In a footballing world where the notion of a super league stalks the halls like someone ready to ruin a party, it’s fair to ask if one already exists.
Viktoria Plzen, Czech League champions, were essentially demolished by a vastly superior FC Barcelona team that didn’t even play all that well. It was a match that was fun to watch but also, as with Sevilla, raised real concerns about a defense that still doesn’t look up to the task of combating sides at the top of the European food chain.
And Barça didn’t play well, even as individual players had exceptional matches that made the difference. That’s what spending big sums in the transfer market, year after year, gets you. Clubs such as Plzen can’t compete in that world, so they roll into a venue such as the Camp Nou, hoping for some sort of magic to happen, magic that might have been in the cards last year, with that team.
The addition of Robert Lewandowski, the 34-year-old forward whose price tag raised eyebrows at the time but seems a bargain now, was brilliant. He raises the bar for everyone on the side, an exemplar in work rate, as hungry and rampant in the 85th as he is in the first. At one point late in the match, Memphis Depay was sulking about what he thought was a foul, and strolling like a player whose team was up by four goals late in a no contest match.
Lewandowski, on the other hand, went after that loose ball like a rocket, got control, charged at the Plzen defense and unleashed a rocket of a shot to force a save. That moment illustrated why for me, Depay should never see the light of day again yet at the same time, why the Barça technical staff made absolutely the right decision in paying 50m for a 34-year-old forward in the last year of his contract.
The hat trick was the least exciting part of Lewandowski’s match from this seat. And even as it’s easy to chide culers who don’t really watch other leagues and marvel at his associative play, people who do watch other leagues, such as Bundesliga, are also impressed with the quality of his associative play, something not seen as much in a different system. The man is thriving.
At Barça, associative play is more than a forward holding the ball until help arrives. It’s passing, moving, reading play, ensuring that everyone in the attack is in the best position. It’s the kind of selfless play that it takes a forward at the level of Lewandowski to execute. He didn’t just score a hat trick. He set a standard, even if his post-match comment that his team is “ready for Bayern,” might seem like either bluster or whistling past the graveyard.
It’s also worth shouting out a resurgent Sergi Roberto, who has made liars out of the many who considered him ready for the glue factory. Since preseason the Masia product has turned back the clock with his performances in a team playing mostly off the front foot. The less he has to defend, the better he looks, and with a demon such as Jules Kounde stalking the pitch, a problem solver at the highest level, life gets easier for the Barça “fullbacks.”
And then there was Ousmane Dembele, whose performance can only lead us to wonder what might have been possible for the team had he not essentially spent three seasons either crocked or recovering from being crocked. Injury is a cruel thing, but when a player finds a way out of it, they often play as though reborn. The Frenchman was absurd against Plzen, who even lined up a coterie of defenders to keep him from doing what he did anyhow.
In his first outing after his first real sit-down interview (conducted entirely in Spanish) with Mundo Deportivo, one of the long knives outlets that had him as a Playstation-hugging wastrel, one telling comment was when he said that Xavi didn’t really have much of an impression of him, except for the negative things that he read in press outlets.
He also credited Xavi for bringing the best out of him, something that has been on display since his reemergence in the side last season, one of the critical factors in Barça finishing second in league as he led Liga in assists in a fraction of a season.
This year he is picking up where he left off, but with better playmates. He is reveling in feeding Lewandowski, and his rainbow assist to Ferran Torres was eye-popping, even as you can wonder whether a top-level keeper would have come off his line for that ball. Dembele had exactly the kind of performance that he has always been capable of, even as there have always been “If onlys” serving as impediments. If only he wasn’t injured. If only he had a manager who trusted him to run the show as at Dortmund. If only his previous managers didn’t stick him on the wing, tactical width that should be reserved for lesser players who can’t make a difference in a match.
All that was in the past. Dembele was as resplendent as he has ever been in playing his best match in the colors. Yes, the opponent wasn’t up to standard, but it’s still a reward for a manager who trusts him, who has given him the ball and said, “Wreck stuff.” Some might even label it a coming out party, but that player has always been there, even if circumstance and the exact kind of negative perception that supporters lap up so easily, were almost as big an impediment as injuries.
It was, essentially, the Lewandowski and Dembele show and it was fun to watch, even if Plzen was sufficiently compliant to not wreck the party at the Camp Nou. This was a perfect opponent for a team that still isn’t sure how good it is, that still hasn’t been tested at the highest level. Sevilla raised eyebrows of concern, as did the goal that Plzen scored, a tally entirely too easy as the Czech champs victimized a team with an attack from the future and a defense mired in the past, featuring players who aren’t good enough that still get run-outs. And cue the broken record, but its fullbacks aren’t anywhere up to the standard of its regular CBs in Kounde, who was brilliant, and Araujo, who was rested.
That defense will get a test next Champions League matchday when the team gets to put Lewandowski’s assertion that it is ready for Bayern to the fire. Except for the opening draw that can be attributed to rust and poor finishing, Xavi’s team has had the exact kind of easy ramp-up that it has needed to build confidence as it brushes aside lesser competition, has fun and fluffs its feathers.
But next Tuesday it’s all about to get real. And after that comes an October that will have many peeking out from under security blankets, asking “Is it over yet?” It’s a month that will likely define the season in both league and Champions League for Xavi’s so-far merry men.
Inter, Celta, Inter, Real Madrid, Villarreal, Athletic Club, Bayern, in a brutal stretch of matches that will call upon everything the team has. By the time that away leg to Plzen comes as a welcome respite, the team could well be looking at a sea of broken dreams. How Xavi solves the dilemmas created by the team’s soft fullbacks and pokey midfield that was even outrun by Plzen’s attackers will be interesting to watch.
Xavi rolled out a double pivot in name alone mostly because he could. It was Plzen, after all. The biggest thing Kessie and De Jong proved is that the team still isn’t ready to play without Busquets, but the group has to start somewhere. Exploitable spaces were evident, something that will be taken note of by opposing managers even as Xavi won’t be rolling out the subs against the topmost clubs.
For now? Fun was had by all as one of the super league wantaways brushed aside a champion from a lesser league thanks to that ol’ demon, individual brilliance. And the party rolls on.