FC Barcelona have won the Copa del Rey in the final game of the Luis Enrique era. The game against Dep. Alavés was held at the Calderón–the final game at the infamously raucous stadium before it is destroyed in favor of Atlético’s new digs in the Metropolitano.
In many ways it felt like a game of ‘lasts.’ The strange and speedy spine of Spanish football, the intricate play that had been cultivated chiefly at La Masia and helped Spain dominate the international game from 2008-2012, is over now.
That patois has become as much a relic in the hyper-time of professional football, as the Madrid stadium the final was held at. Both of their replacements loomed large over the occasion.
Of course, no stadium is built overnight, and the preparations for the dismantling of the aging monuments have been in motion for years. Four, at least.
Pep Guardiola has said he left the team because he felt he could no longer ‘seduce’ and inspire his players to adapt to his message. Compounded with the looming task of transitioning Xavi, Iniesta, and Puyol out of the the team, the club first sought to make a seamless continuation of Pep’s program through Tito. When Tito died, the club–whether deliberately or not–started unravelling itself from that vision that was built by Cruyff and continued to its apex with Guardiola.
Luis Enrique invested in attack and pressing, not in touch and passing. To watch Barça play anything resembling tiki-taka one-touch passing in his third year as manager was a rare and shocking anomaly. Barcelona, like most all other teams, is comprised of players who use two-touches to control and move the ball where before it was automatic passing like pinball.
No Suarez and no Sergi Roberto in the final thanks to suspensions from the semis, so there would be a re-arranged attack and defense yet again for a final time this season. Some noise was made that the ‘Gala 11’ of Barça had barely started a game together all season, and the reinforcements bought in the summer have shown a mixed adaptation.
Arda Turan also looks set to leave the club, following a stuttering inclusion in the squad that showed bright contributions that were somewhat tempered by unfortunate mistakes in a a few games (chiefly, conceding a late foul against Madrid to allow a set-piece goal that equalized in the winter Clásico). In his season and a half at the club he’s scored 15 goals. Truthfully, almost all of those were scored in the calendar year of 2016, since he barely figured in the spring of 2017. Turan made his bones at Atlético, and was no doubt bought by Enrique to add some steel and guile to his team. But with the Turk more dynamic a figure in the left of a front-three attack, and no signs of Neymar going to the bench, there has been no space for him. He was an unused substitute at the Calderón. Another goodbye.
Though Alavés are from the Basque region their support were not as vocal about whistling the Spanish National Anthem as the Athletic Bilbao supporters had been when facing Barcelona in the Cup Final. But the Alavés fans were vocal and brilliant throughout the game. By contrast, the Blaugrana had a slightly down tone. No doubt an effect of having lost the league to Madrid, and going out early in Europe.
The leadership also seemed to be disjointed and half-way resigned to just get the whole thing over with. Senioritis. A months-long fuck-it-friday. This was on display both during the game, and even in the trophy celebrations that followed.
On the pitch, el jefecito Javier Mascherano had been slotted in to cover the right back spot. It was another attempt at boarding up the Dani Alves-sized hole in the side. Around the eighth minute, he went up to challenge an aerial ball, cluttered with Llorente, and came down hard on the ground dazed with his head bleeding. The little boss was taken out and substituted by André Gomes. It seems that Luis Enrique has been required to bring Gomes in the team in virtually every game. This one came way early.
Andrés Iniesta stood out as a master and leader on the pitch, turning up crucially in defense when needed in addition to running the midfield with his delicate touch and runs that dared defenders to come in clashing with him–though always leaving them nothing of the ball.
Messi got a fine goal after being set up by Neymar, who had managed to overcome his frustrating habit of holding possession too long to find the available assist. Within two minutes reported Real Madrid target Theo Hernández equalized off of a canon free kick from outside the box. 1-1.
Lot’s of fouls. Alavés were out to show they weren’t going to bow down and let the Blaugrana roll over them. They challenged every ball as their support bellowed in the stands above. But just as the half was about to end, André Gomes of all people jetted from the right side of the defense in a run similar to the one Sergi Roberto made a month ago at the Bernabéu to launch the attacking front three. Neymar was at the end of the move to tap in the goal, his shoulder on the edge of offside. A minute later and it was Messi’s turn to play the greatest hits as he ran towards the box from the right flank, beating four defenders as he charged forward like he had against Bilbao in the final two years ago. Only this time he didn’t slot the ball impossibly to the back of the net, he passed it to Alcácer who was in the vacuum in front of the goal created by Messi’s magnetism. 3-1. Halftime.
An hour later the game would finish at the same score. Neither team able to come up with any inspiration to break the other. Alavés players wept and mourned their defeat, along with their fans who continued to sing and chant wildly though their side had lost. Having been in the second division a year ago, they were reveling in the occasion that marked the leaps their club had made.
Barça collected their medals and the cup in as disorganized and awkward a set of circumstances as I’ve seen. Luis Enrique was the first figure from the team to be received by the line of honchos that would present them with the cup. The presidents of both clubs, the head of the Spanish League, and King Felipe would shake the players and staff’s hands and congratulate them before presenting the trophy of the king’s competition.
Enrique seemed jovial and gave a relieved bearing that was far from the usual acidic demeanor he’d been known for over his three years. He seemed relieved as he shook the hands and collected the medal from the line, before he headed straight down the stairs back to the pitch. Likewise, the line of players and staff followed suit, leaving the stands instantly. All except one.
Sergio Busquets collected his medal and then returned back to the front of the podium in anticipation of the ultimate presentation of the cup to team Captain, Andrés Iniesta. After all, once the king hands you a trophy you are supposed to raise it there surrounded by the team collectively celebrating the victory.
But no one else on the team seemed to be prepared for that display of form and etiquette following a championship. When Iniesta reached the king, there was some minor confusion from the podium as they delayed in bringing the cup forward, all this while Busquets stood there attempting to explain the collective oversight that saw every single team member aside from him abscond from the podium before the squad got to lift the cup together.
The realization creeping in on the faces of Iniesta and the king were priceless. It was this lapse that led to Busquets and Iniesta being the only ones there to raise the trophy, along with King Felipe. The three of them each with an arm on the prize of Spanish football.