What a beautiful match the first leg of the Europa League tie against Eintracht Frankfurt was.
Yes, there was lots of grumbling, lots of grousing about the quality of football, a ref that left much to be desired and more. Xavi all but called their pitch a cabbage patch. But that match was like medicine for so many people, from a besotted fanbase to a team to particular players, all of who needed exactly what their relentless hosts offered.
As the famous Mike Tyson quote reads, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” XaviBall has its Kryptonite, and Frankfurt was it. Big, agile, physical, unafraid to foul, relentless and lightning-fast on the counter. This team was everything that Barça in any form hates to see, Xavi’s still-nascent petit juggernaut particularly so.
Teams such as this have a tendency to compress time, making the opponent rush things. You want to make that pass before the lane gets jumped, want to release the ball before you get kicked, want to shoot while you think you have a chance. Those sloppy passes are converted into counters that come at a slow, physically bereft team like an avalanche.
That Barça wasn’t down 2-0 at the break is solely a consequence of that bugbear of teams not at the top level, play in the final third. A pair of beautifully worked counters that just gutted the Barça defense led to shots that could best be characterized as unfortunate. Yet still they kept coming. Even down a man, they played the same way, pressing, driving, fouling, running.
Gavi came on the pitch ready to fight, and left wondering why every time he got the ball, someone put him on his backside. The gap between him and Pedri, quality-wise, was never clearer. Even Pedri, on his unfavored side of pitch, was buffeted to and fro like a wee dinghy in a tempest. Every 50/50 ball was won by a Frankfurt player. And it wasn’t even a question of that weird, nebulous thing that athletics likes to talk about, “want.” They were just better and more prepared physically.
Xavi’s team is on a 14-match unbeaten run, something that has seduced many into thinking this team is ready to compete at the highest level. It isn’t. Frankfurt is a Europa League team that belongs in that competition, and so does Barça, in full honesty. They got bounced by Benfica, who got results from two different managers. Barça is a team that is learning, learning how good it is, learning what it needs, learning what it doesn’t have and what it needs to do. That lessons came from an opponent that punched them in the mouth isn’t a bad thing. The 1-1 escape was a lucky thing, and hopefully they learned something about the necessary pace and intensity required to compete in full in European football.
Barça wasn’t bad as much as Barça was made to be bad. Quality can still be overcome with hard work if the quality is at a vulnerable level. Adama Traore was exactly the kind of player he has always been, even as a couple of initial strong performances flattered to deceive, the assertions that he was ready to replace Dembele looking increasingly funny with every appearance by both players. Jordi Alba still isn’t ready for a European knockout, even in the next level down. Movement was slack, Aubameyang looked more like the player Arsenal was happy to be rid of, with a first touch more like a battering ram, just as Ferran Torres looked like the player Manchester City was thrilled to get 55m for, his well-taken goal notwithstanding.
One of the players who had the best match was Eric Garcia, who except for an ill-advised clearance soft enough to rest your head on at night, played a damn fine match. He might just make a quality defender yet, and he certainly got plenty of reps. Araujo celebrated his new contract by continuing his stellar play on and off the ball.
Xavi, having seen enough, subbed off the two players most regularly being shown up by Frankfurt in Traore and Gavi, and turned up the quality in De Jong and Dembele. Right away, the match calmed down. Frankfurt suddenly had fewer turnovers to take advantage of, more danger to manage. The goal was a beautiful, museum-quality Barça goal that every blaugrana team would say, “This is one of our goals.”
Its genesis was in speed, intelligence and execution, from the sharp, smart Dembele pass weighted exactly so to the movement and precision from De Jong to find Torres in the exact spot, and the forward made no mistake. It was extraordinary football and looked so easy. The odd thing of course, something that if considered closely provided valuable perspective, is that this Xavi team’s better forbears were capable of playing that way, scoring those kinds of goals with regularity, rather than a one-off that cleavved the anxiety like a rainbow.
Frankfurt kept playing its game, but to increasingly less effect because the quality of play from Barça was higher. Those two subs made all the difference, as both came in key areas of the pitch, both exploited by Frankfurt.
On the wing, there was suddenly an active defensive presence in a forward tracking back with alacrity. In midfield there was a more physical presence possessed of more grace on the ball. They kept trying to rush, but higher quality has more time, can see more options. From the moment Dembele and De Jong came on, it felt more likely that Barça, rather than Frankfurt, would get a second goal, even as a draw was a fair result for them. At least.
Barça didn’t play a good match, but it was a good match for Barça, who we can hope will focus not on the injustice meted out by a clunky ref, but rather on the swollen lip still throbbing from that punch in the mouth.