Back in 2014, a match against Atlético Madrid meant the impossibility of scoring, that if the rojiblancos nicked a single goal a win was impossible. Before that, Pep Guardiola’s Barça routinely went head-to-head with Atleti in unpredictable matches with wild scorelines. Luis Enrique’s Barça, however, do exactly what is needed, no more, no less – especially in its second season as players begin to tire. That uncanny ability is arguably Luis Enrique’s strongest accomplishment, and it was the defining feature of the clash at Camp Nou on Saturday.
Last season, Barça’s two encounters with Valencia were close-fought wins that perhaps deserved to be draws. Last night, the Catalans’ draw perhaps deserved to be a win, but that’s football. And there’s something satisfying in that.
Even as culés worry over dropped points and pore over missed chances, the draw at the Mestalla serves as a helpful reminder of the quality of the rest of the league and of Barça’s fallibility. Despite Luis Enrique’s team enjoying an absurd run of form lately, the reality of the transfer ban, and the realization that it will continue to affect them until January, was stark.
It seems strange to say that a coach who won the treble in his debut season could yet hit his peak, but Saturday night’s victory against Real Madrid might be Luis Enrique’s pinnacle moment as a manager.
Sure, the 3-0 defeat of Bayern Munich last spring was higher stakes and the 3-1 victory over Atlético Madrid more symbolic. This clásico had none of the raw energy and breakneck pace that Lucho’s Barça demonstrated from January to May of this year – and indeed, that might be what makes it so impressive. From the first minute, Barça were calm and composed on the ball and when the first goal came, it was after a full 1 minute and 45 seconds of possession in which nine different players touched the ball. This was a team performance – the team performance.
Eagerly anticipated returns
While Luis Enrique has yet to lose confidence in either Javier Mascherano or Jeremy Mathieu, he’ll be certain to rejoice at the prospect of counting on the services of Thomas Vermaelen and Adriano again. The former looked confident and commanding in his few performances for the blaugrana, which is exactly what the team needs at the moment. The Brazilian on the other hand is more of an alternative at left-back to Mathieu who has been abysmal this season.
Losing to Sevilla at the Sánchez Pizjuán is not a cause for panic; certainly not when Barça will at worst be two points behind Real Madrid by the end of the weekend. If the Madrid derby goes Atlético Madrid’s way, Barça could even be ahead of their arch rivals (though behind league leaders Villarreal, remarkable as that is to say).
Nor is this, however, a bogey game where Barça did everything possible and the ball simply would not go in. That bad luck argument is tempting given how many shots Barça took, but how many were good opportunity shots? Sergio Rico made many saves, it’s true, but most were less death-defying miracles and more a vigilant keeper doing his job. Simply put, Barça needed to do a lot more than improve their finishing.