By wrapping up the Liga with Saturday’s win against Granada CF, FC Barcelona secured its sixth league title in eight years. There’s nothing inherently special about six in eight. It’s an arbitrary range that begins with the exit of Ronaldinho and, consequently, the beginning of the Lionel Messi epoch. Pep Guardiola took over in the summer of 2008, sold a few of the team’s most celebrated players, and focused the team’s attack around then 21-year old Messi. Since that summer, Barça have won six league titles and three Champions League trophies, as well as a bunch of other cups history cares less about.
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.
We all know that time passes without us noticing. That is, after all, the only way in which we can justify the fact that Andrés Iniesta, the eternal baby-faced Ilusionista has turned 32.
It feels like it was yesterday when a fresh-faced midfielder from Fuentealbilla came onto the Stade de France pitch to change Barcelona’s fate in the 2006 UEFA Champions League final and guide the Blaugranas to victory with a brilliant display from midfield. If one fast forwards to the present and looks up Andrés Iniesta he will most likely stumble upon a stunningly packed trophy collection that belongs to the otherwise shy Castilla-La Mancha native. In fact, it is a trophy cabinet that most footballers can only dream of, given that it includes 4 Champions League winner’s medals, 7 La Liga winner’s medals, 2 European Championships and 1 World Cup, on top of a host of individual prizes like the UEFA Best Player of the Year.
Of all the phony feelings sport produces, regret is dumbest. These are games, and they don’t matter, and for the most part, nobody gets seriously hurt. We should enjoy it. We shouldn’t let it stress us out.
Still, it isn’t as if I listen to that wisdom. Supporting a team, even one as dominant as FC Barcelona, entails its share of agony, and yes, regret. Even now, on the verge of a double, there are things I want to change. The psychosis runs that deep.
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.
With any dreams of a top league finish over for weeks, Barcelona B played their penultimate league match for the season against Eldense at the Miniestadi. The only motivation for such a match against another mid-table side with lofty aspirations, was to deliver some spectacle to the Miniestadi faithful for the last home match of the season. Yesterday, for a change, Barça B delivered. Free of pressure to get into the playoffs, or to avoid relegation, Gerard López’s men offered a free-flowing footballing spectacle that rather strangely ended with the score at 1-0.
Remember, if you can, back to the beginning of 2016. FC Barcelona, fresh off a Club World Cup trophy, sat top of the table, already well into an unbeaten streak that would last into spring. Though Atlético Madrid had pulled within a point, it didn’t look like their toothless attack in the wake of the failed Jackson Martínez transfer could sustain a real title challenge, and Real Madrid was a hot mess under Rafa Benitez. If football crossed your mind mid-midnight kiss—well, first off, you should reevaluate your priorities, but you probably felt pretty good about Barça’s coming year.
May 6th 2009, a date that culés will never forget. Sitting in front of the T.V. in the dying minutes of the match against Chelsea F.C. waiting for Barça to get eliminated. Hopeless and angry that such an amazing season would not lead to a Champions League triumph. Suddenly, a high cross from Dani Alves that seemed to be going nowhere, finds Samuel Eto’o who narrowly slides it to Lionel Messi, who then finds Andrés Iniesta. Chelsea had blocked off all the lanes, leaving no way through, but Iniesta has always seen things no one else could.
There is something spectacular about watching Pep Guardiola fail. Whether against Chelsea with Barcelona in 2012, against Barça last season, or against Atlético Madrid just two days ago, he does it in the most amazing ways.