At the start of the season Gerard Piqué admitted that for the first time he felt “inferior”. Barcelona had just lost the Super Cup: Real Madrid had scored five, Barcelona just one – and that was a penalty.
Neymar had gone, 11 days after Piqué announced he was staying and 16 days since the vice-president said he was “200% sure” he wouldn’t leave. Coutinho hadn’t come yet and wouldn’t come at all. And nor had Marco Verratti, Héctor Bellerín, or even Ángel Di María. Iñigo Martínez was done then undone and in Nice, where “the walls shook”, Jean Michaël Seri “exploded”. In the editor’s office at El Mundo Deportivo, walls shook too, phones rang and, near midnight, presses stopped, a front page hurriedly changed from “Seri Day” to “No to Seri”. Seri said his “dream” had been “broken”; for Barça, the nightmare seemed never-ending.
The former president went to jail and the players call the current president Nobito, after a timid, naive and hapless cartoon character whose friend is a robot cat. When, that is, they don’t call him worse. Neymar called the board a “joke” and threatened to take them to court; the feeling is mutual. That very day, he was back in Barcelona posing, all smiles, with the team-mates and best mates he had left behind.
The club he left behind were friends with Qatar, which no one liked much, then they were enemies of Qatar, which no one liked at all. And as for Catalonia, they don’t really know where they are: caught in a storm, incapable of pleasing all the people all the time, they’ve played in an empty stadium, supporters stopped at the gates while two directors resigned.
They’re involved in seven legal cases, all carefully laid out before the AGM, accused among other things of tax fraud and “an act of espionage”. A vote of no confidence was sought against the president, who has listened to chants to resign even on days of celebration, and although the motion failed that wasn’t the end of their troubles. There were eight different men deciding signings (two of whom have walked now), but they still couldn’t get them done – despite, or perhaps because of, the €222m in their pocket. “We’ll sign one or two in the next few days,” the sporting director promised; four days later his PowerPoint presentation explained how, actually, he hadn’t signed any. Liverpool offered Coutinho €200m, he said; no we didn’t, Liverpool replied. “The best thing about the window,” Barcelona’s manager said, “is that it’s closed now.”
They did sign Ousmane Dembélé but the most expensive player in their history walked off 52 minutes into his league debut and won’t be back until Christmas, injuring himself as he tried to do a backheel. “A more experienced player wouldn’t have done that,” his manager said. Their most expensive signing of last summer is also injured now; more to the point, an easy scapegoat, he’s still there when many wish he wasn’t. Neymar has gone. Luis Suárez has gone off: he has not scored for 459 minutes, his worst run at Barcelona. And Leo Messi could yet go: he’s 56 days away from being able to negotiate with whoever he wants, for free. Their captain is 33, their centre-back is public enemy No1, until this weekend their backup striker had played just 82 minutes, and their other big signing was €40m 29-year-old from China who failed in England and no one wanted.
And they’re top.
Eleven weeks into the season, Barcelona are unbeaten. Played 11, won 10, drawn one, only Atlético Madrid have taken a point from them. In the Champions League they have won three, including victory over Juventus, and drawn one. In the league they have scored 30 – only Valencia have as many – and have conceded only four.
Inferior? As La Liga pauses for the last time before Christmas, the international break offering a moment to stop and look around, what Barcelona see makes happy viewing: they have a four-point lead over Valencia in second and eight over Madrid and Atlético in third and fourth. It’s early and a word of warning from Mr Wolf wouldn’t go amiss – after all, the last coach to start like this, with the exact same numbers after 11 weeks, was Tata Martino, who didn’t lose until December and ultimately didn’t win anything at all – but it’s not insignificant: Madrid have never overcome a lead so large to win the title. And Barcelona are six points better off than they were at this stage last season.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way and at times this season it has been hard to explain why it is this way. Perhaps fixtures play a part – they’ve played six of the bottom nine – but it’s not like Real Madrid, who’ve played seven of the bottom nine, have had it tough by comparison. They haven’t always impressed: Girona scored two own goals at Montilivi and Betis scored one at the Camp Nou; they had to come from behind to win 2-1 at the Coliseum, the winner coming moments after Getafe had a chance of their own; and after they beat Athletic at San Mamés, Sergio Busquets said: “We owe much of this to [goalkeeper Marc-André] Ter Stegen.” It’s true that at times you can’t help thinking that a fall is coming and also true that they haven’t always been very “Barcelona”. And yet. And yet there they are, top of the table with 10 wins. Despite everything.
Calm in a crisis, Barcelona could hardly have hoped for a better man in charge than Ernesto Valverde. Hugely likeable, universally popular and abnormally “normal”, a music, film and photography fan who likened his return to Athletic to The Godfather Part II and proved it by taking them to Europe four years in a row – they’re down in 15th now without him – he has a startling ability to block out the noise and cut through the bullshit, to not be dragged down by it all. At Barcelona it helps that he is particularly popular with those most inclined to decry the club losing their religion, embraced by all sides, allowing shifts and tweaks that might draw opposition if imposed by others. But it helps more that it is all done so naturally.
“Valverde has made the Camp Nou fall in love with him,” the president Josep Maria Bartomeu said. That may be an exaggeration but, a listener as well as a leader, it is true that he invariably connects. “After two years I said I would jump off a bridge for Luis Enrique,” Rakitic said. “I’d jump off a ladder for Valverde, [as] it’s very early. It’s clear what he wants from us and we’re happy with him.” It’s a start and a good one: neither Pep Guardiola nor Luis Enrique began their Camp Nou careers as well as this. Nor is it just the stats; the hope is that slowly, something is building. Something a little different.
Well, sort of. Messi still stands at the centre of everything, even more the centre of gravity than before: while Suárez may be partly a “victim” of the shift (albeit one his manager insists will come good), Valverde says: “We’re delighted to build our play around Messi.” And when a player is this good it is hard to argue, however much over-dependency concerns. Operating centrally but free, at once midfielder and striker, Messi has 12 league goals but his contribution can’t be quantified unless “everything” is a quantity – and at times it really can look like he is doing it on his own, starting, continuing, and finishing moves, even getting out the way if necessary: when Pablo Maffeo man-marked him against Girona, Messi headed to the touchline to ask his coach where he was most use, which spaces he could best vacate for others, from false nine to false footballer.
Around him, the structure is strengthened. An extra midfielder is added, a little more consistency. Valverde admitted that losing Neymar was not part of his plans and that his departure forced a rethink. It offered an “opportunity” to reinforce the midfield, to tilt the balance a little: maybe not the way some puritans would prefer, but back towards the centre.
There is another man alongside Busquets now, Ivan Rakitic finding his form, and Valverde was explicit that one of the things that attracted him to Paulinho was precisely that he was not the classic Barcelona player. Yet so far, he has also shown more willingness to use Andrés Iniesta and if the side has not always flowed, there were moments in the first half against Athletic and this weekend against Sevilla, while the second half at Atlético impressed. “With Neymar we had more ‘punch’, but now we’re compact,” Rakitic says.
While Messi has dominated, there have been contributions from elsewhere, even if some respond more to the on-going search for the right mix than actual rotations: eight different players have been the ‘other’ attacker with Messi and Suárez, while 10 players have scored in the league. Last season, Madrid’s strength in depth was one of their defining features, while at Barcelona there was virtually nothing beyond the starting XI; this season, there has been a response. Against Atlético, it was Suárez who scored, sure, but against Getafe it was Denis Suárez and Paulinho – second top-scorer with three league goals – who secured the victory. Gerard Deulofeu opened the scoring against Málaga. And this weekend, against Sevilla, it was Paco Alcácer who got the goals.
Saturday was a curious kind of night, one that fits with Barcelona so far this season, a portrait of a team that so far may only offer up tentative conclusions but offers optimism too, when just three months ago there was virtually none.
A superb opening 20 minutes where they could have scored three or four settled into an impressive hour, but then it slipped away from them. On Messi’s 600th game for the club he didn’t score – he did, though, get the game’s only yellow card – but Alcácer, making only his second start, did. The former Valencia striker scored the first, only for Guido Pizarro to get an equaliser on the hour. Alcácer made it 2-1 five minutes later, meaning the man so often dismissed as a failure, signed last summer for €30m, has now scored nine in nine games and is running at an average of a goal every 141 minutes for Barcelona, Sport declaring him Super Paco on Sunday, El Mundo Deportivo declaring him Super Paco on Monday.
“Recovered him?” Valverde asked afterwards. “I never thought I didn’t have him.”
For the last half an hour, he didn’t. Alcácer was immediately removed – “he looked tired,” Valverde explained. Control was lost and as the final minutes ticked away, Barcelona hung on, exhibiting qualities rarely seen as theirs. They ended with a midfield of Mascherano, Busquets and Paulinho. While there are doubts, while there will be debates, they also ended with another win. “And one thing’s for sure,” Valverde said, “we won’t apologise for winning.”
• Cédric Bakambu – one half of the BaccaBakambu strike partnership – scored three on Saturday evening, and none of them counted. Luckily for Villarreal, the two that Nicola Sansone scored did count. “The changes decided it,” Villarreal manager Javi Calleja said. Sansone came off the bench to score twice – and that was always likely to be enough against Málaga, who still haven’t scored a single goal on the road.
• “I’m strong; I believe,” Cuco Ziganda said after Athletic were defeated in Vigo. The question is whether they believe in him.
• Partey Time! It was the 91st minute and Atlético were on their way to a 0-0 draw at Depor, in a game that didn’t see a shot on target in the first half and didn’t see many of them in the second, until they got a late, late free kick. Gabi touched it, Thomas Partey thumped it, bending it past the ball and into the net. Simeone turned, leapt into the arms of Mono Burgos and then ran to Profe Ortega. They may be unbeaten still but they needed that, at the end of the week in which their Champions League campaign came to a virtual end. “We’re playing well, creating more chances than last year,” Simeone insisted, not entirely convincingly. “We have a point more than we did last season.”
• Valencia: seven from seven. Take them seriously, very seriously. There was just one down side for them: Simone Zaza didn’t manage to equal a club record for scoring in consecutive games. He was taken off just before a penalty that might have allowed him the record and he wasn’t happy. Nor though was he quite as unhappy as it looked when he headed off down the tunnel, not stopping even as his manager asked him to. Five minutes later, he was back. He’d popped to the toilet.
• “Strange? No. Lamentable. We can’t allow football matches where there are only 25 minutes played in each half.” The Betis manager Quique Setién is not impressed with Getafe.
• In the tunnel at the Bernabéu, just before they went out for the second half, Kiko Casilla was trying to cheer up Cristiano Ronaldo. “Come on, Cris,” he said. “Yeah,” agreed Vallejo, “patience: it will go in.” Ronaldo just looked on in silence. And in the end it didn’t go in, no. Not from Ronaldo anyway – he has just one league goal this season, having racked up more than fifty shots. It did go in from Marco Asensio, who smashed an absolute rocket into the top corner at 99km/hr as Madrid eased their troubles with a 3-0 win over Las Palmas.
• Talking of troubles. On the right-hand side of the Santiago Bernabéu press room, a journalist took the mic, and began his question for Las Palmas manager Pako Ayestarán. Well, ‘question’? It was more a statement. “Your numbers invite the sack.” he said. “It’s a good job you don’t decide, then,” Ayestarán shot back. Instead, it is the club who decide and they say he’s staying. Mind you, the figures are bad – Ayesterán’s managerial career in La Liga, across three seasons and two clubs, reads: played 12, lost 12 – and up in the directors’ box the vice-president wasn’t exactly delivering a ringing endorsement nor offering up an impassioned defence. “Ayestarán will stay with us for a few games more and, we hope, until the end of the season,” he said.
Results: Betis 2-2 Getafe, Valencia 3-0 Leganés, Deportivo 0-1 Atlético, Alavés 1-0 Espanyol, Barcelona 2-1 Sevilla, Levante 1-2 Girona, Celta 3-1 Athletic, Real Sociedad 3-1 Eibar, Villarreal 2-0 Málaga, Real Madrid 3-0 Las Palmas.
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