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?
In a totalBarça special, we bring to you the Back and Forth series! Throughout the season rumours and stories come and go. We constantly hear and read articles about players leaving, signing and retiring while others compare players, judge coaches and debate who’s better.
Now Youssef and Aly are bringing these discussions to you. Both writers will share their views and opinions regarding a certain matter that has been strongly rumoured as of late. Meanwhile, you vote on who you agree with more and share your views in the comments. Shall we begin?
Is Neymar’s frustration justifiable?
Lucho: “We are still leaders”
No one could really tell if Luis Enrique was too disappointed with last night’s draw in Sevilla, as the coach preferred not to dwell on the match too much. He instead chose to look at the big scheme of things. “It doesn’t matter if it’s fair or not, it is what it is and it’s not changeable,” was one of Lucho’s most characteristic quotes last night, with the coach also putting things in perspective: “It’s okay, we’re still in first place.”
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 search of the perfect game
It’s the start of ten brutal days capable of defining FC Barcelona’s season, beginning with a trip to a home ground that has not tasted defeat for the last 31 games. When Luis Enrique and his players arrive at the Sánchez Pizjuán tonight they’ll be looking to repeat last year’s result when Gerardo Martino coached the team to a 4-1 victory, the last team to beat Sevilla FC at their home in the league. “We will need to be at our best to get something out of the game. We need to do our homework and be better than Sevilla,” said Luis Enrique in his presser yesterday.
The coach also responded to the criticism regarding the team’s playing style as some fans continue to demand flawless, entertaining, and historic performances week in week out. “You always have more options to win playing good football. And that is what we try to do in each game. Up until now it has been a great season for the club.” You can never please everyone, Lucho.
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.
The final stretch
After having seen his side extend their lead at the top of the La Liga table in a comfortable 4-0 home win against Almería, Luis Enrique’s attention now turns to a challenging month ahead. The Asturian acknowledged that an “attractive run of games” is on the way with “very high level opponents coming in La Liga,” and “everything [still] on the line in the Champions League.”
Next on the agenda: Sevilla. Unai Emery’s men are the first hurdle in two weeks that will see the blaugrana face the likes of Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), Valencia, and Espanyol. The rojiblancos are chasing Champions League football and are unbeaten at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán this season (11W, 4D), with their last loss at home coming 14 months ago against Gerardo “Tata” Martino’s Barça side (1-4).
With 10 in 10 away wins for this Barcelona outfit, something’s gotta give.
The end justifies the means
FC Barcelona played one of their worst halves of the season against Real Club Celta de Vigo, but the important thing is that the team got out with three important points. During the post-match press conference, Luis Enrique confessed that even though his team did not play to their own standard, he is happy with the points. He said, “Winning is never bad – even winning like we did tonight. We’ve got three marvellous points.” The game was a tough one that could have been easily lost but kudos to the players for giving it their all to get the points. Lucho stated that games like this one are good for the confidence of the players: “Our results will be the judge. These games can really build confidence; it’s always a boost to beat opponents who are at a very high level. It will set us up for what’s to come.”
Three marvelous points
Last night FC Barcelona managed a narrow (0-1) win versus Celta Vigo at the Balaídos. The match marked a special occasion: Luis Enrique’s return to Vigo after having coached them through last year’s relatively successful campaign. The match was decided by a set-piece goal from a Jérémy Mathieu header.
In the post-match press conference, the Asturian coach stressed the importance of the win, both in terms of the three points gathered and in relation to the upcoming matches until the end of the season. Celta’s performance and how they managed to impose themselves during the first half dominated the post-match declarations.
What’s Lucho’s plan of attack against Celta? I guess we’ll find out soon enough.
Life without Alba and Mascherano
Luis Enrique announced today the squad that will travel to face Celta de Vigo, with both Javier Mascherano and Jordi Alba missing out. The Argentine won’t be joining the squad due to suspension, while Alba is still recovering from the injury sustained while playing for Spain during the international break. Thomas Vermaelen is still in the final stages of his recovery, while Jordi Masip and Douglas Pereira will remain in Barcelona.
Match Squad: Ter Stegen, Claudio Bravo, Dani Alves, Martín Montoya, Gerard Piqué, Adriano, Jérémy Mathieu, Marc Bartra, Sergio Busquets, Sergi Roberto, Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, Rafinha, Ivan Rakitić, Pedro, Neymar, Lionel Messi, and Luis Suárez.
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.
Lucho wary of Madrid threat
With FC Barcelona labelled as clear favorites for tomorrow’s clásico, Luis Enrique was quick to dismiss that notion although admitting that Camp Nou serves as an advantage. “There are no clear favorites in games like these. These are two top quality teams with a lot at stake. But we do have home advantage and playing in front of our own fans always gives us that extra boost. We won’t fall into the trap of thinking it will be easy.”
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.
Take nothing for granted
Luis Enrique spoke to the press ahead of a crucial week for FC Barcelona with tomorrows’ return leg against Manchester City, the boss refused to comment on the clásico.“There is only one game for us and that’s the one (today). Nothing else matters to me right now. Tomorrow’s game is sweet enough for me. It’s all I need for now.” The team played a brilliant first leg at the Etihad Stadium (1-2) and a similar performance will make it easier to progress to the next round. “We are taking nothing for granted against City. We’ll treat it as we did the first leg and try to go out and win the match. It would be very dangerous to think we can settle for a draw.”
Messi is unstoppable, even in full-back
Luis Enrique spoke to the press ahead of the game against SD Eibar and praised Leo Messi for his current form. “If a player like Messi is on top form, it doesn’t matter where you put him… you could put him as a full-back and he’d still be unstoppable. He doesn’t have a secret recipe, the secret is inside him.”
“To get back up again.”
People used to hear Barça and think “Champions.” Take a closer look though. It’s true that the Catalan club is brimming with World Cup champions, multiple Champions League medals and Ballon d’Or finalists. But the type of athletes Barça holds are different to the typical types within the football horizon – with these guys, glory is not a dream to be achieved. Glory is what they are addicted to. It’s the nicotine to their blood. And no matter how far they go, they will always seek to retain the very same high. So in terms of their own standards, Barça is actually brimming with the biggest losers of recent history, and the perfect storm is set to come.
“We are where we wanted to be, but in the final of the Copa del Rey just one [team] will go home happy, in the league just one will go home happy and in the Champions League it will be the same,” underlined FC Barcelona manager Luis Enrique after the game against Rayo. The coach also praised his players saying, “Suárez and Messi are having more and more chemistry, and today we all saw what they bring to the team.” Well, it was a pleasure to watch indeed.
LUIS ENRIQUE: “I recognize that anything that doesn’t end with us up one point on the the merengues… …will be a disaster.”
The Lucho-Jémez bromance
Rayo Vallecano are one of the few sides that have the courage to attack and pressure FC Barcelona, and Luis Enrique is very fond of what his opponents, although limited financially, bring to the table. “Rayo are one of the teams with most personality in the league. They are one of the few teams who will be challenging for possession. We are really looking forward to this game.”
“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.
Paulo Dybala dreams of playing for Barcelona
Paulo Dybala, the promising youngster who now plays for U.S. Palermo, expressed his desire to play at the Catalan club. “I would swim to Barcelona,” he told radio station Radio Belgrano. “It’s only just across the Mediterranean after all.” The Argentine is tipped to be the next Sergio Agüero and is eager to play for his country. “My dream remains to represent Argentina, my home country, and I’ll do all I can to succeed.” The player is followed closely by other top clubs in Europe and looks promising.
LUIS ENRIQUE: “It’s up to us once again”
ANCELOTTI: “It’s up to whoever gives us the most penalties once again”
Neymar to miss Rayo, safe for Clásico
In the run-up to Barça’s match against Granada, much had been made of the blaugranas in danger of suspension. Neymar’s yellow card against Granada was his fifth of the season, meaning that he will serve a one-match suspension against Rayo Vallecano. This practically means that the Brazilian will get a forced, yet badly needed rest, as well as ensuring that he will be able to play the clásico on March 22.
Luis Enrique showed that he’s still got skills yesterday, as he attempted to keep the ball from going any further out of bounds with a scorpion kick. Lucho was applauded by the crowd for his efforts.
IN GRANADA IT CAN’T GO WRONG
LUIS ENRIQUE: “And if today we mess up again… …I suppose that everything will explode”
Piqué excluded from Granada squad
Barça are leaving Friday evening to Granada for Saturday’s game, with an 18-man squad ready for the league battle. This squad excluded Gerard Piqué due to his suspension, along with Douglas, Masip and Sergi Roberto.
Squad list: Ter Stegen, Bravo, Montoya, Rakitić, Sergio, Xavi, Pedro, Iniesta, Suárez, Messi, Neymar, Rafinha, Mascherano, Bartra, Jordi Alba, Adriano, Alves and Mathieu.
Calma Neymar, calma.
Neymar Jr. exchanged words with one of Manchester City’s fans after the fan kept showing Neymar signals of diving during the match. Neymar commented on the incident saying, “I was just playing with him. He began to curse me and I ended up giving him a wave. I can not say what he told me, no. My mother did not bring me up that way. What his mother did not give him, my mother gave me.” Neymar is a player that has been always accused of diving and fans use this to frustrate the Brazilian crack.