First leg of the Champions League Quarter Final against Manchester United at Old Trafford was yesterday. This has been the boogeyman stage of Europe for Barcelona, where they have fallen in four of the last five years. The exception was the treble-winning three amigos side of 2015.
Last year’s upset win by Roma to knock Barça out of Europe seemed particularly traumatic. They carried a 4-1 lead going into the second-leg, which Roma then won 3-0 to knock the Blaugrana out in Iniesta’s last season playing in Europe, no less. Madrid would go on to lift the cup–their fourth of the previous five years. Extra-salt.
On Saturday, four days before the Old Trafford first-leg, Barça beat Atlético Madrid to basically seal the league in Spain. Atléti went down to ten men when Diego Costa (true to form) got red carded for shouting at the ref, “¡Te cago en tú puta madre!” (basically, ‘I shit in your whore-mother’ [It is worth noting that the tonal equivalence for puta madre in english is closer to son of a bitch or maybe motherfucker than the arguably more vile whore-mother translation]).
After the sending off, Atlético continued to be cagey and tough to beat, with Thomas Partey and Saúl both showing focus and versatility that should render it nearly impossible for Cholo Simeone to hold on to them next season. Still, Suarez broke the choke-hold and scored a screaming shot from outside of the box that had just enough arc to bend past Jan Oblak’s diving hands and score. Atléti’s Slovenian keeper had been beaten by a shot from outside of the box for the first time all season.
A minute after play restarted Messi capitalized on the stunned opposition to charge to the box and stutter past the red and white shirts, and spook another by Oblak. 2-0. Winner-winner.
Valverde smiles when the league is (almost) won
So with the league (mostly) done and dusted, Barcelona has up-to six games where the other two trophies will be decided: Five Champions League fixtures including the final on June 1st at Atlético’s Wanda Metropolitano, plus the Copa del Rey final to be played against Valencia at the Villamarín in Seville.
Valverde elected to be conservative and not play Dembélé, as the frenchman is just getting cleared fit from his recent injury. So it was Coutinho who got the start with Messi and Suarez up front. Rakitic, Arthur, and Busquets made up the midfield, with Jordi, Pique, Lenglet and Nelson Semedo (over Sergi Roberto) lining up in front of Ter Stegen.
The first quarter of the game Barça were dominant and moved the ball through the midfield and around the perimeter of the box. United kept tight in a condensed 4-4-2 and tried to hold their shape without actually pressuring Barcelona too hard. Consequently, there was a lulling effect on the red devils, and they were broken on when Busquets sprung Messi, who tore into the box before lilting it across the face of the goal to Suarez, who struck it so it bounced in off of Luke Shaw to get the goal.
The goal seemed to be an alarm clock for United, who then took added initiative to press. So much initiative that Chris Smalling charged into midfield like a locomotive to challenge Messi for an aerial ball, and crashed the little genius over. Smalling’s outstretched arm slammed into Messi’s face, busting his nose and eye. Messi remained hunched on the grass for several minutes, blood leaking from his nose onto the pitch.
For the rest of the half, even the rest of the game, Messi and Barcelona seemed shook and content to conserve as much energy as possible while grinding out a 1-0 away win. The pitch was slow. It would take extra energy to make every pass–there was no way they were going to run themselves ragged playing one-touch and half-touch. Instead, it was sleepwalker possession. Ponderous and loathsome by the Guardiola loyalists of Barcelona who pine for the days when people still used the words tiki-taka.
Instead, pragmatism was the prevailing order. It felt like watching Serie A. Few attacking runs of significance and the congested mirth of midfield cancelling everything else. Perhaps the bitter memories of Roma loomed large, and the cautions against flair in the face of opposition had resonated. Maybe we were playing fear-based football…
But adages of championship teams getting results in all kinds of ways–both exhilarating and ‘workmanlike,’ the refrain of winning ‘ugly’ when it is necessary–are these rationalizations for limited creativity? Philosophical hedge-betting? Will ends–will blood–justify the means?