The Champions League returned last week to throw its flames at La Liga, certainly in the guise of Barcelona’s 4-0 defeat in Paris. Real Madrid escaped relatively unscathed, beating Napoli 3-1 but playing convincingly on the occasion, while Barca flew home with third-degree burns. These results, of course, impact on the big boys’ domestic lives when they return to the comforting or discomforting flames of their home fires.
When Barcelona are defeated in such a manner it’s big news, partly because it rarely happens and partly because in many parts of Spain Barcelona football club does not enjoy the popularity that it does world-wide. The pro-Madrid press has been applying salt to the wounds, of course, but the Catalan tabloid press has also been looking for the scapegoats, the guilty and the people they personally hold responsible.
The Catalans are proud of their reputation for ‘seny’, an interesting local word which means something like ‘good sense’, or ‘prudence’. But they also recognise their ability to self-destruct, to be so self-critical that they never really progress. It’s an interesting contradiction, and one that they wear on their sleeves.
If it’s a bit tricky to understand it in cultural terms, it’s easier to see it fleshed out in the shape of FC Barcelona.
After the Barcelona ‘Dream Team’ lost 4-0 to Milan in Athens in the 1994 final of the Champions League, victims of the complacency with which Johan Cruyff approached the game, the team failed to win another trophy under him and by 1996 the messiah was gone. Self-flagellation and civil war at the club had taken hold, and the player who was dropped for the final, Michael Laudrup, was lording it with Real Madrid. The game changed the club’s future, but it might be exaggerating matters a little to make the same claims of the Paris debacle.
What is interesting though is that in both these infamous games, the team’s midfield was absent without leave. Fabio Capello famously remarked in 1994 that when he saw that Laudrup was not in the starting eleven, he knew his Milan team could win. Maybe one day in the future, when Unai Emery is dictating his memoirs, he will say that on that famous night in Paris, when he saw that Andre Gomes was starting the game, as opposed to Ivan Rakitic, he knew he could win.
At those levels of football, midfield is all. Maybe it is thus at all levels, but it hardly requires a deep analysis of that game to see that Barcelona were overrun in the centre of the pitch. Matuidi, Rabiot and Verratti – which sounds like a Franco-Italian insurance company – ran the show from start to finish. It doesn’t matter how good your three star forwards are, if MSN doesn’t have the ball, it won’t score.
If coach Luis Enrique is to blame – and the Catalan press would appear to have decided that he is – then poor Gomes cannot himself be the target of a nation’s ire. He didn’t play well, but neither (with the exception of Neymar) did anyone else. If Sergi Busquets can no longer win the ball to the extent that he used to, then Andres Iniesta (when he’s fit) cannot be as influential as he once was, etc. The chain of circumstances is easy enough to unpick, with the defence horribly exposed to the speed of PSG’s counter-attacks.
Chants of support for Luis Enrique from the Barcelona 'hardcore' fans, whistles for it from other parts of the stadium. Mixed opinions.— Rik Sharma (@riksharma_) February 19, 2017
Enrique, whose contract is up in the summer, was also involved in a post-match incident in midweek with the press, suggesting that a Spanish commentator’s questions showed a “lack of respect” towards him, when in fact they were quite neutral. Enrique doesn’t exactly help matters. Edgy and provocative as a player, he doesn’t seem to have changed much. His press conferences reveal a fragile psyche, an ultra-defensive personality, seeing enemies in every corner. He’s quite witty, but always in a catty sort of way. Patience at the club seems to be wearing thin, and Enrique himself looks fed up with it all, as if he’s had enough of the circus.
He’ll go in the summer – chronicle of a departure foretold.
Meanwhile, Sunday’s home game against struggling Leganés looked like a decent chance to calm the troubled waters. As if it were an act of self-justification on Enrique’s part, Gomes was included in the starting line-up, in a three-man midfield with Rakitic and Rafinha, another player who has never really picked up the baton.
Things began well with a fourth-minute opener from Leo Messi, but Leganés improved in the second half, encouraged by the host’s inability to kill the game, and substitute Unai López, a magical little midfielder who was protected in his younger years in Real Sociedad’s feeder side by my very own beefier son, scored his first goal in the top flight and sent the Camp Nou into a horrible hush – a sepulchral silence broken only by occasional whistles and muted calls for Luis Enrique’s head.
The 89th-minute penalty that saved the affair for Barcelona was hardly celebrated. It takes the Catalans back to second spot, but it was hardly a resounding statement of team spirit or of solidarity with the coach.
Leganés emerged with the most credit, and will feel hard done-by. They still hover just above the relegation places, but Sporting de Gijon, two points behind, are looking improved, despite the rough-looking 1-4 scoreline at home to Atlético on Saturday. With their new manager ‘Rubi’ they are showing signs of life, and with Granada thrashing Betis 4-1, Leganés need to start adding points to their otherwise decent performances.
Next week, Barça visit Atlético Madrid on the Sunday afternoon, in a game that could effectively end their season – King’s Cup notwithstanding. Barcelona will be hoping that Atlético’s trip to Germany on Tuesday night to play Bayer Leverkusen will prove a tiring distraction that will take away their edge for next Sunday, but hope is about all they have at the moment. Atlético didn’t play quite as well as the 4-1 score at Sporting suggests from the weekend, and they were struggling at 1-1 until Kevin Gameiro came on and scored a four-minute hat-trick, the fastest since Bebeto managed a similar feat in 1995 against Albacete.
Real Madrid beat Espanyol 2-0 without much difficulty, and you might argue that their relative happiness is a consequence of their riches in midfield. Luka Modric was rested for the game, but the trident of Modric, Toni Kroos and Casemiro, with Isco, Kovacic and James Rodriguez their willing and able replacements, really underlines the difference. Nevertheless, they also have a tricky game next week, away to Villarreal.
Despite the latter’s 0-4 drubbing at home to Roma in the Europa League, they bounced back with a 1-0 win in Anoeta, in perhaps the surprise result of the day. Sociedad dominated the game but Villarreal nicked it in the 93rd minute, which keeps them in sight of the Basques, who still sit in 5th place.
On Wednesday night, Real Madrid also visit the other ‘V’ of Valencia – the game that was postponed before Christmas due to Madrid’s involvement in the FIFA Club World Cup in Japan. Valencia are also looking a bit happier after beating Athletic 2-0 on Sunday, so this week won’t exactly be a cake-walk for Madrid. But if they win the game, the gap over Barcelona – still an abstraction, will begin to look more concrete.
Compounding Barcelona’s misery is more or less the reason for Real Madrid’s existence. Wednesday night may be yet another turning-point in this interesting season.