There is a point in most action movies that involve a hero, where the hero gets wounded. The bad guy fights better than was anticipated. Or in a Bruce Lee movie, he gets a cut, then tastes his own blood.
Then all hell breaks loose.
Today at the Camp Nou, there was a moment, an interminable moment, when a packed stadium was in fact a vacuum. Nobody breathed in the wake of — not again! — a collision between Messi and an opposing keeper that — not again! — left the best player in the game in a crumpled heap.
When Betis keeper Adan blazed out of his box, hell-bent for leather, the main task on his mind was to clear the ball. Everything else, including Messi, was collateral damage. Messi came off for a bit and was fine, though he will probably have a sore neck tomorrow. And like that moment when the hero receives a wake-up call, Messi came to life, and that was all she wrote for the hopes of Betis.
There were a great many impressions to be gathered from this match, but the biggest one was that Barça gives. There isn’t a team in the game right now good enough to take anything from Barça when it doesn’t want to give anything. Betis was a mid-table side that was made to look like a plaything. Valencia got a late draw when Barça lost interest. Deportivo grabbed a draw when Barça, thinking the game was a wrap, stopped doing the things that earned it the lead, made a couple of silly mistakes, and that was that.
In this first match back after the holiday break, the team began sluggishly — losing balls, Messi slipping and sliding, Neymar making us wish for the return of his all-business haircut. The team looked a mess. After Messi got slammed, it seemed to wake everybody up.except for Sergi Roberto, who came off the team bus on the prowl, stomping the terra like a midfield Puyol.
All of the cherished things: la pausa, triangles, half-spaces, were part of the attack today as Barça played football in a way that reduced Betis to practice dummies. The fourth goal was the most extravagant, a series of deft flicks resulting in a Neymar backheel, which Suarez slotted home. It was an absurd goal, a crazy sort of high-wire act that, as Ray Hudson says, operates at a frequency that would deafen a bat.
But it all got off to a rather clunky, junky start as Barça got some big-time referee assistance on a day in which the ref’s performance during the RM/La Real match was all the talk of scoffing culers. They were gifted a handball penalty, when the ball caromed off the defender’s thigh and into his arm. No way, in no league is that a penalty, except in La Liga.
When Adan came to clear the ball, he punched it away. Messi was just near the ball. The subsequent penalty wasn’t. It might not have been as goofy as the thighball penalty that RM received, but it was every bit as big a gift, the final score notwithstanding. Neymar slipped, landed on his butt and hit the crossbar, for the first of 5 times during this match that Barça players would strike the woodwork. But in the ensuing melee to get to the rebound, a Betis defender knocked it into his own net, all while Neymar sat on the pitch like, “Hmm. Looka that.” Goofy.
But that second goal. Oh, my. It was four touches, all between Neymar and Messi, all on the dead run, a sequence of play that looked easy even as it was remarkable, high-speed perfection. Neymar to Messi, who flipped a deft lob back to Neymar, who threaded his return pass through defender legs to find Messi, who touched it home. Every pass was perfectly weighted, timed to meet the feet of the flying teammate.
It’s moments such as that where you wonder how Barça ever even draws a match, much less loses one. When two of its players can do that, can render a defense helpless as they and the ball move too fast for anyone to do anything, why don’t they score every time they have the ball? It looked so easy, even as it was so difficult.
From that moment on, the biggest danger that Barça faced was to itself, losing interest in a way that might let Betis back into the match, something that wasn’t on the cards today. The third goal was quite a bit simpler. Busquets, when he is on form, is always where the ball is. So when Betis tried to play out of the back, pressed by Sergi Roberto, Busquets found himself exactly where the loose ball was. He controlled it, slid an elegant ball to Suarez, who made no mistake.
The culerverse exploded, and people began the inferiority complex-sparked chattering that Busquets is the most underrated midfielder in the world. No, he isn’t. It’s why he is desired by so many clubs, why his name always comes up in transfer rumors. If you watch the game, you know. There was a while where yes, he was underrated, but those days are long past. He is exactly who people think that he is, a gangly DM who can destroy and create in one beautiful sequence. His pass made the job so easy for Suarez.
Barça had chances to put Deportivo away and didn’t, had chances to put Valencia away, and didn’t. Betis wouldn’t be another instance of the mouse escaping, and the fourth goal was a magical exclamation. On the break, Neymar was hurtling up the pitch in the center, flanked by Messi and Suarez. For defenders and keepers, that is a bona-fide nightmare, a situation in which the three best attacking players in the game are running at you, minds full of things that aren’t even part of your thought process, because the game works differently for players of that caliber.
Suarez got himself back onside as Neymar dashed, From there it became a game of ping pong, Neymar to Suarez to Adriano to Neymar who, on the doorstep, had the audacity to attempt a spinning backheel to Suarez, who slammed home. And here’s the thing: Neymar was covered. Some will suggest that the backheel was trickery, but that was the only way to get the ball to Suarez. You have to play Neymar for the shot on the doorstep even as Suarez is running. But you can’t cover every possibility even if you consider the ones that are part of your mortal template.
A Betis defender threw up his arms in exasperation, when it’s rather easy to imagine him wanting to applaud. This wasn’t a golazo, wasn’t some moment of individual brilliance. None of the goals today were. They were all team goals of the highest order, based in work and countless hours of rondos, skills that mean it’s impossible for a defense to cover every angle, every corridor down which a ball can be winnowed. Attackers make bad decisions with the ball all of the time. It’s what separates top-table teams from bottom ones.
On most teams, Suarez shoots too early, or Adriano tries a blast from distance, because why not? Neymar tries to spin on the defender for the shot — so many opportunities to make the wrong decision. But Barça play is, often to its detriment, the quest for the sure thing, the goal that at the end of a sequence of play, is unstoppable. There were two such goals today, tallies that illustrated in many ways why the standard for the team is so high, why its supporters often seem so disgruntled.
When a team can score goals like that, the possibilities are such that you wonder why magic can’t happen every time. It seems so easy, that how can it not be? It also makes us realize how good this football team is. We groaned as Mathieu took the pitch at LB, but he was good today. Adriano came in, and he was good. Vermaelen was commanding in his CB role, on a day where Enrique had to rest and rotate some starters because of the derby on the weekend. It didn’t matter. When Barça plays its game, it doesn’t matter.
Valencia didn’t take a draw. It was handed to them. Deportivo got a gift. Betis didn’t. And the crazy part is that this team is about to get significantly better, as in a day, Aleix Vidal and Arda Turan will be registered and ready to play. So those fatigue-based moments when Alves, Alba or Iniesta get a bit draggy from fatigue, there is a pair of top quality replacements waiting, players who capable of sustaining the same mind-bendingly high levels of play, while adding tactical versatility.
Teams often let matches go because they get psychologically slack. With the injuries to key players, Luis Enrique often hasn’t had much of a choice. Now he can take off Iniesta, and bring on Arda Turan. Neymar can get rest, Alves can get rest. Sergi Roberto can play in the hole, and Busquets can get rest. Two players are capable of adding so much to the team, that their arrival becomes like driving a car with turbo lag — you mash the throttle, and nothing happens. Then suddenly, everything happens.
As good as last year’s team was, this year’s Barça has the potential to be even better, because it suddenly got a lot more versatile, and as deep as an ocean. Betis was unlucky today. Barça wasn’t in a giving mood. It’s hero tasted his own blood, got up off the floor and did what heroes always do, aided by sidekicks who could be heroes in their own right. How is anyone supposed to be able to deal with that?