This guest series is written by my good friend Harry, who has chosen to make himself miserable for your enjoyment. This is Chapter 8. For previous chapters, see Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5, Chapter 6, and Chapter 7. -Isaiah
February begins with another Copa trip to a lower league team in a month which contains games against Elche, Eiber and Betis in the league along with a crunch league tie against Atleti at the Wanda and the first leg of our European tie against Inter. With that in mind, I make full changes for the Copa tie, including a debut for Mika Marmol because Gaya is injured and I wanted to give Alba a rest. You’ll have to take my word for that, though, because I forgot to take a screenshot of the line-up ahead of time. Hey, I never said I was perfect.
Well, to nobody’s surprise, my reserves let me down. We’re the better team, of course, but huff and puff without any particular penetration. Pedri has our best chance when he fluffs a one-on-one in the first half, while Jack Wilshere and Coutinho also draw good saves from their ‘keeper. In extra time I bring on Messi, Fati, Sergi and Dembele to put this to bed and we finally make breakthroughs via Sergi and Messi, with Dembele assisting both. I wish I could take the time to praise my substitutions but I’m too irritated with the guys I started. Marmol had a good game, though, so that’s something.
I make full changes for the game against Elche, although Griezmann has a knock so Braithwaite gets a start. Other than that we’re pretty much full strength. I decide to keep Upamecano in the line up too because Pique is tried and this game time is really helping the Frenchman.
A pretty straightforward game, all told. VAR awards us a penalty after only 4 minutes for a foul on Alba but Messi misses. Only half an hour later Coutinho and Alba combine well down the left for the latter to put in a cross that Fati prods home, while just before half time we get another penalty and Messi makes no mistakes this time. In the second half I tell the players to ease off to conserve energy and we control the game. Griezmann hits the post on the way out as he continues his recovery from injury.
Next up is Betis in the first leg of the Copa semi-final. It’s an important game (obviously) but I’ve got Atleti on Saturday which is a more important game so I play a rotated team, albeit with Messi. Ideally, we won’t lose this and be in a good position to win the return leg.
And it all goes to plan (kind of). Betis are basically the better team, hit the bar twice and force Neto into a couple of saves. I switch things up in the second half, bringing on Griezmann up front and Pjanic at the base of midfield to bring more dynamism than Busquets was providing. And we’re better, but not by much. Messi forces Chocolate Wrists into a good save but that’s our best chance. 0-0 – I would’ve taken it.
Well let’s see if that gamble paid off. We’re back to the first team for Atleti at the Wanda.
In the 19th minute, Oblak palms Alba’s shot onto the bar and Atleti then storm down the other end and win a corner when Joao Felix’s shot is deflected wide, which kind of sums up the game. Atleti are, on balance, probably slightly better and I’m worried until, just before half time, Griezmann (who’s otherwise been a bit crap) lays the ball off to Messi who cracks home from 30 yards.
We’re lucky to be in the lead and I remind the players that at half time. Griezmann gets upset again. What is wrong with this guy? At least the other players seem to get the message and for the first 20 minutes of the second half we shut the game down effectively. But then MATS slices a poor clearance straight to Koke, who chips the ball over the top to Angel Correa, who finishes calmly. Ten minutes later they take the lead when Felix scores from Kieran Trippier’s pass. Messi has been running on fumes for a while but he can rest when he’s dead (or we’re playing Eibar) and I immediately move to 2-2-6 because, fuck it, why not. And, typically, Atleti have the best chance after I do this, with Correa’s shot being deflected wide at the end of a break from our corner.
I’m deeply annoyed but I can’t really say we deserved better. I just couldn’t find a way through Simeone’s defensive set up.
For the Inter game, though, I can’t afford to rest players. Sergi comes in for an injured De Jong to provide some hard work.
The game starts poorly, with MATS palming an Alexis shot straight to Hakimi to score after only 6 minutes. Damnit. We grow into the match, though: Pedri intercepts a back pass but Handanovic saves well and Messi draws another good save. Unfortunately, on 40 minutes Alba decides he’s got a pressing engagement elsewhere and goes in on Alexis two-footed and earns a straight red. I move Dest to left back and Sergi to right.
After ten minutes of the second half, Dest scores a rocket from the left that goes in off the post, despite carrying an injury. Like the goddamn warrior he is. Ten minutes later, Brozovic hits the post with a header and I decide that 1-1 away from home isn’t too bad for a European first leg and bring on Araujo and Busquets, the former so he can kick things and the latter for some of that legendary tempo he provides.
But, of course, with an air of inevitability, two minutes after I make these changes MATS fumbles a cross like some common garden Gazziniga and Alexis prods in. Shit. Dembele and Griezmann have decent chances as I try to chase the game. But as the clock ticks over 90 minutes, I tell myself that 1-2 with an away goal and a man down isn’t the worst thing in the world. I can still pull this back in the second leg.
And then Inter win a corner.
Perisic whips it in but MATS is first to the ball with a good solid punch. Phew.
The ball flies out to Barella. He chests it under control and swings a leg at it as it comes down.
It rockets right into the top corner.
Maybe 1-3 after the first leg isn’t so bad? Oh, who am I kidding, this is going to be tough.
I’m disappointed because we were the better team and Inter scored from two MATS mistakes and a wonder goal that you just can’t plan for. Alba’s sending off cost us as it really made our ‘overload on the wings and cut back’ attacking plan less viable.
For the next game against Eibar I rest Messi and make a couple of other changes to rest other players. After this we have successive games against Betis, in the league and then in the Copa semi-final second leg. I tell the players that we should just try and get out of this with my sanity intact.
Aaaand… they don’t listen to me.
20 minutes in, Kike outpaces Lenglet to a long ball and slots home. They actually hold us at bay for most of the first half until in the last minute of injury time, when a scramble in the box sees Dembele have three shots blocked before he pokes in the equaliser.
At half time I throw a water bottle across the room and tell them to buck their ideas up. I even tell them how disappointed Xavi is going to be with them. Wilshere, Puig, Sergi, Trincao and the sheep Griezmann look upset.
Well, upset or not the players do look better in the second half. We finally take the lead when Puig crashes in a shot from 30 yards. But just as I’m looking to close the game down, on 85 minutes, Rodrigues crosses for Quique to equalise. The thing is, it’s not all that undeserved so I tell my players to throw themselves forwards. Because of our points deficit with Atleti, a win is so much better than a draw that, I tell myself, I’d even take a loss if we got it chasing the three points.
And, what do you know? It works. Puig wins the ball (after Busquets had carelessly given it away) and plays in Trincao to poke past the onrushing keeper and, four minutes later, Pedri finishes from Alba’s cross on the break.
This team is going to be the death of me.
The month finishes with us welcoming Betis in the league, before playing them in the second leg of the Copa semi-final in the first game of next month. They’re a good team and I have to treat them with respect. I drop Lenglet because he was rubbish last time out and I bring in Gaya for Alba, with Coutinho, Fati and Messi all returning to the forward line.
We bang on the door all through the first half and our cause is significantly helped on 44 minutes when Bartra decides to do his old team a solid and gets sent off for hacking down Gaya. We finally take the lead when De Jong crashes home from the edge of the area after a Pjanic pull back. I shut the rest of the game down and we see it out competently. Trincao prods home a second in the last minute, which we deserve.
A competent end to the month can’t hide how disappointed I am. Five points behind Atleti with 15 games left isn’t impossible but we’ve wasted both our games against them and are going to have to rely on the kindness of strangers. Next month is the second leg against Betis and the crucial second leg against Inter. I wish I could say that I was confident but even our wins in the league aren’t the plain sailing I’d like.
Up Next: March 2021