Moods, feelings and perspectives. Over the time many of us have been supporting this football club, there have been phases.
The last days of Frank Rijkaard featured a team that got creative about ways to lose matches. It was, at the end, a dispirited bunch that expected the worst to happen and was rarely disappointed. Errors, bad passes, once in a lifetime goals against, you name it, it happened. Snakebit? It’s an interesting theory that sometimes can be answered by “Well, if you didn’t walk where there were snakes … ”
The Tata Martino season will always be considered the epitome of failure instead of a stupefying battle against all the odds by a team that finally came up short. Revisionist history? Perhaps. But Barça was off on a record-setting run that season, until the body blows in the form of heartache began to pile up. Then it all got to be too much, as the team went from on course for a treble, to nothing.
This team is different, and it feels different. There isn’t any heartache or body blows, except from fatigue. The team isn’t finding ways to lose, isn’t putting up desultory scorelines with zeroes on them. It’s finding ways to win matches even as it isn’t playing at its best as a collective, nor are the individuals in anything approaching their best form, and still the group is finding ways to win.
What history won’t record is that even with an out-of-form team banging its head against the entire Atleti team, the crucial goal was right there, in that Champions League tie. The necessary goals against RM in the Classic were right there, even as the fatigue-based mistakes accumulated. There were chances galore against La Real, and the team didn’t play much differently against Valencia than Deportivo. Same quality. It just took its chances against Depor.
Chances. The first goal that was scored today wasn’t pretty, but it still counted. A group that wants to find a way to lose doesn’t score that goal because nobody is in the right position to capitalize on an error by the opponent. A few matches ago, even Barça doesn’t score that goal, because Messi isn’t there, isn’t charging around like the best player in football, playing on the best football team in the world right now.
Opponents understand that Barça is still the best team in the world, and the string of recent matches have demonstrated this in rather different ways. In Champions League, Simeone stored his pride and stopped playing Barça as an equal. His team nicked a goal, and then defended with everybody in the box. It isn’t only what a relegation side does. It’s also what a practical team does when it gets a lead in a match that it has to win.
Deportivo walked about, put in enough effort to break a sweat but not really full out, because it has other, winnable battles to fight. Barça won 0-8 in a romp, and the Depor supporters hooted their players off the pitch, clearly lacking the same pragmatism of the athletes they support.
Sporting Gijon came to the Camp Nou, and started the match with a rotation lineup. There were seven changes from the team that beat Sevilla in the match previous, saying the same thing as Depor, but in a different way. Barça didn’t have to play all out, and kinda sashayed about in the first half. Sporting nicked a chance or two, including one that needed to be cleared off the line not once by twice, as Claudio Bravo went on walkabout. There was a goal that should have been disallowed for clearly being offside, and a ridiculous penalty and red card that should get the ref who made the call banished to Segunda as a punishment.
There were also misplaced passes, continued evidence of the individual and collective form slumps even as players such as Messi are showing signs of working their way out, and an essential win is on the books as both Liga championship rivals also won on the same matchday.
Suarez has now scored four goals in consecutive matches, a stunning accomplishment even if you consider that the two teams that Barça have faced are essentially relegation fodder.
There are bright sides to be taken from a match that won’t be on anyone’s “Gotta watch that one again” list. The team got it done, and the Liga title race is poised on a knife’s edge. Did it have to be this way? Think of all the regrettable things that have happened in your existences, and how many of them have been your fault. We rue our errors, we replay incidents and wish that we had done things differently. But life is what it is, as are the decisions that we make and the actions we take.
When Suarez strolled past that open net chance against RM, you can bet the house that he was convinced that others would come, because they always do. It’s what Barça does. Right up until the final whistle, a team that scores goals for fun was absolutely convinced that they could find one against Atleti, then win the tie in extra time, because that’s what it has always done.
This feels like a weird season because it is fraught with the kind of drama that is normal for most teams and their supporters, who teeter totter on the standings, and the effect of a win or loss. It’s the kind of stuff that is pretty abnormal for culers, who pretty much only have to worry about what to wear to the next victory parade. In many ways, it’s fascinating to see how a team and its supporters deal with that uncertainty, that normalcy. Winning everything isn’t normal, even when it happens. Losing is normal. Losing is to be expected as teams go through phases.
Neymar is a perfect example. Two months ago, not to mention during the stretch where he was the catalyst for everything good that happened for Barça while Messi was injured, the game was easy for him. He ran, pranced, stroked passes and goals home with an ease that belied the insane difficulty of the game as it is played at the highest level. That dude is now in a slump, and the game isn’t easy at all. Not any longer. Decisions are wrong, passes are not made or held too long and he’s getting kicked pretty much every time he gets the ball, now that teams have discovered his catalyst’s role in making turbocharged Barça go. Big picture folks can even trace the team’s slump to Neymar’s slump as the pace of play slowed and the capriciousness and constant danger vanished.
Barça Twitter is unrelenting in its excoriation of Neymar, but as with any slump, the player will have to find his way out by playing his way out. Could Luis Enrique sub in Rafinha or Turan in that left-sided catalyst’s role? Sure, as long as people understand that either of those players will be a significant step down from a man who is the second-best player in world football. So you keep starting him just as Luis Enrique did when Messi and Suarez were in their form troughs, because even if a sub for one of the front three has the match of their lives, it isn’t as good as a struggling version of that front three. It’s a quandary and a dilemma that the team, its coaching staff and the player will have to solve.
At times, Barça didn’t look its imperious self against Sporting Gijon. Thankfully, it didn’t have to as its coach understood the situation going into that match, and made the necessary decision attendant to battling relegation and paying a visit to the best football team in the world. The match was never in danger, the conclusion was foregone — both sides played like it.
The real question is what will happen the rest of this season? There are many who expect the team to bottle it, to drop points at some inopportune time as its rivals win out, facing late-match heartbreak as that pivotal Camp Nou match against Atleti when on the last day of the season the Liga was lost. And that might happen. But it would in no way affect the reality that this team is in a different place than its predecessors, the previous folks who faced strife and doubt, and succumbed. The team is stronger, its coach has made the group stronger. Even if the group at times seems fragile, it isn’t.
Each of the remaining three opponents will have their own decisions to make. Betis is in 13th position, with nothing to play for. It’s safe from relegation spaces, without a chance in hell at any European slots. Espanyol isn’t safe, only four points away from the relegation slots. It will have to decide whether to fight like hell against Barça, bringing a derby war that might damage its chances of staying up, or just show up and play it out, accepting fate. Granada is also in a relegation battle, facing the same complexities as Espanyol.
The path for Barça is a simple one: win. Don’t expect or ask for help. Just win. As supporters, we have our own decisions to make. I won’t be watching the Sporting match again, even as the result was as beautiful as can be because of what it represents, which is the team that I love taking a step closer to another league championship.
Success is often fear-based. Someone begins a task saying, “Man, I hope I don’t screw this up.” In athletics, it’s called playing tight. In life, it’s a prescription for adequacy. These past two matches have showcased a Barça that has moved from wishing it won’t screw anything up to expecting something good to happen. That’s the team that went on a 39-match unbeaten run, the team that made football look easy. Let’s hope those guys stick around.