championship, switched hands in mid-air to avoid the defense, then made the layup. Great players have a different set of tools.

When Messi was making the move that made Jerome Boateng fall over, or dancing around the Athletic defense as though they were stationary training pylons, he isn’t thinking, “I’m doing something great.” He’s thinking, “The goal is that way.”

In the wake of moments such as the Messi goal, people ask great players what they were thinking, what was the rationale for the move. Inevitably, those players are almost struck dumb and the world is amazed by the simplicity of the response. Jordan didn’t do that move for posterity, he did it because he had to score that basket and the first path was blocked. Messi took advantage of Boateng expecting him to go left. Woods had to get to the green in one stroke. It’s simple, when you think about it. “Well, this has to happen.” It’s just that the brains of great players work differently.

At an Indianapolis Formula One race I had the pleasure of watching Michael Schumacher, who had to run a series of laps at qualifying effort to consolidate a strategy. To watch him hit the same corner apex at the same spot, so flawlessly that a sheet piece of white paper would have been perfectly blackened by the end of that stint, was a marvel. A friend who races cars turned to me and said, after about the seventh or eighth lap, “That’s impossible.” The greats have extra stuff. They see their world differently. It isn’t that other players can’t see the passes or runs that come so naturally to Messi. They don’t even have the same kind of eyes.

Messi, therefore, dominates discussion in a way that is correct, with caveats. When Jose Mourinho waxed rhapsodic about Messi, saying that he is the eternal difference maker, the response to that is “Well, duh!” Having a player like that changes everything. Messi is like a nuclear deterrent, except the other nation has only conventional weapons. All you can do is hope that he isn’t all THAT interested in your destruction. You gaze carefully, cautiously at his visage as you shake hands pre-match, hoping that you don’t see Messi murderface. If you do, just turn around and walk back to the locker room, first asking the ref if you really have to go through the full 90 minutes.

His influence is so outsized, so astonishing that it’s easy to forget what Barça is like without Messi, in part because Messi always plays. Every match, every big match, every borderline meaningless match, Messi plays. He’s like a utility, really, a wonderful everyday service that you take for granted. Think about opening the tap and having fresh, clean, drinkable water come out. Are you KIDDING me? That’s Messi, an astounding thing that has become almost commonplace. It takes goals like the Athletic effort to make people remember. “Oh, yeah. He isn’t from this planet.” But his omnipresent brilliance can also tend to make people overrate him and underrate his team. Jose Mourinho said that Arsenal could win a Champions League with Messi, an assertion that is absurd even as you can agree with his belief that Messi is the ultimate difference maker. Plop Messi into that Arsenal XI and he’s still playing with players who aren’t at that absolute level.

In 2014, Messi tore his hamstring on 10 November in a 4-1 win over Betis. He returned to action on 8 January as a sub in a Copa match vs Getafe. During that period, Barça didn’t exactly suck. If you look at this season, the Messi-less XI would be Bravo, Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Alba, Busquets, Rakitic, Iniesta, Suarez, Neymar, Pedro. That team would beat most teams on the planet. What Messi does for a side is add a level of the capricious, the impossible, the pass or run that come out of nowhere to facilitate a goal scoring foray. He also freaks everyone the hell out. He gets the ball, and defenders just think, “!!!!!!!!!”

But as tantalizing as it is to think of Messi as essential, and credit Barça’s success to Messi, both worldviews are erroneous, assertions rooted in his omnipresence. It’s easy to say that Barça wouldn’t be in the Champions League final without Messi because the notion doesn’t enter the realm of the possible. He’s there. He’s always there. He had a hand in all the goals that built the insurmountable lead. It’s Messi, always Messi, a player whose durability and endurance is as amazing as his output.

People who coach him have the same problem that Phil Jackson had when he had Michael Jordan. “You have Jordan. Duh.” Then Jackson went to the Lakers, and it was “You have Kobe and Shaq. Duh.” There is no answer for the superstar, nor is there consideration for the difficulty of properly utilizing the superstar. Like Messi, Jordan wanted to play all the time. Pickup games, practice games, street ball, Jordan always wanted to play, and win. He got angry when subbed just as Messi does. And just like Messi, he was capable of taking over a game on both ends of the pitch. Defend, make the steal, lead the break, feed the guard, dunk the ball. And like Messi, when Jordan wasn’t there, during his baseball foray, the Bulls didn’t win, which proves that he is essential, right? Well, maybe.

Of Messi, Enrique said, “Messi is the best in the world, probably in history, but his environment is extremely beneficial for him.”

It’s easy to pooh-pooh that as a coach sticking up for himself and his team, both of which are buttressed by the best player in history. But it’s a fair ask to wonder how many defenders Messi would be running at if the forwards were Pedro and Munir instead of Neymar and Suarez.

Pedro plays on the left wing, like Neymar, but that’s where the similarities end. Munir moves constantly and intelligently, just like Suarez. That is where the similarities end. Pedro and/or Munir aren’t going to kill you by themselves, like Neymar or Suarez will if given a sliver of space. Because defenses have to account for their presence, Messi gets space, more space than when he was playing in a more tactically limited system, with Pedro and Sanchez. Teams reacted differently to the Neymar/Sanchez combo, the preferred duo when Messi was out because there wasn’t one man to key on. Sanchez thrived as did Neymar, because defenses relaxed. There was more playing space, and the goals still came. With the return of Messi the middle got congested again as opponents set up to stop him and only him, again as with Jordan, where Chicago Bulls opponents said, “If John Paxson and Scottie Pippen can beat us, go right ahead.”

What is unlike Jordan is that Messi has never played on a mediocre team. He didn’t have to prop up any Granville Waiters, Luc Longleys or Bobby Hansens. Messi’s trophyless seasons were more attributable to underachievement by top players than low-quality teammates. Messi made his debut in a side with Ronaldinho, and was there when Guardiola’s Barca hit its imperious stride. Put Messi on, say, Levante and feel free to speculate about what might happen.

None of this means that Enrique’s comment or this post intends to diminish Messi. That is impossible. Nor is it the equivalent of “Well, let’s see him do it on a rainy winter night in Stoke.” That’s stupid, because a swan doesn’t have to wallow in the mud to prove that it is a swan. Beauty is its own standard. So is sporting excellence. And in a weird way, just as the effect of Messi is overrated by some, the effect of his presence is in a strange way, underrated. Put Messi on the pitch with his leg in a cast, and he will still occupy defenders. Because you never know. That’s what genius does. So Barça can win matches even when Messi isn’t fully present or off form, because he’s there. He is that anomaly that makes everything around him better, more glittery, like a human disco ball.

Chiellini has said that Messi wouldn’t score goals like his Copa goal vs Athletic in Serie A, which is an absurd statement by a player who should know better, not because of the potential for winding up, but because unless Serie A is being played by non-humans, the statement is invalid. Messi didn’t score that goal because of crap defending or poor keeping. Messi scored that goal because he became a living, breathing cheat code. He made Jerome Boateng fell over, THEN beat the best keeper in the world. There is a video of Messi owning great players. And while you can certainly quibble about the ultimate “great” qualities of some of the players in the video, you can’t argue with the fact that Messi is facing off against the best players in world football, and making them resemble pub league dilettantes.

As this Champions League final winds up and the match progresses all eyes will be on Messi, awaiting magic, that next moment that will suck the breath out of a stadium. But what makes Messi great is what he does in between those moments, the way he makes his teammates better — in the way, this season, he is doing everything better. Is it a consequence of Messi that we are seeing the best Messi ever, or is Enrique right in giving his surroundings some of the credit? Give Sandro a pass that Suarez controls easily, and what happens? Without Neymar making space or having the skill to play at the same hyper-speed as Messi, what happens?

But even beyond all that, this is a leaner, meaner, more complete Messi who, at 27 years of age, can still improve. He is more determined, more captain-like, more willing to do anything to help his team achieve the ultimate success. And after what seems an eternity ago, as the best player in the world stared at the ultimate prize in football, don’t you wonder if the genesis for this season, for This Messi, took shape right then and there.

Posted in Analysis, Champions League, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts18 Comments

blitzen awards, the “I’m in Barcelona, suckas!” edition.

How do you like me now?

How do you like me now?

Tapas d’Oro: Italy has it’s “Golden Tapir”, which is awarded to celebrities who have failed spectacularly or done something humiliating. In 2012, after his season in charge of Roma, it was awarded to Luis Enrique as the “worst coach of the year”. Being Lucho, he accepted it with good humour and even displayed it on his mantelpiece at home. It’s probably safe to assume that he used it as a personal motivation to improve. So we think it’s only fair that after a season where his every move was scrutinized, nitpicked, and criticized, when #LuchoOut was trending on twitter, and when he was accused of “betraying” the style, the players and the fans, that Lucho be awarded the best and most delicious tapas that Barcelona has to offer, and which he can eat from his shiny new silver bowls.

The Golden Setpiece: This award, which is modeled after Mathieu’s head, goes to Juan Carlos Unzue. Lucho’s assistant coach and BFF has worked a minor miracle with what was previously the weakest part of Barça’s game: set pieces. A former goalkeeper himself, Unzue has brought his experience to the team and drills them relentlessly in all kinds of scenarios, both in defense and attack. Cules’ usual response when the team concedes a corner is to dive behind the sofa and cover their ears, but no more! Under Unzue’s guidance the team has conceded only 7 goals from set pieces all season–half as many as last year! And this considering our defense consists of a clown, a green kid, an old man, a misplaced midfielder and a couple of shrimps. Amazing!

Miss Congeniality Award: I wasn’t in favour of signing Luis Suarez, and I still have strong reservations about him, but he has shown a perfect attitude all season, and that has earned him my respect. He has obviously worked hard on controlling himself on the pitch and gets along well with the other players in the dressing room, and I am happy to say that I have no complaints in that regard. Well done, Luis!

Wash That Man Right Out Of Our Hair Award: He’s had the Board in a lather for years, but they still haven’t managed to scrub out that troublesome Dani Alves. This could be the year, though, as the Unique One’s contract ends on June 30th and so far there is no agreement between the two parties on a renewal. One the one hand, Dani says he hasn’t been shown proper respect for everything he has done for this team (and he is right, considering the club didn’t even pretend they wanted him to renew until after the FIFA ban was confirmed in January). On the other, the conveniently leaked details of the offer the club has made seem pretty decent (if true, of course). Dani himself says he won’t make a decision until after the CL final. Will he go out in a shower of glory, or settle back into the team for a good long soak?

They Also Save Who Only Stand And Wait Award: Jordi Masip, who has not had the season he was expecting to. After a very good season with the B team, he was promoted and slotted in as our backup to the excellent Ter Stegen. Instead, he found himself dropped to 3rd choice after Luis Enrique insisted on signing Claudio Bravo. It’s a shame, because he is a very good keeper in his own right, but based on their performances there was no way he was going to bench either Ter Stegen or Bravo. He accepted his position with good grace, and was rewarded by playing two games (one in the cup, one in the league IIRC). My hope is that he will move on this summer to a team where he can play regularly. He is too good to be a backup all his life.

That Old Black Magic Award: To Thomas Vermaelen, who unselfishly sacrificed almost his entire season to serve as the team’s very own injury-laden Picture of Dorian Gray, thereby keeping the rest of the players in a remarkable state of health and fitness. Seriously, I can’t remember a season when we had so few injuries. One might be inclined to credit Lucho’s training methods, his medical staff, or his (controversial) use of player rotation, but I think we all know who is truly responsible: Voodoo Vermaelen and his little bag of pins and needles.

The Silver Bootstrap For Most Improved Performance: Last season was not Pique’s best. In fact, it would be fair to say that we hadn’t seen the best version of him for several years. And after a few diffident on-pitch performances and some questionable off-pitch behaviour, it was starting to look like 2014-2015 would be more of the same. Lucho even benched Pique for three games running in an attempt to shock him into a reaction. Well, it worked. Whether it was because of being benched or whether Shakira gave him a talking-to at home, at some point Pique gave his head a shake and determined to get back to being one of the best defenders in the world. Since some time in November Pique has been the linchpin of the best defense in the league, and turned in one phenomenal performance after another. On the pitch he oozes calm and self-confidence, along with his usual buccaneering spirit and willingness to get forward. No coach in his right mind would bench him now. Poor Bartra can barely get a look-in. So a well-deserved award to Pique for taking himself in hand, and let’s hope he continues in this form for many years to come!

participactionThe ParticipAction Award For Good Attendance: Every Canadian of a certain age will be familiar with this little pin, which was handed out to schoolchildren as part of a government fitness program. Everyone got one for participating, even if their fitness level was so poor they couldn’t even qualify for the bronze level patch. It was basically the “You tried” of Canadian junior high school gym. So this one goes to Douglas, who was sidelined for almost the entire season for reasons as diverse as “adapting to the style”, “injury”, “bought for next season, not this one”, “injury again”, or possibly even just “not being Dani Alves”. To his credit, Douglas has not complained (not spoken to the press at all, in fact), has made friends in the dressing room (he’s that guy in the picture you always think “Who’s that?” when the Brazilian players are out & about), and although his few minutes on the pitch were not exactly stellar, there has been no hint from the coaches that he has any problems in training. I still think his signing was extremely fishy and he will more than likely be loaned out this summer, but he deserves recognition for being a good team player and not letting the jokes get him down.

(Blau) Elefant In The Room Award: I think by anyone’s standard that we can all agree this has been a successful season. The team is playing spectacularly, the dressing room is healthy, and at time of writing there are two trophies to show for it, with a third as a distinct possibility. Even if Barça don’t win the treble, this is still a season to celebrate. So why are some of us feeling a bit ambivalent about the team’s success? It’s because these trophies may come with an unfortunate consequence if they help Bartomeu and the current board get reelected. All the controversies, missteps and downright criminal acts by this board may be blown away like chaff before the glorious trumpet call of victory. Worse, this board will take the credit and use it as a platform to get the members onside. After all, they appointed Lucho, didn’t they? They bought Rakitic and Suarez and Ter Stegen. How can you vote against them when they have so obviously had the best interests of the club at heart all along? We will see what happens when the elections come in July, but if FIFA delegates can resoundingly reelect Sepp Blatter in the face of the enormous scandals and criminal charges hanging over that organization, I don’t have a lot of hope that the Barça socis will do otherwise.

The Oscar Hammerstein II Memorial Birds Gotta Fly Award For Showboating: Neymar has been getting a lot of flak from the press and from opposing players for “showing off” with unnecessary little tricks and flicks. Most recently he attempted a “sombrero” over the head kick near the end of the Copa del Rey final, which incensed his opponent and led to an argument involving players from both teams. The claim is that tricks like this are offensive and disrespectful to the opponent, with the implication that the player considers himself “too good” and wants to humiliate the other. While there is certainly a level of arrogance or vanity in attempting these tricks, I think the amount of anger directed towards Neymar is out of proportion and based mostly on his personality. When Ronaldinho does things like this everyone praises the joy he takes in the game. If Neymar was messing about like this when the team was in need of a goal or someone was waiting for a vital pass, I would be first in line with a pitchfork. But trying a flick for the fun of it at the end of a game we have dominated from start to finish? Fill your boots, kid. You deserve it.

Elvis Has Left The Building Award: With 24 trophies to his name, and possibly even one more to come, Xavi is now the most decorated Spanish player of all time. After 17 years with the first team, Xavi played his last game at the Camp Nou, coming on for the second half of the CDR final. Many writers and journalists with more talent than myself have discussed his immense career and the impact he has had on the modern game, not just in Spain but around the world. I don’t think it is hyperbole to say that Xavi is the most important and influential Spanish player of all time. More than that, I would like to express my personal gratitude–I started following Barcelona because of Xavi. He’s the one who taught me that football can be a lot more than just some players running around after a ball. Every moment watching YouTube highlights set to awful emo music, every patchy stream that cuts out right before a goal, every sketchy download that might just be carrying a nasty virus–that’s all ultimately been because of Xavi, and it’s all been worth it. Thank you, Maestro, for all the beautiful football. I’m so happy you are leaving on a high note. I hope they appreciate you where you are going.

Gracies, Maki!

Gracies, Maki!

Posted in Analysis, Champions League, La Liga, Messi21 Comments

Acceptable levels of violence?

In the wake of the 1-3 Copa victory by FC Barcelona, it seems that only two things happened: a stupefying Messi goal, and a Neymar flick. The reactions are, of course rather different. It’s the latter one that interests me in this post.

Football has long had a black leather-booted code of Things You Don’t Do. When Neymar came to Barça with his collection of tricks and flicks, it was forgotten that Ronaldinho made a name for himself doing such things, because this was different. Why is a good question, but the evidence didn’t take long to manifest itself.

After tormenting Celtic, Neymar found running space with a flicked ball past a defender. Scott Brown resolved the issue by shoving Neymar down, and throwing a kick his way for good measure. It earned a justly deserved red card, but the post-match reaction was more interesting, as too much of football rushed to Brown’s defense.

“Neymar shouldn’t have shown them up.” “He’s a diver. He deserved it.”

When Neymar wound up Atleti, who also reacted with violence, it was again Neymar’s fault.

Gabi had words after the match about Neymar’s behavior, labeling it “irritating,” and the black-booted code said “Yeah!” The assortment of kicks and fouls, an ankle gushing blood from the studs of an Atleti player as a result of one clash, were immaterial. Disrespect was the question, here, and Neymar had it coming. If you can’t stand the heat, don’t try flicks in the kitchen.

In the latest incident, late in the match vs Athletic in the Copa final, he tried a sombrero to escape a tight sideline situation. It failed, and Athletic defenders responded with violence. The black-booted code again.

A great many culers have, of course, said the effect of “Well, he shouldn’t do that in that situation. What does he expect?” And again, the violence is tacitly condoned. A MARCA story quotes Enrique, with interesting bits in bold:

The Barça manager fully understood the Athletic players’ anger after Neymar’s show of unnecessary, fancy football: “In Spain such things are not taken kindly and if I were an Athletic player I would have behaved in much the same way or even worse, but we have to understand that these things are normal in Brazil. We will try to make him understand.”

Now, a lot can be read into that quote, which is the problem. An opponent defender could read it as carte blanche to kick Neymar. “Hell, even his coach doesn’t like it. Get him!” And the number of fouls on one of the most-fouled players in La Liga will grow in number and violence. And why not? He has it coming, with his hair, his Instagram, his … Brazilian stuff.

The black-booted code doesn’t mind a slaloming run that leaves prone defenders in its wake, doesn’t mind a bit of on the ground humiliation from Xavi/Messi/Iniesta humiliation (note the Iniesta flick over the head of the RM defender). Iniesta’s favorite La Croqueta is okay, because the ball stays on the ground? Or is that also “disrespect?”

At what point does football look in the mirror and admit its problems with certain types of players? Back in the day, the careers of players like Diego Maradona were shortened by violence. “If he’s going to have that skill, how else am I going to have a chance. I have to chop him down to my level.” It’s a distressing tendency in the game that has never gone away, and is all the more apparent with Neymar and the way that he plays the game.

He gets fouled a lot because he has the ball a lot. He also gets fouled a lot because he takes on defenders. Would people prefer that he stand on the left and bat the ball back to midfield, unless a clear path to goal — one that doesn’t involve any disrespect — presents itself? And if he doesn’t do that, is the violence okay?

Fouls as a consequence of play are one thing. Fouls because a player is blinded by the red mist are something else entirely. I can’t speak strongly enough about the reprehensibility of the reaction to this latest Neymar incident and to all of them, really. Nobody has that kind of crap coming. Ever. Whenever Iniesta got kicked and chopped down because that was the only to stop him, that isn’t acceptable.

I suppose in the here and now if Barça were to sign Ronaldinho as he was, it would be okay to kick him. “Hey, he shouldn’t do that stuff.” Just because he was smiling when he did it as he successfully perpetrated the notion that he played the game with a childlike joy and flair isn’t a valid reason. Ronaldinho was a thug. All great players are. They want to destroy their opponent. That’s what makes them great. Iniesta is nicer than Ronaldo, but he is no less nasty and desirous of victory. Messi will cut your throat if you block his path to goal. He’s supposed to. It’s what great players do. Destroy, win that psychological battle.

So kick them, which might make them tentative, might make them think, and then a defender gets that little bit of edge back. And the black-booted code says that’s okay, even more so if the player tries some sort of silly, unnecessary flick or trick. Bang the ball off the defender and take the throw, like a man. Or you will be kicked, and it will be okay because you had it coming.

You don’t have to like Neymar to find the violence that tracks him disgusting. You don’t have to like Neymar to not like the comments of his coach after the match, even if you allow for the nuance that maybe, just maybe, Enrique was suggesting that as a hard-nosed player himself, he would have had the same reaction, but that doesn’t condone what happened. Maybe he forgot to say that. Maybe the “he will understand” means that he should just expect to get kicked when he tries that stuff, because that’s the way of the world. Dunno.

What I do know is this: Violence shortens careers. Imagine how close Messi came to something very serious when Ujfalusi decided his ankle was fair game. And don’t come at me with “The two situations are different.” No, they aren’t. Both instances are, at their base, a defender reacting to superior skill with violence. “Try and get past me, will you?”

Fouls are part of the game, even tactical ones. There are retaliatory fouls as well, a “you got ours, so we will get one of yours.” Lots of violence, and it’s all okay. No, attackers shouldn’t be allowed to prance about unfettered. But kicking them because of their skill shouldn’t be okay, nor should wanting to fight because a tenet of the black boot code has been violated. Atleti kicked Iniesta off the pitch last season, and somehow that was okay. It’s never okay. There shouldn’t be some burly dude wearing black boots saying, “He don’t like it uppem, eh? Man’s game!” Would it have been okay for Boateng to clean Messi’s clock after that Bayern goal? No? Of course not.

Then why is it okay for people to display violence against Neymar because he tried a flick?

Posted in Copa del Rey, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts53 Comments

Knowledge is power, aka “The secret of my success”

Anyone looking to understand the success of this FC Barcelona season really only need pay attention to about two minutes of the Copa final to understand, even in a match filled with such moments.

At 0-1 down, Athletic began to play with more urgency. They pressed, they got the ball into the Barça end. But just when the announcer said Athletic was getting into it Barça pressed back, bullying Athletic back into their end. They then pressed the ball free, played a series of exquisite one touches and it was 0-2.

Barça plays football that seems almost telepathic. Other teams train as hard, work on possession and all of the same stuff that Barça does in its trainings. Other teams work on fitness, do all of the same things. There is talk of triangles, but every team in top-flight club football will manifest triangles at some point. So what is it about the automatic behaviors, the knowledge of self and teammates that makes these things, when applied by Barça, unstoppable? Knowledge is power, naturally. But in the right hands, knowledge is unstoppable. Yet part of knowledge is belief.

When Barça went out in the Champions League semis to Chelsea in part thanks to appalling finishing, I noted in my match review that Chelsea was defending so well and so physically, they made panic set in. Calm players became rushed because a challenge was always expected. Time was pressing.

Strong teams put a timer on you that is as much psychological as real. When Messi scored a goal like he did, Athletic worried about when it would happen again. You are facing a team that is fitter, runs more, moves better, is more technically skilled and completely unselfish. It’s also a team whose default setting is to keep the ball. You forget that the goal was a bolt out of blue. The guy who is struck by lightning, instead of thinking “TWICE in a lifetime? Sheeeit,” heads for home when the skies cloud over. It’s suddenly all that he can think about.

Athletic is stressed, Barça is calm, considered and understanding of the necessity of possession. Neymar takes a pass, feints, surveys and seeing nothing, passes back to Busquets for the reset. And it starts again. The sequence I refer to at the beginning of this post is an extraordinary thing, that bears an in-depth dissection.

34:27: Mikel Rico worked the ball loose from Alves. They made some passes, applied a bit of pressure.

34:44 A brilliant bit of influence play from Busquets forces Athletic to pass back into their end. When that happens the Barça back four is sprinting forward as is the entire team. They already know. The ball is where they want it now, in the opponent half.

running

More crucially, Athletic players are walking or trotting while Barça players are running. And it isn’t even halftime.

The Athletic keeper punts it long. Alves controls and at 34:52, not even 30 seconds after Athletic had life, Barça was back on the attack.

35:55 The ball is in the back of the Athletic net.

One of the keys to that goal happened about 40 seconds before the goal was scored. Jordi Alba was on the sideline, being charged by a pair of Athletic defenders. Neymar runs in to provide an option and as quickly as he gets the pass taps it to Iniesta, who is already off and running into a gaping hole on the Athletic wing. Panic.

“Always options,” said the matchcaster, which is exactly the point. Then as now, it is crucial to always have a safe haven for the ball. Pam! Pam! Pam! A trio of Alves, Rakitic and Messi ping-ponged the ball into the box. When Rakitic played the pass to Suarez, you can see Messi looking at the linesman in case there is an offside flag. He knows. Rakitic, when the pass is slid to Neymar, is already celebrating. He knows.

Pity the Athletic keeper. Messi, Suarez, Rakitic and Neymar are running at you, and your defenders are mostly behind them.

goal

Craig Burley, the ESPN color commentator, said “In terms of football, in terms of soccer, in terms of quality, it doesn’t get much better than what we’ve been seeing.

“And that’s the thing about this Barcelona front three they’re full of big egos, they’re full of quality, they’re full of stars, but they’re unselfish. They’re team players, and that’s why it works.”

Suarez looked up and fed Neymar for the sure thing. Neymar made a remarkable run in and across the box, looking to pass all the time. For the second goal, Suarez could have taken the shot with a reasonable degree of confidence but the keeper was facing him, waiting. You never know. Slide the ball to Neymar, and you DO know. Rakitic also had the open net. He saw Neymar coming, and he knew. Everyone knows.

When Pep Guardiola assumed the reins at Barça he famously said “Run, you bastards, run!” It is not known what Enrique said, but a safe bet is that it was “Play as a TEAM, and we will win.” It’s a batch of the best players in the game, sacrificing for each other and the team. No idea how you beat that.

Every player has a tendency. A striker in the box can be played to shoot, because that’s what strikers do. With Barça, the other two superstars are bursting their lungs to get into position, to provide options and suddenly the defenders have no idea. Messi, Suarez, Neymar … um … Sacrifice is an extraordinary thing. The run, the extra pass. Everybody is, suddenly, Xavi.

At the opening of the second half, Messi is smiling and laughing. He knows. The confetti was ready, the families were on hand, the banners were ready. Yes, teams plan celebrations all the time, then have to put the things in storage for a time, possibly forever. Did Athletic have their celebration stuff all ready? Good question, but as they lined up to face a nasty footballing side at the peak of its powers, you have to wonder.

What’s worrying for opponents is that Busquets is 26. Messi is 27. Neymar is 23. Rakitic is 27. Suarez is 28. Pique is 28. There are more years of this, assuming none of the odd things happen that derail dynasties. In the past, if Messi took a knock, then what? Now, Pedro comes on, Neymar moves central and there’s also Suarez. Business as usual, without the absurd bits of genius from the greatest player in the game. That Messi goal was crazy, but it’s easy to forget about the chances created before and after that goal.

Always options, always on the move. Working. In the 52nd minute with a 0-2 lead, Inkesta and Busquets combine to steal the ball from an Athletic midfielder who swore he had more time. His head goes down to look the pass in. He looks up and Busquets is in the way. He dribbles and Iniesta reaches in with a boot to take the ball and start the other way. It’s a little thing that sows stress and confusion. What do you do when you have no time? More crucially, you have no time but your opponent seems to have all the time in the world.

Athletic have a set piece at 55 minutes. Rakitic takes the ball just outside the Barça box, and hoofing it never occurs to him. Instead he slides a perfectly weighted pass to Neymar, who rolls it to Busquets and keeps running because he knows that Busquets is going to flick the ball to him in stride. And the attack can resume, the relentless task of destruction.

What makes this team extraordinary, as Graham Hunter so correctly notes in his excellent Copa post-match, is that it is a team. It’s facile and lazy to reduce this season of success to Messi, even as Messi changes everything. As Hunter puts it:

“Yet the thing that deserves emphasis is that this Barcelona team does not and cannot win by Messi alone. He is the lead violinist; he is the soaring solo soprano voice, true. But the orchestra must also be in tune. They have been working hard. They have been sharing the concept of “we want it all, we want it all” until it becomes a mantra.

That was sufficient today. Barcelona’s mega talent mixed with 10 months of utter dedication. They had a target, it was the treble, and because they worked like Trojans, it’s now in sight.

It would be unseemly, unbecoming to assume victory in Berlin. Juventus is an excellent footballing side that has been working on nothing except ways to stop Barça, because it isn’t enough to stop Messi any longer. Because he is the best player alive who inspires sonnets of rapture, it’s easy to forget that Barça is absolutely loaded with talent. Just because they play with Messi all the time doesn’t mean they can’t play without him.

Athletic is a very good football team. Barça isn’t strolling matches because its opponents are in some way inferior. Popular is the act of futility that transplants Barça into the Premiership, to suggest that they wouldn’t have it as easy, that somehow the talent would be diminished because of location. And this argument is being made by coaches of teams who will be watching the Champions League final on TV. RM, City, PSG, Bayern, Atleti — these are championship teams that have all been dispatched in various ways by Barça this season.

For me, this has happened because a coach got an extraordinary group of players to forge itself into a unit — a complete unit with one thing at the forefront: winning. It doesn’t matter who scores the goal, who blocks the shot, who gets the assist as long as Barça gets the full points. A great team that also understands sacrifice will be pretty tough to beat.

Posted in Analysis, Copa del Rey, La Liga, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts7 Comments

Athletic Club 1, Barça 3, aka “Paid in full”

messi

Paid in full.

You wonder if somewhere there isn’t a cosmic ledger marked “paid in full,” as the cosmos finally determined that a team, a club and the people who love it had suffered enough.

On a lustrous Saturday when confetti rained down at the Camp Nou as Barça celebrated taking another step toward repeating an unprecedented accomplishment again, or something like that, my mind turned to the past, the days that I contemplated this team and wrote about it through a veil of tears, those times when I wondered whether the unspeakable joys of the Treble and follow-up successes had a price in pain.

I thought of Puyol, and Valdes, and Abidal, and the Iniestas struggling with their loss. I thought of the biggest loss of all in the team’s devoted Mister, now and forever. I thought of trying to sustain a moment of silence and wondering if sobs were cheating, and Mascherano laid low with grief.

I thought of all that pain, and those professionals trying to work their way through it. I thought of a fan base riven by the standards and demands of the past, of distrust of something new, of hashtags and snarling rips at new signings, crises and entornos, and it’s now all summed up in three very simple words:

Paid in full.

In the here and now, there is only joy. That cosmic ledger is wiped clean. For me, the Champions League final doesn’t matter. Yes, I would be overjoyed if the team won it, but today’s match was so symbolic of what this team has had to endure and how it has come out of the other side of the fire, that for me there is only joy.

team

When Luis Suarez came to FC Barcelona, hard hearts including mine were vehemently, vociferously against the move. Whether irony or symmetry, a second chance has helped deliver something joyful to an emotionally battered club. The “Wheeee!” with which Neymar plays became the battle cry of a team that wasn’t interested in anything that anyone had to say about anything that it did. It didn’t care for bleating about possession stats, or candles lit at altars of The Way. It didn’t care that it scored all of its goals in a match off set pieces, it didn’t care that counterattack goals worked or individual brilliance, that beautiful thing turned into something ugly by misguided pundits, was necessary at times.

This team only cared about one thing: coming together in a way that would find it a powerful, nasty, at times brutish fist that was also capable of unspeakable beauty.

At the beginning of the match today, someone at the Chicago Penya asked me what I thought and I said “a 3-1 win.” And it was weird to think that, because being culer is to embrace uncertainty and a sense of impending doom. I programmed enough recording time for extra time and a penalty shootout onto my home DVR, because that’s culer. But then there was the confidence, the belief in a team that has truly done something extraordinary this season in rising like a phoenix from its own ashes.

It was an exquisite, controlled display from a team that at one time was considered incapable of either quality. It was a goal of jaw-dropping brilliance, a goal that every time I watch it I still find it unbelievable, a goal that is pointless to describe, because you can’t. It isn’t that you don’t have the words. There are always words. What our language lacks is the capability of capturing the emotion of seeing something unspeakably brilliant. It’s almost like light bulbs explode in your brain as you try to process it, that weird silence right before you scream in delight.

Maybe it’s that absence of sound, motion or anything, when the only thing filling your brain is flashes and exclamation points that is the best way to describe the feeling of that Messi goal, one that I believe is the best one that he has yet scored.

There is of course the legendary Getafe goal. But with that goal, he was Messi, a young talent with running space. He wasn’t the player that teams devised an entire system around stopping. The Athletic defenders did everything right. Everything. Men were where they were supposed to be, the keeper set up so that the only available shot was something impossible. None of it worked. Nobody scoffed at individual brilliance then, fittingly, nor should we ever. Individual brilliance is something to be cherished, marveled at and captured in any way that we can. It doesn’t happen often, and that Messi goal was the epitome of the beauty of individual brilliance.

That shot going in typified this season in many ways, as the impossible happened once again. A season that was considered lost in winter is soaring toward a blissful apogee in summer. It was even a season of wishes granted, as Xavi said that he wanted to lift a trophy with Iniesta again. It’s everything all at once, beautifully.

xavi

Athletic Bilbao played an excellent football match today, about the best that they could offer. But Barça, at this point in time, is a collection of many players who are the best in the world at their position, playing at the peak of their powers, buttressed by peak fitness and tactics that suit their strengths. They are playing with verve and confidence, solid at the back and irrepressible at the front.

This team is also nasty, like its coach was as a player, a group that is not interested in taking prisoners even as it is pragmatic, working only hard enough to ensure that the job is done, because energy must be conserved for the next task. Give a Barça player a hard foul and you can expect to get cleared out at some point, by someone. Because that, too, is this Barça.

This team drives opponents to distraction. Arda Turan threw his boot in rage. Today, after Neymar tried a sombrero to get out of a tight sideline pickle, the Athletic players detonated and a row was on. From that point on any chance they had of finding some miracle to get a scrambled goal or two and a glimpse of hope was gone. Neymar wound up yet another opponent who ended up focused on the wrong thing as time and the match dwindled.

Enrique said that if he was an Athletic player, he would have had the same reaction, a statement that many viewed as being critical of Neymar’s move. But from this chair it was a professional’s admission that no professional likes to be owned like that. It makes them angry. Duh. But the ensuing row also meant that Barça had won the psychological war as well as the physical and ball skills one. It was a complete victory over a proud opponent, a 3-1 win that seemed a much larger margin, so complete was the control of this Copa del Rey final.

So many writers speak of this Enrique team being so very different from the Guardiola teams, but for me, even as points of comparison are invalid because both teams played Barça football with their own tactical variations, the teams are more alike than anyone will care to admit, because that sort of thing isn’t fashionable. But both teams controlled matches and opponents, both teams scored goals in a variety of ways, both teams had a dynamite front three that used its skills to destroy.

This isn’t saying that Enrique is as good a coach as Guardiola, or any of the stuff that will have villagers scurrying around with their pitchforks and torches, something that has been all the rage in this divisive, too-often nasty season. It is instead an observation that the past Treble-winning side and this potential Treble-winning side share similarities both physical and psychological.

Football is about highs and lows, about fan bases that believe they are owed some joy, that winning is something that is due after a certain period. But that isn’t true. Fate doesn’t care about any team or player. It only seems that way. A team can lose and keep on losing, just as a team can win and keep on winning.

But when the kind of heartache that has buffeted this club takes up what seemed at the time to be permanent residence, the kind of joy and beauty represented by unstoppable goals and victory celebrations is something that is to be cherished. These are great players, doing great things. And it is wonderful, for a change, to have our tears be those of joy.

confetti

Posted in Analysis, Copa del Rey, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts18 Comments

Barça 2, Depor 2, aka “What have we learned?”

xavi

It has been about Xavi all along. This whole season, the twists and turns, everything we have learned and experienced, from Enrique convincing him to stay to his coming to terms with his new role and executing it flawlessly has been about the Maestro teaching all of us, from the newest culer to the most wizened denizen of the entorno, something wonderful.

Patience.

So many things make so much sense when we try to reason them out.

At the beginning of this season, my reasons that Barça wasn’t going to win any silver this season, but would be ready to rock and roll next season made perfect sense. New coach, new system, new things to learn, a big batch of new players to integrate into an unforgiving system as well as having a key part of that system essentially unavailable for the first half of the season. It just didn’t make sense to believe that team would win silver.

Couple that with major rivals who had improved in the summer, who were loaded and ready for bear and there was just no rational way to believe that the team, as it sat before the start of the season, was going to win stuff.

Lesson learned.

That team, the one that a great many supporters believed was not up to it, poorly run and had lost its way, took part in a glorious celebration of the Liga championship today, at home, on a day that made everyone happy. Xavi got to ride off into the figurative sunset having hoisted the trophy. Depor never stopped fighting, and earned the draw that allowed them to avoid the drop, fans got a party. It was a day on which everybody won, even tissue manufacturers as culers needed piles of them to soak up the tears.

In a sport where change is necessary and turnover almost guaranteed, it boggles the mind to think of a player battling for the same club for his entire career, essentially. Yes, Xavi is headed for Qatar to perform his duties there, but it isn’t the same. It isn’t putting on the Blaugrana and striding into battle, or clashing for his national team. And there was Xavi, more than 700 matches and more than a decade in the colors, shedding tears as he waved goodbye (for now).

To cap the lessons of the day and season, how fitting was it that a player who was struggling in the face of more fashionable midfielders back in the day, overcame all of that to become the reference. It was the value of patience, of not rushing to judgment, of keeping the view on the long picture. The game came to Xavi, and Xavi owned it.

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Patience is something that was in very short supply this season, one that has turned out pretty wonderful by any standard. And it isn’t a news flash to state that this was an exceptionally difficult season to be a supporter of FC Barcelona. It was nasty, divisive and angry, savage and impatient as a group chafed when something magical somehow came to be considered some sort of birthright.

The team wasn’t playing right, nor with the right players. Formations were wrong, what it was doing was wrong, the results were a sham, an empty triumph as they weren’t achieved in the right way. A fanbase spent the season at each others throats in an odd sort of Crusades.

The Guardiola Treble season was this thing that rushed past before anyone really had the chance to figure out what was happening. The team kept winning, kept doing wonderful things on a football pitch and suddenly, soci cards with 6 cups on it were being mailed out. “Huh? What?”

This season, when the team has the chance to make history again by performing a feat that few teams have ever achieved, never mind achieving twice, we’ve all been too busy fighting each other to fully enjoy it. And it’s a shame. Winning is the most wonderful thing that an athlete can do, and the most wonderful thing that a group of supporters can have the opportunity to witness. And at the risk of being branded a fool who only cares about results, winning is wonderful however it happens.

That is so easy to forget as a once-in-a-lifetime group of players led by a wee Argentine genius makes us forget just how hard winning is. Last year, even with a temp coach, a pile of injuries and enough psychological trauma to have any normal human sitting in a corner blubbering, this amazing team came with 5 goals of being in for a shout at a treble. Again. Five goals.

The coach who got them so close is all but forgotten. He came up short, had stupid BBQs when he should have been running the players hard, etc, his achievements washed away in a blizzard of misunderstanding. With so much talk about how the board is wasting the careers and time of great players by not giving the team all of the tools that it needs to succeed, it sometimes feels like we, as supporters, are wasting time fighting and staking out space.

“If you want to win like that, go ahead … ”

I want to win, and I don’t give two shits how. It’s hard to explain how happy winning the Liga made me. It’s silly when you consider how the exploits of a group of athletes brings so much joy and despair in equal measures, but that’s sport. It was a triumph that came in the face of a world being against the team that I love. Not just rivals, but many of its own supporters.

No, this isn’t telling anyone how to support a club, or calling anyone out for being insufficiently culer, or any of the other stuff that warring factions have hurled at each other this season of staring into a nonexistent abyss. It’s more an observation, and a plea that has roots in a personal observation.

My wife and I don’t fight. It isn’t that we don’t have conflict, or don’t believe in fighting. We just don’t believe in wasting even a second of time doing anything other than loving each other as much as we can, of recognizing that the time you waste is gone forever. We have always been that way, even when younger. We don’t, as humans, have time to waste. The ticking of seconds brings all of us inevitably closer to the end of our lives.

That realization tends to make me seem rather silly to some folks, as I leap up from my office chair in the mid-afternoon and shout, “Shake break!” It’s an occasional ritual where I go to get a chocolate milkshake. Why? Because it makes me happy. I rearrange my days so that I can ride the train home with my wife. Why? Because it makes me happy. Life should be filled with as much joy as it can possibly be, and sport is part of that joy.

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Hell, in many ways a goal that is scrabbled out in the 93rd minute from a broken play against a parked opponent brings even more joy than a 7-0 destruction. That sense of having overcome adversity is magical, and unifying. You hug a complete stranger and dance around the room for no other reason other than your joy needs to have a bulwark of humanity to splash against. It’s more fun watching matches with the Chicago Penya because of that, because of the shared experience of loving Barça.

At the end of a Liga season during which so, so much has been found wanting, I learned a lot, and not just how happy being wrong can make me. Most of what I learned was patience. New signings arrived, and were deemed inadequate before they had even had the Camp Nou presentation. Rakitic wasn’t Kroos. Bravo wasn’t Keylor Navas. Mathieu was a year too late and overpriced, as we could have gotten him for less last season. Rafinha isn’t Thiago, and why did they have to sell him. Vermaelen is a waste of money, Douglas a corrupt payoff to Traffic. Ter Stegen might be fine later, but he’s young and error-prone, just you wait. Suarez was the only signing that anyone liked.

Patience lets things unfold, patience waits before making a judgment. What if Xavi had thrown up his hands, and skulked away from Barça in failure? What of the joys we would have missed? The career of Xavi is one long, glorious paean to patience, and not just in persevering at the club that he loved. The way he plays is patient, from the constant looks around even when he doesn’t have the ball so that when he does have it, he can extend time and be patient, because he already knows how the world is around him. It’s the first touch that caresses the ball with absolute certainty, extending time because of all the things he has to worry about, knowing where the ball is isn’t one of them.

Patience, always patience. Pep Guardiola didn’t receive much notice or belief when he said that Enrique would do great, would do better than he did, even. And why should he, really? People who don’t know, know better and I was one of those people. You wonder if Guardiola looked at what the team had and what it acquired, understood how Rakitic was going to develop, what Bravo had, the look in Messi’s eye and what Enrique did at Celta, and knew in that way that people with vision understand. Was the wonder of this season’s Messi forged in that painful, longing look he gave the World Cup trophy? Dunno.

Guardiola was patient as the Barça coach, as he is now as the Bayern coach. It takes time to build a system, to create the automatic acts being performed by the right people. Many believe the 2011 Barça squad was better than the Treble-winning side because that team was the epitome of this, an organism functioning at its highest level. Treble Barça was a lightning strike, but that double-winning Barça was a rollercoaster ride of constant beauty as momentum swept a delirious fanbase along.

But it took time to build that juggernaut. And patience.

In two weeks’ time this season will, for better or worse, be over. And I can honestly say that I have enjoyed every second of it, every goal, every win. It has been a season not stalked by tragedy and heartache. But more than all of that, I have learned a lot from people who are smarter that me, people who are even more patient than me, not only because that’s what we’re supposed to do. We are supposed to cling to joy even as we understand that joy, by its very nature, is fleeting.

But if there was one thing I could change about this season that has been joyful almost from the first clean sheet to the title celebration today, it would be the anger, the joyless quality that permeated so much of this year. The team triumphed because at some point in time the players realized that the entire team, from coaching staff and equipment manager to players, were all in it together. They might agree or disagree, but if the boat was going to reach its destination, everybody was going to have to pull on the same oars, just as hard. Xavi helped forge that bond, even as your mind says “Of COURSE he did.”

Xavi is leaving because he feels that it is the right time, and not athletically. He has been, in every way, Capita this season, in preparing the team for his absence. They are together. That unity has been the most exquisite thing about this club, even when it leads to things that make us scream, like players foregoing shots to pass to a teammate. I don’t know if this team will win the treble this season. But I know that great players united can’t be defeated. They might lose a match, but they will never be defeated. You get the feeling Thomas Vermaelen is going to get a lot of hugs and SMS messages after his almost heartbreaking quote, “I won the Liga title but I don’t feel like it’s mine. These players aren’t just the best in the world but excellent people.”

And as culers, we should strive to reach the same heights as the players we so enjoy, and in many cases, revere. Because that makes the beautiful game even more so, and who doesn’t love beauty.

group

Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Messi, Thoughts15 Comments

FC Barcelona is Messi’s team, aka “The littlest giant takes full control”

FC Barcelona is Messi’s team.

For years, such things have been intimated, really since Pep Guardiola decided to unleash Messi as a false 9, but they have always felt premature. Scoring the most goals and influencing matches with brilliance doesn’t mean that it’s your team, nor does being the most talented among the captains.

This season is the very first season in which it can be truly and fully said that this is Messi’s team, as the boy genius who has seemed perpetually young even in his mid-20s, became a man. It isn’t just the hardness around his face, that chiseled edge that speaks as much to maturity as fitness. From this chair, four things happened that made the adulthood of Lionel Messi as clear as can be, and truly stamped his authority on Barça:

The right wing

When Messi exploded into vibrant, fantasy football life, it was from the right. This was of necessity as much as anything else, because Barça had Eto’o and Henry running around. But from false 9 days on, Messi became a beast of the center of the pitch, able to make his runs and score his goals from a space that gave him full access to both angles. Coaches tried to play Messi on the right before, once the false 9 goal blizzards began, and it didn’t go well. This season, there he was on the right, and he gave everything. No pouting, no sulking, match after match. Media types and supporters called Enrique a fool for doing this, for taking his best player away from where he could do the most damage, and neither he nor Messi cared, because they understood what was going on.

When it first started, some called it a launch pad rather than a prison, but Messi playing on the right and happily doing so was more than that. It was an important step in the full and complete maturation of a footballer. It was important that Messi play on the right because that was what the team needed. It shifted the attack, opened up the pitch for the likes of Neymar, Sandro, Munir and eventually Suarez, it created a positional fluidity that found all three attackers popping up anywhere. People considered Messi position on the right and suggested that he would be able to score more goals from the right, having only a fullback to beat, etc, etc. But it wasn’t about goals – it was about influencing the match in a decisive way.

It has always been considered that scoring goals is the most effective way that Messi can help Barca. His dynamic, match-changing play from the right wing put the lie to that notion. Messi embraced the right because he knew. He wasn’t ready to embrace it when Martino tried it, but he also knew that the team didn’t have the pieces for him to thrive on the right. Enrique did. But even more than that, it was the first sign that Barça’s best player was interested in being a full and complete team player.

Giving Neymar some

Barça was playing Sevilla, and won a free kick. It was automatic, the presumption that Messi was going to take the ensuing free kick because aside from the occasional moment of deference to Xavi. Messi takes all of the Barça free kicks and penalties. He and Neymar chatted briefly, then Messi stepped back. Neymar hoofed it, and golazo. Logically as a left-footed player, it made sense for Messi to let a right-footer take that shot. It opened up the option for the curler into the near corner, thus enhancing the possibility of a Barça goal. But Barca has gotten free kicks in similar positions before, and Neymar has never been allowed to take one, until now. Messi understands that if a group of attackers is going to truly and fully equal, small gestures are important. Neymar knows that he isn’t as good a free kick taker as Messi. So does Messi. But a leader does this.

Then in May, during a shellacking of Cordoba in which Neymar was having one of those “ass over teakettle” matches, in which he just couldn’t seem to hit the broad side of a barn. And then, PENALTY! Everybody knew, once again, that Messi was going to take it. But again, Messi and Neymar chatted briefly, and Neymar stepped to the spot. Goal! Neymar got a goal, got a very positive feeling from what could have been a psychological mess of a match for him, and quite possibly got the mental boost that made him the player who helped put Bayern to the sword.

The free kick and the penalty kick being handed over by Messi were huge. Only the Sevilla free kick mattered for the final scoreline, and whether you want to call it deference or benevolence, the effect was massive.

Those Atleti goals

Atletico rolled into the Camp Nou, the team that Barça had not, in try after try the previous season, been able to beat. They attacked with a flooded midfield, and the answer was really a simple one even as it was one that ran counter to everything that culers had come to believe in: bypass the midfield. It made perfect sense, because if an opponent creates a danger zone, why not just go around or over it? But years of institutional arrogance, for lack of a better descriptive, demanded that Barça work its magic, set up triangles of sprites and work its way toward a logical, lovely goal. But when Messi charged at Atleti, they didn’t know what hit them. He was in the box so quickly, faked that defender out of his boots so adroitly that panic set in. In past years, Messi would have taken that shot. Atleti was playing him to take the shot. So when he slid that ball across the box to Suarez that eventually became a tap-in for Neymar, Atleti was stunned and on the back heels.

But it was the second goal that was all the more stunning, because it had been some time since any of us had seen Messi with the kind of determination and pace that seemed almost violent. He chested the ball down on the dead run so that it landed in front of him, in stride. What you see in Messi’s wake is four Atleti players all running in from the midfield that had been abandoned by Barça, a futile chase in an effort to stop what was inevitable. Messi ran at the defense and cut toward the center, his usual stomping ground. The defense played Messi for the shot, because what else would you do. It’s Messi, in the box. But without even breaking stride Messi slotted a lovely diagonal for Suarez, who bashed home.

Both of those goals were essentially created by Messi. In the past, those might have been “Oooooh!” runs that sparked the “So close” posts in social media as Messi tried some shot from a crazy angle that was parried by the keeper. But by making that extra pass, chances became sure things. Messi was more interested in putting the knife in. More importantly, he had the trust and confidence to know that Neymar wasn’t going to miss.

Messi the protector

Late in the championship-cliinching match, Atleti, and in particular Diego Godin, had gotten just about enough of Neymar, who had been winding them up as usual in the match, gamesmanship for him but personal for them. Godin snapped, and wanted to have at Neymar. Who was it that got in Godin’s face and pushed him away from Neymar? Messi. In the past during rows such as this, Messi was always standing off in midfield somewhere, looking at the fools who want to do stuff other than score goals and make magic. Even when Messi was fouled as the catalyst for such a scrum, he was always at a dignified reserve. Not today, not this year, not against his team. He took Godin away, then took Neymar aside to keep him from doing something that could potentially create an opportunity for Atleti. And subsequently, he stood, face-to-face with another Atleti player, jawing and not even considering backing down.

Badass Messi has always been the player on the pitch, on the attack, who does magical things to beat a team. Badass Messi has never before been the player who sticks his chest in to defend his team, in their house. At the end of a season that cemented this Barca as Messi’s team, those actions from the smallest player on the pitch made clear what so many had been saying for years: this is Messi’s team.

Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts26 Comments

Atletico de Madrid 0, Barça 1, aka “Campions”

team

In 08-09 Barça won a Liga that became a Treble, and nobody expected it.

Then Barça won a Liga and pretty much everybody expected it.

Then again Barça won a Liga that was tainted by Champions League failure and the departure of a player whose exit was laid at the feet of that record points total.

This season Barça has won a Liga and again there are complexities with a team that is in many ways the antithesis of the Barça that so many fell in love with during the Guardiola years. This team works its collective asses off. Winning a league championship isn’t a match or two, or getting a team hot streak at the right time. Winning a Liga is about time in the trenches, about digging matches out in Valencia and battling lesser teams buoyed by their home crowd. It’s about finding goals where there are none, about week in and week out, finding a way to win when such a thing seems illogical.

All of those things come from consistency and hard work, on the training pitch and during matches. Today, Barça won the Liga by not only winning the match that it had to, but returning the favor of Atleti coming into the Camp Nou and needing a draw to secure the Liga crown. They got that draw, and celebrated on the field of the vanquished. Even as today’s victory, for the symmetrical reasons embodied in the adage “Turnabout is fair play” was something particularly special, you wonder if the players really thought about that during the match, if they took extra motivation from that.

In many ways the ultimate characterization of this Barça isn’t just sweat and vigor, but how willing the most talented goalscorer in the game moved to the right wing, became the best passer in the game, just did what was necessary.

This Barça is as pragmatic a group of show ponies as any of us are likely to witness any time soon. This group has, all season, done enough. Today was another 1-0 victory, and a victory that showed off all of the parts of the team. Messi scored the goal, but Bravo made the saves to keep Atleti out. The team kept the ball, and finally frustrated Atleti to the point of froth. Pedro made the layoff that set up Messi for the goal, Mascherano spent the entire match saying “No” to Fernando Torres, telling “El Nino” to come back when he’s all grown up and Pique was the resurrected monster he has been for the better part of this season.

The challenge, when writing about this team, will be to search for the easy answer. People have done this all season, right from the beginning of things as the team was, week after week, match after match, castigated for not living up to some standard. This player out, that player out, this transfer was stupid, that transfer was stupid, #luchoout, they will never beat Atleti.

A football team is a sum of its parts. From the rotation to the subs to the lineup that seemed as if its coach didn’t have a clue about he wanted as a world sat in armchairs or at desks and judged, Barça became the sum of its parts, a thing that could rely on many different ways to dispatch an opponent. Counters, set pieces, golazos from distance and intricate crazy quilts of elegance all resulted in goals this season. So the sum of Barça’s parts is a championship team, something that feels as weird to type as it does to bat around in your head.

Because according to too many, it wasn’t supposed to happen. And that includes me. RM was, at the start of the season, the best team that anyone had seen since the Guardiola sides. The Liga was, according to some, going to be over by midway, a fascinating thing that, like the various crises Barça has gone through this season, didn’t have a basis in reality. It was almost like wins that didn’t come the right way were being treated as losses, and as the team stayed close to RM in the standings, finally capitalizing on some slip-ups to take the reins, people didn’t know what to do so the focus changed from psychic management of the inexplicable, to attempts to explain the inexplicable.

So many were so ready, so willing to say “Hmph. Told you so,” that when that option was no longer available it sparked a new set of evaluative challenges.

“Well, Messi did it.” “Individual brilliance.” “They are playing essentially coachless, in spite of Enrique.” The leaps of faith to make such things accurate would necessitate ignoring the improvements that were coming, and coming fast, from set piece facility on both ends of the pitch to midfield fluency of a different sort. And then, when Barça beat RM in the “wrong” way to solidify a lead in the standings, the situation was even more complex.

The summit of Mt. A-HA! was Anoeta, and the “crisis.” Messi wasn’t speaking to Enrique. Enrique wasn’t speaking to Messi. When Mathieu said that something had happened on the training ground, rather than taking that statement for what it was — don’t forget it was all because Messi and Enrique came to words over a foul that Messi wanted called in a practice match — it became the confirmation of a rift. And an off-form match by the team became something more sinister, the Crisis of Catalunya.

In many ways it was a relief to some when Barça dropping points at Sevilla, because the evidence returned, the grasping at the signs that something was broken instead of two moments of professionals not doing their work as they should have, and leaving it at that. Because this has been a season of doubt, a poisonous entorno in which so many have looked for reasons why the team would not, rather than why it would.

And through it all, this team didn’t care. I really don’t know if this team has cared all season about what anyone has said, anywhere. And as social media has whipped up semantic firestorms and various “A-HA!” moments happened the team kept working, kept building something wonderful, something that would enable it to be called Champions.

Crucial matches are always called “finals,” as in “this week there are two finals.” But we underestimate the pressure, the incessant pressure of a Liga in which every match is a final, in which the smallest slip-up could give your high-powered, eternal rival just enough of an edge to bolt the lock on championship hopes and dreams. Atleti didn’t come up short this season for lack of effort or conviction. People can reduce it to them losing Costa and Courtois all they like. But the reality, or part of it, is that when Atleti won the Liga crown it became a big team, and got the effort previously reserved for Barça and RM. It was draining, and pressure-packed and conspired to show the frailties of a group, from a thrown boot to Diego Godin wanting to fight Neymar on the pitch as the latter smiled and winked. It didn’t matter to him as it was all part of the game, part of what you do.

Pragmatic. Wind them up and they are a mess. Flick the ball, do a nutmeg or two and they become more concerned with fouling you than stopping what your teammates are trying to do. It makes perfect sense, as inelegant as it is, but that, too, has been Barça this season, a team forged in the nasty, hard-working, square jawed visage of its coach, a leader that really hasn’t been accepted as one by people who should know better.

Even in the wake of Barça dispatching Bayern, exorcising another demon that pressed hard upon the things this team was trying to build, the aftermath was about Guardiola and what he did wrong, rather than Enrique and what he did right. And he just sat in pressers and said “It’s about the next match.” All season has been about the next match because with enough of these, you become the champion.

Today’s “next match” was typical of the season, really, irrespective of the opponent. Barça played in the manner necessary to win. Today, it kept the ball, defended when necessary and relied on some saves by its keeper, another person who wasn’t good enough, until he was. And then, suddenly, an exquisite passage of play capped by a sterling finish resulted in a goal. And then the team returned to the task of being grounded, of demonstrating one of the most important things in this season’s championship run: a defense.

If you want to win, first you have to not concede. 1-0 might be a fraught scoreline, but except for the two Bravo parries, Atleti really didn’t look like scoring from open play, and because Barça has become so solid in set piece defending, they really had no available option to score. So the 1-goal win accompanied by a clean sheet got it done.

Rakitic and Pedro worked like dogs today, both typical really of the perception of this team, as so many culers found themselves wishing that both players were someone else, as they were judged to be “not Barça standard.” But as they fought, and clawed, and ran and battled you began to wonder if this Barça, the one that is now champion of La Liga, didn’t have a different standard.

You could accuse Luis Enrique of a lot of things as a player, but shirking work wasn’t one of them. So why should it be a shock that his team would be fit, physically and psychologically strong and ready to put an opponent down at the slightest moment of weakness. Football is as much about work as it is about beauty. The mistake so many made was in not recognizing the work that was being put in by this Barça in the hands of its coach.

Rakitic said, “We wouldn’t be here without Enrique,” and the quote was pretty much ignored, because “Pah! What else would he say?” But in examining the totality of this season, an arc whose apex has terminated in a celebration on the field of the vanquished, it was clear from the start that something wonderful was coming together. And now it has.

Last season, Atleti was the single-handed barrier to Barça’s ambition. They stared that demon in the eyes and were found wanting. Last year Barça never beat Atleti, and the price was the Liga and Champions League advancement. This season, Barça beat Atleti four times. Every time the two teams met, Barça won. It was a team that came of age right before our eyes, the right combination of superstar firepower and people willing to do the work. It won today as a key member of that attacking trident, Luis Suarez, sat on the bench to completely heal a tweaked muscle.

And it still won. It didn’t just win because it had Messi. It won because it had everybody. When I look back at this wonderful season, that is the most beautiful thing about it, that everybody had a hand in the team’s success from B teamers shuttling back and forth to extravagantly compensated superstars. Even the greatest star on its studded roster stepped back to revel in being part of a team, to make his personal exploits subordinate to collective success.

This team, this beautiful, unified team that didn’t care what anyone said or did, or how much doubt was piled upon it, has won La Liga. And this group, which has for so long been compared to other groups, found the ultimate satisfaction in achieving the ultimate success in its own, beautiful way.

Campions.

Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts22 Comments

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