Copa del Rey final, an unlikely event for an unlikely team

Take a moment to appreciate what your team has done.

Take a moment to appreciate how far it has come.

Today, Barça faces off against Athletic Club in the Copa del Rey final for what is in all probability the only shot at silver it will have this season, and it’s worth reflecting on how unlikely this all seemed when Ronald Koeman assumed the reins of the squad.

Things were a mess.

Messi wanted to leave and was fighting with the board. The previous season had not only brought no silver but an endless stream of disappointment and failure, culminating in the 8-2 hammering at the hands of Bayern Munich. An aged, psychologically defeated squad looked to be going through the motions in a pandemic-weirded season. losing the plot and the Liga trophy to Real Madrid.

A reactive board seemed to be doing everything that it could to make matters worse, firing Ernesto Valverde after one of the best matches the club had played in a while and replacing him with Quique Setien, an experiment that proved what life might be like if Barça Twitter ran the club. He was strolling the countryside watching the cows, failure at Betis still echoing in his high-minded head. He came, wooed with talk of Cruijff and purity and left with his tail between his legs amid the wreckage of a squad and a season.

And then came Koeman, nobody’s ideal choice but the board was betting on a club legend, and pundits lined the fence like carrion birds awaiting the opportunity to pick at the dessicated carcass of their prey. And they didn’t go hungry.

Barça got off to a rough start, losing and drawing to teams that it had no business losing and drawing to, as Koeman experimented with various formations, quite rigidly deciding that the double pivot was going to be his thing. It wasn’t. At one point in the season, Barça was mid-table in the standings. Worse, the team looked like it belonged there. Little wonder Messi wanted out. Who wouldn’t?

Then came glimpses of things, a win here, a win there. We were still unimpressed, still “but actuallying” Koeman and the accomplishments of his team out of necessity more than anything else, that relutcance that a trophy-hungry world has to admit that a building process is going on, that something is happening.

Pedri was a revelation, a player who would need to bulk up to be called slight. Mingueza and Araujo came up from B to add options to a defense that nobody would consider stalwart. Sergino Dest arrived from Ajax and suddenly everyone had dreams of wingers-cum-fullbacks dancing in their heads. Wonder of wonders, Ousmane Dembele started the off-season fit, stayed fit and played his way into Koeman’s XI. Suddenly Messi even started looking happy and committed, frolicking with Pedri as something began working. Ilaix Moriba was called up from the B squad, many assumed, to work with the first team and get a sense of what life would be like next season. Nope. He was inserted into match after match at key moments, at first because Pjanic was injured and now because he’s a better option.

Then Atleti decided it would go from juggernaut to would-be conqueror atop rickety stilts and suddenly, at the end of a streak of Liga successes, Barça found itself in the title race, a weird kind of remuntada that found an analog in the unlikely Copa del Rey semifinal victory against Sevilla, another remuntada that didn’t really begin until the dying embers of the match and an unlikely goal, a result that was solidiified.

And here we are, in a place that nobody would have expected the team to be in at this point of the season. Two points off the top of the table and in the Copa del Rey final as something of a favorite. To say it has all been weird would be an understatement. But something else worth noting is that this team has overacheived.

It’s easy to say that any team with Messi should have a shot at winning stuff, and there are people who assert that, people willing to gloss over how flawed this team was and still is, the psychological voodoo that Koeman worked to get his players to believe that they could be better than they should be. Lost amid all the statistics and assertions of the devoted that Messi is still Messi, is the reality that Messi is no longer Messi. It doesn’t mean that he isn’t still a great player, but he is a great player diminished, a player who no longer rises to the biggest stages to assert his alien nature to an adulatory world. PSG was failure, the Classic was failure. Messi needs more help from his teammates now, a group ill-equipped to provide that help.

Had anyone told me that Barça would, at this point of the season, be in the Copa final and in with a shout at the Liga title, I would have looked around for the cameras and the people ready to pop out and laugh at me for falling for foolishness. In the Liga standings, now in third place, Barça is right around where they deserve to be if you look at the squad and its capabilities. But thankfully teams such as Sevilla and Villarreal are resolute in being themselves and Barça has been elevated not only by its own success but the failure of others. “This team isn’t good enough to be much more than what and where it is” are words that tug at the minds of honest culers.

And Koeman deserves credit for getting this team to this moment in what is in reality the first of what will probably be two rebuilding years as the squad is reshaped, this first one lost to grim fiscal reality, the same thing that will define the second rebuilding year. But even as Koeman has yet to outmanage a top manager, he has instilled a fight in his team, a quality that even if it isn’t the swagger of Zidane’s Real Madrid squad, can carry them through a great many challenges.

To this point, pepole have scoffed at Barça beating “easy” teams, taking their lack of success against better ones as proof of something. But for a squad in the shape that Barça’s is in, there are no easy teams, no gimmes. That is reserved for the high-functioning teams of the past. And when the season started, Barça was drawing and losing to “easy” teams, something easy to forget as we now sit in the “what have you done for me lately” world of a group of overacheivers.

And now, a final against the team that it was always going to be in Athletic Club, the same team that wrested whatever the SuperCopa is now from the hands of Barça via an Inaki Williams golazo that typified the season for Barça — so near and yet so far. Win or lose, we should appreciate this team even if we are loath to celebrate them because of the burdens we carry of history and outsized expectations. Because sometimes, like the time my wife and I got hopelessly lost in Paris and found ourselves on Rue Mouffetard and its array of gustatory delights, you end up where you are via an unlikely path. Whether you deserve to be there is entirely beside the point. Just enjoy it.

By Kxevin

In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.