Summer for Barça fans as been a bit of a mixed affair. The club made many brilliant signings but some players fell on the international stage. In the Euros, the blaugrana players of Spain crashed out at the hands of Italy, and Ivan Rakitić’s Croatia going out to eventual winners Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo. Even more upsetting, in the Copa America, Lionel Messi dazzled throughout, only to lose out in another international competition on penalties. After Leo was brought to tears at the MetLife Stadium, some FCB fans feared the worst for his future. Other fans recalled his incredible performances after the World Cup disappointment in 2014. Messi has made his intentions clear for this season after game week one.
There was a night in Berlin when hundreds of millions of viewers tuned in to watch a match between the best two clubs in Europe. Juventus had just beaten Real Madrid off a great performance from Madrid’s own Alvaro Morata, and Barcelona had just squeezed through a stacked Bayern Munich team, coached by Barcelona’s former manager, and perennial title winner, Pep Guardiola. The teams were different then than now, Juventus having a lineup with Pirlo, Vidal, Pogba, Morata, and Carlos Tevez; Barça still employed the services of Xavi and Pedro. Rakitic gave Barça the lead early on, but Morata equalized ten minutes into the second half. With the game tight and Juventus gaining ground, Messi’s shot was blocked wide and Suárez put it back in to give Barcelona the lead. To finish it off, as we all know, and Neymar struck late and gave Barcelona a 3-1 lead. They had won the treble: La Liga, La Copa del Rey, and the UEFA Champions League.
This never would have flown if Pep Guardiola were still around. The Catalan coaching legend, the man who did more than anyone to shape the current generation of FC Barcelona players, would have hated every minute of the team’s play against Granada CF in the climactic finale of a long Liga season.
Instead of weaving intricate short passing patterns, even Barça veterans like Andrés Iniesta and Javier Mascherano fired long-range missiles over the unkempt pitch. Instead of counterpressing to win the ball back high, the team did most of its defending in its own half. Each time Neymar worked the ball into the opponent’s box and pulled it back to the penalty spot, à la Pedro Rodríguez or David Villa, Lionel Messi was nowhere around to slot it home. In fact, the greatest player on earth, the spark that fired the Guardiola-era engine, barely featured in the match. Messi strolled the sideline in the shade and distributed with mixed results from midfield, looking slow, beat up, worn out from a long year. If his team had played like this, Pep would have blown a gasket. He also might have lost the game.
This is it. Today, FC Barcelona face Granada CF in the title-deciding fixture in the final Liga round of the season. The work of an entire season could either be rewarded or rendered null at the end of the 90 minutes, which only highlights how incredible are the expectations of a club like Barcelona. After three consecutive Liga defeats against Real Madrid, Real Sociedad, and Valencia, the point gap between Barca and Madrid has shrunk to a single point leaving zero room for error. That was the moment when the players promised they wouldn’t slip up again, that they wouldn’t let the league trophy fall into the hands of their rivals.
Barça went into today’s game knowing they had to do the business. With Atlético sitting up next to them, only behind on goal difference, and Real Madrid breathing down their necks, they had to be clinical, ruthless and brave.
With every key player fit in the squad, there was no place for excuses. In recent games Barça have squandered the first 45 minutes in place for a slow tempo, but today it changed. Lionel Messi notched up a gear, Neymar Jr put a pause to his second half of the season slump, and Luis Suárez battled and put away his chances like his usual self.