There will be culers who are disappointed in the Copa del Rey semifinal result.
There will also be culers, more honest ones, who understand what and how the team is, and won’t be surprised by yet another utter collapse.
In the pre-match runup, someone on my Twitter timeline predicted a 0-4 RM win. That prediction felt the most right because you could see all the signs, mostly overconfidence. Barça has, to be fair, had RM’s number this season — say the results.
The reality of the balance of play says something different altogether, as does the rest of the season. Devoted supporters will still assert that the team they love is good enough. It isn’t, and it isn’t even at full strength, which it was far from in the debacle at the Camp Nou. It isn’t good enough because of a thing that many have talked about before: mentality.
Sergi Roberto said after the match that the first RM goal damaged the team’s morale. Accurate. But also unacceptable. RM came into the match down 1-0 on aggregate to a team that has beaten it with regularity all season, including in the SuperCopa. It’s doubtful they were worried about morale, even after Barça came out an played one of the best halves of football it has played all season. They fought, and clawed, hung around and nicked a counterattacking goal. That goal turned out to be decisive in so many ways.
The timing of the goal was terrible, as one signifying characteristic of Xavi’s team is that it doesn’t finish matches. Second halves are bleak, and have been bleak all season. Against Real Madrid, a class team with quality players at every position, that second half had the potential to turn out how it ended: a beatdown by a team with more belief, and more talent.
Three teams have scored more than three goals at the Camp Nou this season: Bayern Munich, Inter Milan and Real Madrid. The first two put them out of the Champions League for good, the last one put them out of the Copa del Rey. Culers will console themselves with the fact that RM is looking up at a 12-point gap to FC Barcelona. But the reality of this team is unchanged, even by that gap in league. It isn’t good enough.
On what turned out to be the decisive goal, Marcos Alonso had the opportunity to stop the counter by fouling. Didn’t. Sergi Roberto was trotting back instead of running as hard as he could. Jules Kounde almost pulled off a remarkable clearance off the line, but just shanked it. And that was that.
Yet the reality of this team, allegedly elite, is that one goal made it fall apart. The team doesn’t have confidence in itself because it doesn’t have anything. It doesn’t have a repeatable way of playing, it doesn’t really have a tactical structure, it doesn’t have anything to fall back on during difficult times. What Pep Guardiola, what Luis Enrique instilled in their teams is a system. “This is what we are going to do. So do it.” And their teams did it, up or down on the scoreline. The sprites moved the ball, or got it forward to Messi, Suarez and Neymar. Xavi’s team has nothing.
Raphinha was on the wing, against a midfielder. He lost every last 1v1 duel, created nothing, looking every bit like the player so many cautioned against overspending for in the summer. Raphinha has notched some timely goals, which have seduced people into thinking that he is something that he isn’t.
Robert Lewandowski continues to flip and flail, missing chances and touches that he used to convert with ease. Logic folks say things such as, “He’s playing too much outside the box,” “He needs better service.” Both those things are true. But what is also true is that IN the box, his touches are clunky, he’s soft in physical duels and that diminution of physical abilities is manifesting itself in the touches that aren’t as sharp, leading to shots that aren’t as precise or well-hit. Goals of the past are saves of the present. Or wide. Or high.
Gavi was on the left wing, because who else was there to play in a desert presented by physical and psychological failure. Ferran Torres is nothing, Ansu Fati is nothing, came on and disappeared. This match was, like so many key matches this season, defined by absences. De Jong, Pedri, Dembele, key players who are essential and in two of those cases, fragile. Andreas Christensen was another absence, which forced Xavi into playing an utter inadequacy on the back line. Ancelotti targeted that space as any intelligent manager would, particularly as the inability of Gavi to create anything meant that Balde had to bomb forward, which created that big space that RM exploited early and often.
What was Xavi thinking? Well, as with every other big match against a top manager, he was out thought. He knows that Sergi Roberto and Sergi Busquets move like snails when the opponent has the ball, and common sense would dictate circumspection when it comes to the play of Alejandro Balde.
Nah. And the team suffered. Again.
Big match, class opponent, top manager and another collapse. “That first goal damaged our morale.” There is nothing elite about this team, and won’t be until significant changes are made in the way it does everything. Its sporting director talked about big changes in the summer, yet they have renewed two of the players who shouldn’t be on the roster, and Xavi wants to renew another of them. And there is also talk of bringing back Messi, which has the potential for great press, vibes and to damage the nascent rebuilding process.
Pedri is ready, Gavi is growing, De Jong has found his groove. And boom. Along comes Messi. Supporters will love it, but it isn’t that kind of a party. After the match, many were asserting that Messi would have been the best Barça attacker on the pitch. Doubtful, but as long as theories aren’t proven, they can live in glory.
Barça has a rebuilding project stuffed with young players, geezers and has-beens, just like it has had all season. It has also had incredible luck, which is the only reason there haven’t been more scorelines like yesterday’s. Slack opponent finishing, key defensive interventions, Ter Stegen pulling a remarkable save out of his butt. And another improbable 1-0 win allows the team to move to an improbable, lucky La Liga season.
The reality, however, is something entirely different, something that supporters need to accept. If Christensen, Dembele, Pedri and De Jong were in the XI, the match probably goes differently, but reality would be unchanged. This team has a lot of work to do. Instead of talking about Messi, it should be talking about a proper DM to replace the pylon that is Busquets. It should also be talking about a starting-class left winger who can create, a task that shouldn’t be left to a defender. Raphinha, if he stays, is the substitute for Dembele or whoever that LW is. And they need a right back, so that rotation can happen with the three best CBs in La Liga. They don’t need Messi, or vibes, or any of that other nonsense. And Xavi needs to sit down with a more seasoned manager, watch his season of failures and learn.
And a fanbase needs to move on from the past. Messi, Xavi, Busquets, Sergi Roberto, juego de posicion, la pausa. Opponent after opponent has trampled all over that legacy yet people still cling to it. Just this player or that player, and Barça can start playing Barça football again. Real Madrid showed up the fallacy of that notion, just like Inter did, and Bayern did, and Eintracht Frankfurt did, and Benfica did.
A four-goal beatdown, a complete and utter collapse in your own house in a key match exposes a team in significant ways that are too obvious to miss unless people choose not to see them. Sergi Roberto is right when he said that first RM goal damaged the team’s morale. And one of the first parts of fixing what is broken should be ridding the roster of any player susceptible to, and representative of that legacy of failure. This team will win the league, but nobody should let that convince them that this team is good enough to compete at an elite level.