Three weeks ago the title of this piece read “Barça can win the Champions League.” Of course, that is true by definition and remains in likelihood, with FC Barcelona certainly amongst the favorites. But three weeks in football is equivalent to as many flip-flops in narrative. I admit to being dazzled by the delicious 66 days between January 11th and March 18th. Barça vanquished a recently unbeatable foe, not once, not twice, but thrice, and embarrassed the reigning Premier League champion throughout a 180 minute long football recital. I was suitably seduced, even convinced. Or was I suckered?
It’s finally here. The business end of the season, the string of matches we’ve all been waiting for, is finally before us. At this time, a quick glance upon Barcelona’s situation in comparison to the continent’s other great powers could be useful. And when we say ‘situation,’ we don’t mean form. We mean how well prepared each of Europe’s powerhouses find themselves at the start line of the uphill task of battling for titles. A quick glance will certainly convince even the most doubtful that things are, in fact, looking good for Barcelona.
For the sake of comparison, we will be plotting the current status of Barcelona’s squad against the current squad status of three other Champions League quarter-finalists who are thought to have good chances of winning Europe’s premier club competition: Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, and Atlético Madrid.
The overwhelming narrative of Barcelona’s season so far has been this: Luis Enrique muddled along all fall, changing line-ups at will and ignoring the midfield, and then he and his team were galvanized into action by the crisis at Anoeta. This story of resurrection has been repeated dozens of times, and public perception of Barcelona has swung from being out-of-shape strugglers to Champions League favorites in barely more than three months. But that narrative has never really held water with me. For starters, the defeat to Real Sociedad never seemed as much of a crisis as the media and club politicians made it out to be. After all, dropping points at Anoeta, especially after a long break, seems about as natural as breathing. More importantly, I think the real roots to Barcelona’s renaissance under Luis Enrique go farther back, to the last time the Catalans faced Sevilla.
In early 2015, a fellow totalBarça colleague wrote a piece right after the (1-0) loss at the Anoeta to Real Sociedad in which he claimed that if Luis Enrique did not change his management style, the team could go into a black hole. Make no mistake; the writer only pointed out how Lucho’s team lacked identity and how the new players had not integrated well during the first months of the season. The team looked like it was heading into a black hole and, as mentioned in the article, nothing escapes from a black hole.
With the loss at the Anoeta still fresh, rumours added insult to injury and the biggest one of them was about Leo Messi’s departure. Messi following the Chelsea F.C. and Manchester City accounts on Instagram only added fuel to the fire. It seemed that chaos was about to break out and culés, who were hopeful that this season would be a good one, started losing hope. Then another rumour broke, which claimed that Luis Enrique was going to get sacked in a couple of days for his row with Messi. At that point, everything was collapsing and other clubs were enjoying it. But then something flabbergasting happened.
Celta Vigo made life tough for Barcelona on Sunday. Some of the reasons were obvious – an away match after an international break, an extremely well-drilled opponent, and a still-developing midfielder handed a surprising start. But sometimes, you need to slow the match down, to stop and watch a moment again, to really catch the details. Welcome back to Freeze Frame (and apologies, the videos still don’t work on mobile).
Speaking to the press before last week’s clásico, Luis Enrique said that the match against Real Madrid would be important, yet not decisive. Few people would agree with him, but actually, this quote from Lucho has to be the mind-set to guide Barcelona. League titles are not won by winning clásicos. They are won by winning at places like Balaídos. On Sunday night, Luis Enrique’s Barcelona arguably played one of their worst matches in 2015, excluding that terrible night at Anoeta. Yet they found the way to victory. And that’s exactly what matters.
Imagine this scenario. You have been going months seeing that you are being courted by Europe’s most prestigious clubs. After a saga that feels like it’s dragged on forever, Barcelona signs you for some 3.5 million euros and gives you a proper professional player’s salary, at a time when most kids of your age are still arguing over their pocket money. You leave your native country and move to one of the biggest cities in Europe, without knowing the language or having any connections to the place whatsoever. For 18-year-old Alen Halilović, it’s a dream scenario with lots of hurdles, for now though he seems to enjoy his new life in Barcelona, if his interview to Croatian daily ‘Jutarnji list’ is anything to go by. Read on for more details…
Nearing the end of his first season in Spain, Alen Halilović was in a reflective mood speaking to a popular newspaper in his native Croatia. “I’m happy with every detail. The club has ticked more boxes for me than I could have imagined when I first moved to Spain,” said a clearly excited Halilović, who spent some time in Croatia following the national team’s 5-1 win over Norway last Saturday.
When Barcelona were hit with a harsh transfer ban for wrongdoing regarding international transfers of minors, everybody’s attention was focused on how the first team would be affected. Talk of contract renewals, panic buys and endless discussions became daily food for thought (and publication) for Catalunya’s hungry periodicals. However, what most people failed to acknowledge in the immediate aftermath of FIFA’s announcement was that this ban was ultimately about children. Children under the age of 18 whose only concern was, and remains to be, to play football. Almost a year after the transfer ban was issued, 9 youngsters are still battling to stay sharp on the sidelines. Inevitably, some have jumped ship.
Gerard Deulofeu shone on Monday in the Spanish U21 team’s 4-0 thrashing of Belarus, sparking a wide discussion of the on-loan Barça forward’s merits and his future. Specifically, how he stacks up against the incumbent fourth forward, Pedro Rodríguez. Pedro has reportedly joined Dani Alves and Xavi Hernández in considering a possible departure this summer. In all three cases, there are arguments to be made for the veterans’ worth to the team, but also for giving the opportunities to younger players with potentially higher ceilings (and higher risks). But Pedro’s case, I think, and the tricky decisions Barcelona must make about him in the near future, encapsulates the value of experience better than any other.
Well folks, we’re finally here. The year began with Barcelona and Atlético Madrid tied on 38 points with Real Madrid ahead by a point and a game in hand. What seemed like a crisis then seems like a golden opportunity now. Barça lead the Primera division with 68 points, four points ahead of their eternal rivals, eight points ahead of third place Valencia, and nine points separating them from title holders Atlético Madrid. The boys have stopped the RojiBlancos, knocked them out of the Copa del Rey, destroyed the Premier League champions and clinched a victory against the European champions. But while everything seems nice and rosy, all of this would be for nothing if Barça doesn’t keep up the pace in their final tests.
It’s time for the business-end of the season marathon!
“Football is so great, that you can play a match poorly and win.” Those were the words of the legendary Johan Cruyff on Sunday’s exquisite El Clásico. And while I disagree with the Dutchman that Barça played as he says “poorly,” the game was chaotic enough to be stolen away by either team. While the Catalans won and have many reasons to celebrate, the game wasn’t dominated by either team. It shouldn’t be, that’s why El Clásico is very unpredictable. But ultimately it came down to one moment of brilliance. A touch of a master. A finish of a game changer. And it’s all thanks to the legendary, Luis Suarez.
Last night, I attended my first ever clásico. It’s often called a showcase, an exhibition of the finest (and most expensive) players in the world, but what I saw was more battle than spectacle. It was sloppy at times, thuggish and theatrical at others, but there were also examples of extraordinary brilliance on both sides. The pace of the game could be tracked by the noise in Camp Nou, occasionally subdued but mostly frenzied: roaring, whistling, and hurling obscenities at the enemy – which included not just Real Madrid players but Mateu Lahoz as well. If some claimed that Barcelona were not the better team, they were certainly the tougher one, and this was a battle to be won.
“Will you follow me, for one last time?”
Every journey must come to an end. That is the law of life. The clásico is always a special match, of memories either good or bad, and this edition will surely be again special. Why? Because it may be the last time Xavi Hernández and Dani Alves play a clásico at Camp Nou and both of them brought us many happy memories to remember forever. This might be the end of their Barça and clásico journey so it should be an exceptional one.
Lionel Messi’s evisceration of Manchester City has been universally praised by players and journalists alike. It may have been one of his best ever Champions League performances. I was lucky enough to be at Camp Nou Wednesday night, and while I cannot hope to compete with the descriptions of Sid Lowe, something beyond the sheer spectacle of the evening stuck with me.
A lot has happened since the last match between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid. On the 25th of October of 2014, Real Madrid beat Barcelona 3-1 at the Santiago Bernabéu in what was, at the time, the blaugrana’s first loss of the season in the league. It was a rather strange match to say the least. Madrid had not yet hit form – they would then go on to break a record for most consecutive wins – and Barcelona seemed to be playing quite well under newly contracted coach Luis Enrique. The match signaled a change in positions, where culés would enter crisis mode while Madridistas would only now start their footballing peak of the season.
This time things look different. FC Barcelona seem to have a clear idea of what Luis Enrique wants and are winning, and it is now los blancos‘ turn to enter crisis mode, losing a number of important matches and the top spot of La Liga to the blaugrana. I warn you, however, not to err and write Madrid off. A merengue with a scratched pride is more much dangerous than an arrogantly confident one.
January 4th, a day that tells two narratives. The first is about a team from Northern Spain coming into a new season with a supposedly fresh start only to struggle with an inexperienced coach and fail to secure a win for the fifth time in the league’s 17 rounds. At that point, the club reached its boiling point and things had to change. January 4th; a second narrative runs. Coming off the back of their supposedly “best ever season,” a team from central Spain comes into the season with the intention of European dominance. After a run of 22 consecutive victories, and a World Champion badge earned to end a successful calendar year, the team ends up dropping three points away from home in Valencia. It didn’t matter at the time, they were leading the league and looked as if they were only getting started.
Unfortunately, in sports, it’s one thing to reach the top. It’s something completely different to stay there.
No rival can ever be underestimated in football. Especially if we are talking about La Liga. Yet sometimes you can be forgiven for valuing some games a bit more than others. After all, can a game against little Eibar ever have the same value as a game against your eternal rivals or a game that will decide whether you will play midweek in Europe for the rest of the season? In their first visit to the Estadio Municipal de Ipurúa, Barça’s players played as much as they needed to do to make sure that the team will go into next week’s clásico defending a lead no matter what.
“Zion! Zion! Zion, it’s over, it’s over, the war is over, the war is over!” - The Matrix Revolution
This was how I felt after Barça finally went over the hump and moved passed the dreaded month of February. It’s a cruel month where Barça traditionally exposes itself for opponents to highlight the team’s weaknesses. And like every year, Barça went through February without a perfect winning record, only failing to beat Malaga at home after an eleven match winning streak. But this year, winter was kind to Barça giving it only a fair warning about what we should expect this season.
In a squad like Barça’s, there will always be someone who can’t fit in. There simply can’t be space for everyone, and inevitably some players are cut loose. This season, Barcelona has five players on loan at four different clubs in Spain and abroad. Denis Suárez and Gerard Deulofeu at Sevilla, Cristian Tello at Porto, Alex Song at West Ham United and Ibrahim Afellay at Olympiacos. In this totalBarça special, we run the rule over all of five Barcelona’s loaned players and evaluate their progress in the first six months of the season.
The message from City is “we don’t fear them”. Well, if they’re not afraid, Barça most certainty need not be. Exactly 371 days ago, Manchester City and Manuel Pellegrini lost this tie before it kicked off. City were dazzling in the Premier League, a narrow home defeat to Chelsea aside, Pellegrini’s crew were decimating all in their path, including scoring 6 goals against both Tottenham and Arsenal. Just three days before what was eventually a limp 2-0 home defeat to Tata’s Barça, City convincingly exacted revenge on a full strength Chelsea in the FA Cup with a 2-0 win of their own. A thorough beating of the only title rival who had bested them that season, how could one take more confidence into the Champions League?
Barça’s winning streak was always going to end. That it happened right before a trip to England to face Manchester City is disappointing, but the dropped points were inevitable. Despite not having a midweek game, Barça – and Messi in particular – looked tired, disorganized, and unmotivated from the first minute, in sharp contrast to their performances the last six weeks. The visitors, on the other hand, were nothing short of superb, and young manager Javi Gracia may just be returning Málaga to their best form since 2012. They have taken four points from two matches against Barcelona, and are the only one of La Liga’s top 10 to beat Real Sociedad at Anoeta. And while it’s easy to speak in vague generalities of how disciplined and hard-working Málaga were in defense, their success is most clear in contrast to Levante last week.
Humans by nature love to see the fall of a hero. The best movies always show the fall of a hero, their flaws, and weaknesses and, of course, their struggle. Why? Because we humans tend to put our feet in their shoes, we like to feel what they feel and think of how we would react if we were them. Movie makers tend to always try their best to make us feel sorry for the hero and that is the case in many blockbuster movies such as Dark Knight ‘Rises,’ where the director showed us a broken, humiliated and weak hero (Batman).
Why am I writing all this in an article about Gerard Piqué?
“If we lose or draw, then it’s party time for the media.”
– Luis Enrique Martínez García
A funny thing happens when Barça suffers a loss or draw. The players demonstrate mortality, making them easy to talk about and criticize. A 10-game winning streak rears its head however, and suddenly, silence falls upon the internet. Let’s give credit where it’s due, shall we? Ever since that horrible week which followed the loss against David Moyes’ Real Sociedad at Anoeta, Luis Enrique has whipped his team into shape, figured out his strongest starting eleven (finally), and has been on form ever since. He has one foot in the Copa del Rey final. He’s one point away from a disastrous Real Madrid in the league. And he’s soundly beaten a team we struggled against on six occasions last season—thrice in a row. From a man who was supposedly one match away from getting sacked, I must say, Luis Enrique, well done.
Sometimes, it’s not enough to watch the game once. Sometimes a moment is so brilliant or fascinating that you need to pause it, repeat it, or slow it down. With that in mind, I present what will hopefully be a new series, Freeze Frame, in which I present interesting gifs I make of Barcelona’s most recent matches. Without further ado, let’s get to the explosive, extraordinary performance that was Barcelona’s Sunday trip to New San Mamés.
I remember the day I heard about Neymar’s final decision to move to Barcelona. My Puerto Rican roommate woke me up at 2 am in Barcelona to show me his Instagram post. I couldn’t sleep that night. I was overjoyed, excited about the future of Barça and the sweet combination between Neymar and Messi. I woke up the next day, sipping my fresh juice when I opened this article written by Paul Macdonald on Goal.com entitled “Barcelona beware: Neymar is a player set up for a monumental fall.” The article went on about how Neymar is a “sponsored behemoth” that represents “Football 2.0″ where a player is perceived as being a lot better than he actually is due to his immense marketing glorification. A lot of people agreed with that and the idea that Neymar was going to flop in Europe became a popular opinion. I know for a fact Joey Barton isn’t a fan of the Brazilian, calling him overrated and a bench player. I didn’t agree, because the day I saw him waving the Barça flags and treating the kids at his presentation in Camp Nou, I saw a young star that is willing to prove a point – he is the star he was born to become.
Fast forward 20 months later, and let’s check out what this “sponsored behemoth” turned out to be.
The Barcelona team we watched last night at San Mamés was a pure joy to watch. Credit to Athletic for making Barça work to a resounding 2-5 victory at a ground where the blaugranas hadn’t won since 2011. It also has to be noted that Barça’s defence didn’t have the best of nights. Yet the team’s quality was there, standing tall and imposing over La Catedral, like a ghost haunting. No matter how much Ernesto Valverde’s spirited troops huffed and puffed on yesterday’s cold night at the Basque Country, there was only ever going to be one winner. Barça simply gave that impossible sense of being untouchable. Read more…
Rarely in football do you sincerely think “that was bloody brilliant”. Obviously I’m not referring to the second half (except for Arda Turan’s wonderful moment of theatre), but that first half was one of wonderful ebb and flow. It started with a bang, then an elegant rebuttal, an unsurprising controversy, a swift reply and finally it ended with a bang. Instead of being called for a clear handball, Jordi Alba burst the length of the field to superbly assist Neymar’s winner on a night the Brazilian sparkled. Down 2-3 at the half (2-4 on aggregate), Neymar finally had enough of the relentless fouling, got into Gabi’s face and then stood up to Fernando Torres. Eventually that concluded with Gabi being sent off during the break and viewers needing a double take when Atlético took to the field curiously a man down.
I must say, there’s been few firmer admirers and supporters of Atletí but lately it feels things are getting nasty. The soldier “never say die” mentality is shifting into a bit of a sore loser routine. The Atlético guys seem to genuinely believe they’re being wronged despite cynical and excessive physical fouls that are blatantly obvious. Whether a direct consequence or not, it was poetic that referee Gil Manzano had to ask for a new disappearing spray can with 10 minutes still to spare. He blew over thirty fouls and distributed 13 yellow cards (10 to Atlétio Madrid) as well as 2 red cards. Barça were unable to beat Atletí in six attempts last year, they’ve now won three times in barely over two weeks with an aggregate score-line of 7-3. Something seems to be happening at FC Barcelona.
As the final whistle blew on Barcelona’s 0-6 thrashing of Elche, several people noted that the scoreline was misleading out of context. Indeed, Elche attacked decently and defended well, while Barcelona were lackluster for 50 minutes and only broke the game open with goals off a set piece and a penalty. The goals only started to flow once Fayçal Fajr received his second yellow in the 57th minute, allowing Messi and Neymar to run rampant against 10 men. All of which is true, of course. But two things stand out to me in that line of thinking. First, if you were unable to enjoy the show of samba and smiles put on by Barça’s brilliant duo in the last half hour in Elche, you should stop reading this piece and go back to kicking puppies and pissing in flower beds. Second, and more seriously, is this tricky notion of context, the idea that some numbers are misleading and others aren’t, which I think bears more exploration.
Tug away, pull with all your might, try by force and you’ll never be free. The harder you try, the tighter the bamboo grips – on this simple principle the age old Chinese handcuffs have imprisoned many an index finger. As soon as the prisoner relaxes, so does the snare and voilà, freedom. We human beings so often get in our own way. We want something so badly that our attempts become desperate, frantic and ultimately counterproductive. Whether it’s Dee gripping the rat trap (for any of my Always Sunny brethren out there) or Luis Suárez in blaugrana, often when one stops trying so hard nature takes its course.
Barça B’s win against Recreativo Huelva on Saturday marked the midpoint of the reserves’ season. Such milestone dates are usually great opportunities for reflection. 21 games into the Liga Adelante season, totalBarça youth specialist Savi Marquez tackles the Barça B side and lays down his mid-season progress reports. Each and every player is scrutinised to the deep detail here and graded in the fashion of the standard A-F system, including plus and minuses. Read more…