(Lev is in the house again, with another guest review. And if he keeps this up, his match chronicles won’t be carrying any such qualifiers for much longer. So here ya go, folks.)
Once upon a time, a legendary Barcelona team started the league with 9 wins and 1 draw.
No, this was not Helenio Herrera’s Barcelona, a record-breaking team in its own right, snatching the league out of Di Stefano’s (or should we say Franco’s) clutches. Nor was it Cruijff’s dream team, which for all its brilliance was as lucky as it was consistent. It finally improved upon the start of Van Gaal’s Barcelona, whose methodical offense and Dutch invasion never quite captured the culé imagination. Today Rijkaard’s Barcelona, the first team since the Blue Elephant took over Camp Nou, is almost a sweet distant memory of Ronnie juking and grinning his way past defenders. And despite all the records shattered under Guardiola’s reign, he never quite started the league this well. But…
Make no mistake – this is still Pep’s team. In New York City he may be, weathering the storm like any other mortal — but he is also in the heart of every culé who watches the game in the stands of the stadium, behind a low-resolution stream on their laptop or in my case, in front of a large-screen TV at a Chinese restaurant, drinking cheap beer.
More importantly he remains in the heart of every player who was on the pitch today, each with a new-found hunger that can only come from losing. I daresay he is even in the heart of Jordi Alba, the one player who has never been Pep’s player, but of course a culé nonetheless. Tito Vilanova is the manager, the head coach, the man in charge — and oh boy, do I love that he is the man in charge right now -– and he will make the team his own eventually, but at this moment this team is still as much Pep’s as Tito’s.
Back from beating up a 3rd grader for his lunch money in our mid-week Copa game, we came out in a 3-4-3 formation featuring Valdes, Alba, Mascherano, Adriano, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Fàbregas, Villa, Messi and Pedro. Huh? What? Three at the back, you say? I thought he wasn’t going to do that anymore! Maybe it was because he wanted to give his old club a fighting chance — or perhaps because, after steadfastly refusing to play the same central defensive duo twice, Doctor Tito had simply run out of new back line combinations. But, with Puyol and Pique watching the game from up high, and Song and Bartra from the sidelines, our very own Jefecito was left to play the lone ranger, waiting for any Galician outlaw to step up and make his day.
It’s game time, and let’s not mind the defense for now, as it soon becomes clear that defense is not on our mind. Within 3 minutes of play el Guaje loses his marker with an almost Brazilian sombrero and passes to Cesc for the first warning shot -– a blast of the cannon that goes soaring over the Celta goal to put fear in Javi Varas’ heart and smoke in his ears. We mean business and try to finish the game from the start, attacking Celta de Vigo relentlessly with the ball and fighting tooth and nail to get it back whenever and wherever we lose it.
Soon Messi is found dribbling around the box, as playful as a dolphin daring its human defenders to swim along in rough waters before setting up Iniesta, whose left foot shot curls just over. A minute later Don Andres returns the favor and then some by putting Daddy Leo alone in front of the goalkeeper, but his attempted lob has the trajectory of a dirty diaper kicked straight into the air, and is easily kept out by the Celta defense. A delightful Messi-Xaviniesta combo platter also comes to nothing as Villa is offside, and Xavi’s shot is saved anyway. The referee either ignores the offside or plays the advantage and Celta counters quickly, reminding us to, yes, mind the defense.
But never mind the defense, because even with three at the back our fullbacks attack. Iniesta slices a beauty of a pass for Jordi Alba to latch unto, reach the back line and cut a cross into the box, which after not getting cleared properly gets played back in to Messi whose attempt is easily stopped by Varas. And then Celta shows us they are not dead but playing, and were only playing dead to begin with. They never mind our “defense” and put Iago Aspas one-on-one with Valdes. Luckily for us our Victorian Secret is not that easily skinned and he saves our hide. Not for the first time this season, but hey, who’s counting?
Phew. Deep breath. Saved from having to come back again, just as we were getting used to not spending 90 minutes in heart attack city every weekend. A nice and easy win, please. Our 3-4-3 formation sure makes our defense look nonexistent oh, I don’t know, anytime our opponent decides to launch a counter attack!
Never mind that. Villa, from the top of the key, passes the ball ever so softly in front of the penalty area. It almost gets intercepted but still finds its target in the form of one-third of our defense. Adriano Correia receives the ball, plays a lovely one-two with Pedro and penetrates the box to finish off the move like a natural born poacher. After 21 minutes, it’s F.C. Barcelona, masters of Earth, Wind and Grass, 1; Celta de Vigo, recently promoted fishermen testing their sea legs on the Catalonian shore, 0.
And just like that, let the party begin. This is gonna be a blow-out. The gaping holes in our defense are easily forgotten (or simply not minded) by everybody in the stadium that wears a blaugrana uniform, but not by those wearing the sky blue and white of the Galician flag. In an absolutely beautiful combination, Celta sling the leather back and forth as if the Camp Nou were a giant pinball machine, to free up Iago Aspas once again with a clear path to our goal. Again Victor Valdes saves, but this time he lets the rebound fall right in front of the goalmouth where Mario Bermejo, or Mario B, according to the MC’s name on the back of his shirt, reacts faster than Adriano to put the ball in the back of the net. And just like that, we’re level.
Besides great skill and self-belief, Celta de Vigo showed a lot of heart on that play, the heart of a team that will not be back in the Segunda next season. To come to our house and get bombarded for the first 20 minutes of the game, a lot of teams would have taken the first goal as a cue to lay down and roll over. Shut up and take the pain, stupid! Only a giant nut case would try to defend against our squirrel attack.
To their immense credit, Celta did not roll over. But they are not alone in possessing that undefinable quality, the one that although I can’t exactly say was missing last season is on such prominent display this season: heart. Ours has been pumping full throttle as of late and we have most definitely matched those of any opponent we have squared up against this temporada. So when a minute after the equalizer, Don Andrés is 40 yards from the goal and passes the ball to David Villa on the left flank, he isn’t merely content to see what will happen or maybe offer himself as an outlet for Villa to pass the ball back to. No. When el Guaje cuts inside, Iniesta dashes forward to receive a deft back-heel flick into the box. He then proceeds to turn any defender that faces him into a ghost, and gives the ball back to Villa for a self-assured tap in.
The rest of the half is spent waiting for the inevitable, namely Adriano getting injured. Or maybe he just likes to handle his groin a lot in public, who can tell? Papa Flea shows us that fatherhood has not softened him one bit when he fights the ball off of a defender to take on Javier Varas man to man…That is, until he rounds him, finds the path to goal blocked, dribbles back to where he came from, a bit further back…and helplessly loses the ball amid a forest of Gallegos. Adriano and Dani Alves perform the great Brazilian switch trick, as the former is finally taken off in order to lick his wounds. He will be out for three weeks; another defender bites the dust.
During the break Vilanova sensibly brings on Bartra for Cesc to give us a bit more defensive solidity. Bartra then looks on in horror when, at the start of the second half, Mascherano sleepily misjudges a pass and almost lets Aspas bring Celta back into the game. Mostly though, truth be told, a highly entertaining first half gave way to a definitely sluggish second. It’s not that nobody tried. It’s just that they didn’t pull it off, the notable exception of an otherwise very uneventful 45 minutes being Jordi Alba treating us with a carbon copy of his latest goal for the Spanish national team, offside and all.
Nonetheless the game ended with our collective hearts in our stomachs after Messi stayed down upon receving a knock on his knee. Haaaa….You could hear a whole stadium exhale as he got up. It was just a bruise. Ain’t no paternity leave at this here company – don’t scare us again like that. And at the end, we left the pitch with the best Liga start ever: 9 wins and 1 draw. Better than the 97/98 team of Rivaldo, Figo, Kluivert and Co.
No team has ever started this well and not won the league, we were told a couple of games ago. That age-old adage, “what does it all mean,” might be ringing in your ears.
Nothing. Zip. Nada. And yes, we are clear at the top now that that other team lost. No, not that other team. We are 8 points above that other team, though I wouldn’t want to write them off just yet.
But records are meaningless unless they come with titles, and they are especially meaningless during an era in which they are broken left and right. The league is long, and far from over. Van Gaal did not have to deal with Mourinho, at least not as an opponent. Our rivals did not have half a billion Euros worth of players back then. Anything can still happen. Let’s try to be 8 points clear after Hlebuary, and even then, let’s keep our feet on the ground. After all, it ain’t over till the fat lady burps. And right now she’s just loading up on the kool-aid.
Once upon a time a legendary team won 14 titles in 4 seasons. This was a team whose backbone came, just like its coach, from its own youth academy; a team heavily influenced by the footballing philosophy of Johan Cruijff; whose most important players debuted under Van Gaal and Rijkaard. This was a team that was talked about as one of the best teams in the history of the game, that showed the world football as it had never been played before, that stayed true to its style, win or lose — but mostly win. And when that team finally did bow out in the semi-finals of the Champions League in 2012, it had a whole stadium give its players and coach a standing ovation for all that they had given us. This was Pep’s Barça. And maybe, or actually, it was Tito’s Barcelona as well. Aren’t we the lucky ones?