Barcelona, Triumphant

6 Jun

Barcelona are champions of Europe for the fourth time in ten seasons, and the first since 2011; by Messi Era Blaugrana standards, a long three-year gap is at an end. Barça has run through its share of adversity in recent years—four coaches in four years, one of whom passed away—and got off to a slow start this season. Adrift in La Liga and struggling with a drop in form from top players, it seemed as if Luis Enrique might last just one season, too. Instead, the squad evolved, and it turned out there was a method to his madness after all. Barcelona becomes the first team to win more than one treble, slipping past Real Madrid in La Liga and undressing Athletic Bilbao in the Copa del Rey before slamming the door against Juventus in the Champions League final.

As the squad aged and its midfielders—the heart and soul of the great tiki-taka run of Barcelona and Spanish football from 2008-2012—lost a step, the team’s once rhythmic passing devolved into inane, slow cycles around the back. The parked bus proved too much for the beautiful game, and Luis Enrique finally produced the answer. Suddenly there was a new weapon in the arsenal, a vicious counter-attacking force that created the highest-scoring front line of all time. When other teams began to take control in possession, as Bayern Munich did in the opening leg of the Champions League semifinal, the front three blew them open and turned tense games into laughers. Neymar took a step forward as a goal-scoring star, and Luis Suárez slid in seamlessly to a selfless squad guided by a timeless ethic of unity. But in case there was ever any doubt, the star of the show was Lionel Messi, who bounced back from an injury-plagued 2014 to revive his bid for “greatest of all time.” The world media long ago ran out of superlatives to describe his performance (Ray Hudson’s “magisterial” remains my favorite), but two of his goals in the past two months, his humiliation of the vaunted Bayern backline and casual slalom through all of Bilbao, are on the level of any he’s ever scored. With those three in form, Barcelona had the world at its heels.

Still, it was an evolution, not a revolution. Barcelona’s opening goal in the Champions League final, a statement just three minutes in, was a nod to that old midfield precision. Andrés Iniesta, rising to the occasion to be man of the match yet again in a final, picked the perfect pass to Ivan Rakitic to set the standard. Barça looked ready to run Juventus off the pitch in the early stages, but the veteran Italians slowly settled in, began to assert their own deep midfield, and finally broke through in the fifty-fifth minute, courtesy Real Madrid slayer Álvaro Morata.

The second half was a rollicking, back-and-forth affair, with Juventus finding some possession and Gianluigi Buffon, the Italian icon in goal still seeking his first Champions League title, making several key saves. But for every surge forward, Barça had a terrifying odd-man counter, and as he is want to do, Messi finally picked the lock and set up Suárez. The enigmatic Suárez was a model citizen in his first season in blue and red, keeping his teeth to himself and letting those relentless legs make the necessary incisions.

When it came time to lock things down, though, it was once again the midfield that made the difference. On came Xavi for one final time, the most decorated player in Spanish history replacing his best friend Iniesta to captain the squad across the finish line. The fulcrum of these Barcelona and Spanish national teams still has it, even at 35. Their versatility on display, the Blaugrana settled things down, defended with confidence, and turned the three-headed monster loose one last time. Neymar lasered home the exclamation point at the end of stoppage time, then kicked off the celebration as only a Brazilian can.

The Barcelona defense shouldn’t be lost in all the praise of the attackers. First Gerard Piqué, and then Dani Alves, rediscovered their past form and once again created an elite back line. Set pieces, so long a worry in Barcelona, finally became a strength, even with Javier Mascherano, the diminutive tackling machine, on the pitch at Piqué’s side at center back. Jordi Alba remains a rock on the left side, and Barça added Jeremy Mathieu to the mix to give themselves an adequate substitute defender. The firm back line excused occasional shakiness from keeper Marc-André ter Stegen in his rookie Barcelona campaign, with the odd couple in the middle in total world-class form.

It was an emphatic return to the pinnacle of world soccer for Barcelona, as they took down the defending champions of every major European footballing nation in their run to the title. Many fought bravely, none more so than the Vecchia Signora, but they were all outclassed. True, the road to the final didn’t go through Real Madrid, but the Galácticos are embroiled in their own bit of turmoil, left without any trophies and a very grumpy fan base and president, which sacked poor Carlo Ancelotti just a year after they took home the Champions League title. Real has just one league title and one Champions League in the past seven years, and the impatience and impulsive buys have brought the Blancos down a notch. Barcelona reigns supreme, and while they will miss Xavi’s steadying presence and may lose Dani Alves, the rest of the core will be back with a vengeance. It will be tough to bet against Messi, Suárez, and Neymar in the near future.

While the Catalans who made the trek to Berlin once again reminded the world that Barcelona is “mes que un club” with their pregame mosaic, the squad’s exceptionalism has taken some hits over the past couple of years. Of course, they still look honorable next to the petulance and free spending of Real Madrid, Paris-St. Germain, and Chelsea, but that’s not a very high bar there, and there are cracks in the walls. The shady finances of the Neymar deal and the one-year transfer ban show a slide to the dark side by the outgoing Barça board, and their once-unsullied kits now advertise the airline of some Middle Eastern despots instead of UNICEF. The Barcelona B team, often good enough to be promoted to La Liga if the senior team weren’t already there, had a horrid year and was relegated to the third division, despite its bevy of attacking talent. And while half the starting squad is still La Masia born and bred, there’s no doubt that it was not the youth team, but instead the monster signings of Neymar and Suárez, that pushed them back to supremacy. Purity is impossible in modern sports, and there is still much to be proud of in this club, but its thousands of owners must remain vigilant, and ensure Barcelona does not sell its soul. The aftermath of the upcoming club elections will prove an interesting bellwether.

For now, however, the party is on in Barcelona. The enduring image of 2015, after the highlight reel of Messi wonder goals and mesmerizing passing out of their midfield and front three, will be of Xavi and Luis Enrique striding off the pitch together, arm-in-arm as they belt out the Cant del Barça one last time. Visca Barça, Visca Catalunya.

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