After Barça’s loss to Alavés on the weekend, it’s for sure that many British pundits saw Tuesday’s game as a massive chance for Celtic to come away from the Camp Nou with something. But taking all of the rotations into account, not to mention the substandard performance of many players against the Liga newcomers, it was clear to Barça fans that Saturday’s game was a mere blip from players and coach, and that a full strength team could easily brush aside Celtic. And they did.
In Spanish, the phrase a la vez means “both, at the same time.” Fittingly, Barça’s 1-2 loss to newly promoted Alavés was, a la vez, frustrating and potentially avoidable, but not world ending or an indicator of crisis.
As much as today’s victory was a monumental team effort, make no mistake; Luis Enrique deserves all the plaudits for achieving what he has with all the pressure that following in Pep Guardiola’s footsteps comes with. With today’s win at the San Mames, Lucho became the fastest ever coach to reach a hundred victories in charge, surpassing the now Manchester City boss’s records in both Barcelona and Munich. This game typified exactly how far he’s come from his first game in charge, making this team his own.
Going into this game, I didn’t think this team could make me any happier or prouder than it had last season. After the buzz last season created, with the team coming from the depths of Anoeta-induced despair to win the coveted treble, this season had a lot to live up to. If any team could live up to the lofty expectations a treble creates though, it was this one, and this game proved beyond any doubt that this group of players and its extremely underrated coach are special.
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.
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.