If the European Cup is worth its weight in silver and prestige, Barcelona should win it this year. That is to say, if the major competitions in this sport are designed to throw the best clubs in Europe into the most demanding possible gauntlet and, in the end, reward the one that’s proved its superiority, then a year when this Barça team doesn’t win it all wouldn’t make sense. This 2014-15 Barcelona team is special, in large part thanks to their most special player.
At this point, there really isn’t much more to say about what Lionel Messi has done this year, which could go down as the most brilliant one in a career brimming with preposterously, inhumanly great seasons. At the brink of disaster, he, his teammates, and his coach rallied together, no doubt realizing the limitless potential within the roster and recognizing what a tragedy it would be for them and the game if they didn’t focus solely on flying as close to the sun as they could manage. As we saw yesterday in their 3-0 beat down of Bayern Munich, spearheaded by one of Messi’s best performances ever, it worked.
Since the start of 2015, Barcelona have won 27 matches, drawn once, and lost twice in all competitions. Comparing that to the other Champions League hopefuls, Bayern have won 14, drawn 2, and lost six; Real have won 17, drawn 3, and lost 7; and Juventus have won 19, drawn 5, and lost 3. As you see, Barça’s record is ridiculous.
As everyone knows, the club has been lead by quite possibly the greatest forward line the world has ever seen. In that same span as above, Messi has scored 30 and assisted 16 in 29 appearances, Neymar has scored 20 and assisted 3 in 28, and Luis Suárez has scored 21 and assisted 10 in 28. These would be great numbers for most players’ entire seasons.
Naturally, the forwards were the stars of yesterday’s game. Afforded all kinds of space, especially in an opening 15 minutes or so when Bayern came out playing a suicidally high line with three defenders, MSN shredded the defense almost at will. Neymar scored the sealer, and Suárez’s running and pressing were crucial throughout the match, but it was Messi who put on a show for the ages.
Still, enough has been said about MSN. Those three weren’t the only heroes for Barcelona on the day. Dani Alves seems to be aging in reverse right before our eyes, and yesterday was the right wing boss of his prime. His combination play with Messi was invaluable, as was his ability to retain possession and keep the ball moving and his tackling. He was often the furthest player in blaugrana on the pitch, sprinting after Bayern’s defenders and turning what are normally routine passes into opportunities for Barça to recover the ball and counter.
And what about Ivan Rakitić? He was probably the player under the most scrutiny heading into this season, with fans unsure whether he had the pedigree to start for a world-class club every week. Making it more difficult for him were rumors that Toni Kroos was offered to Barça before he left Bayern for Madrid, which gave the Croatian even another player to be compared to on top of the natural ones to the best of Xavi and Andrés Iniesta.
Rakitić isn’t the new Xavi. He isn’t the new Iniesta, either, and he doesn’t play at all like the tempo-setting Kroos. But what he does is offer an unrivaled work rate at the center of the pitch, coupled with perfect positioning sensibility to compensate for the in, out, and around runs of Messi and Alves, helping Sergio Busquets with the defensive work, which directly addresses the biggest weakness of the post-Guardiola era: the declining defensive ability of Xavi and Iniesta. Further, when he sees the opening, he’s retained that knack for attacking from his more free role with Sevilla. Without a player like him, Barça couldn’t be the team Luis Enrique wants them to be. Rakitić might not have been Barcelona’s best player against Bayern, but his tireless effort was critical to Barça’s press-and-counter game plan that worked so effectively.
As daunting a proposition as overturning a 3-0 scoreline is (especially since Bayern will have to push forward in the second leg, and if Messi and Co. can grab just one on the counter, Bayern will have to score at least 5), it’s not impossible. As the unlucky Bavarians have shown this season, a rash of crippling injuries are just an awkward bend of the knee or two away. Plus, Bayern have already overcome one startling first-leg deficit this UCL season. While Barça are huge favorites, nothing is given.
Ultimately, whatever happens in next week’s return leg in Munich and even the final next month in Berlin can’t change what the Catalan club has accomplished. Barcelona have already achieved wondrous feats on fields across Spain and all of Europe this season. They’ve beaten the champions of France (PSG, three times in the Champions League), the La Liga title-holders (Atlético Madrid, also thrice: once in the league and twice in the Copa del Rey), the reigning English champs (Manchester City twice in the UCL), the current European Cup holders (Real Madrid, once in La Liga), and now the champions of the Bundesliga. They’ve done all that by going straight at their opponents every time, playing some of the most attractive, attacking play in Europe, all while raising the levels of the current and possibly future best players in the world.
If the European Cup is worth anything, Barcelona’s name will be carved on it in a month’s time. Even if they don’t win it, they will have earned it.
But hey, there was another game in this competition the day before, and we’d be remiss if we didn’t comment on that one, too, thanks to another Argentine wizard’s match-winning day.
Is there a more fitting nickname in sports than Carlos “El Apache” Tevez? Originally given to him as a youngster in reference to his emergence from the neighborhood known as Fuerte Apache, everything about Tevez on a soccer field screams warrior. He takes the pitch with a scowl—enhanced by a large scar running down his neck that he’s explicitly refused to get removed—that only oscillates from glowing anger (when things aren’t going his way) to glowing exuberance (when, as is usually the case, his tomahawking legs chop through defenses and he’s able to create a goal). He is all usages of ¡Vamos! personified.
It is at once a strange situation and a perfectly understandable one to say that Tevez, as the best player on the best team in one of the best leagues in the world, has flown under the radar. It’s strange because Tevez is truly a great player, proving it in his time with the Manchesters, and demonstrating that he’s still got it by bossing Italy. It’s understandable because in 2015 nobody really knows how to judge the quality of Serie A, and because of that and the ease with which fans of the game can follow the Premier League and La Liga—easily the two best leagues—very few feel the need to watch Juventus every week on their inexorable march to yet another Scudetto.
These are the circumstances Tevez and his Juve teammates took to their home stadium on Tuesday, where they met Real Madrid in the first leg of the Champions League semifinals. A player and a team that had impressed domestically yet hadn’t gained much traction internationally as of late against the reigning UCL title-holders and the most famous club in the world. On paper, the tie looked heavily slanted in Real’s favor. Tevez is great, yes, and club president Florentino Pérez would love to make Paul Pogba his newest Galáctico this summer, but with the Frenchman out because of injury and the absurd depth of Madrid’s front line, it would be hard to find more than a couple of the Old Lady’s starters who could crack the Blancos’ bench, let alone earn a starting spot. At basically every position (besides keeper) Real had a much more talented starting option.
Rather than play along with the predicted script, or even baton down the hatches in hopes of mitigating the damage from the impending massacre, Juventus came out charging. Naturally, the Apache lead the way.
In a match against Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Isco, and James Rodriguez, Tevez was the most dangerous forward on the pitch. Tevez terrorized Real in a way not too unlike their most diabolical foe, Tevez’s own compatriot and maybe-enemy Lionel Messi.
Tevez is a dead-eye finisher and boasts a poacher’s instinct for knowing exactly when and where a loose ball will squirt out for him to slam into the back of the net, but he’s far from a traditional striker. Like Messi, he’s most comfortable roaming the entirety of the pitch, drifting to either wing and even dropping to the back line to collect possession and instigate attacks. Real have struggled all year to find balance between defense and attack with the sheer number of attack-minded players they usually line up ahead of the four defenders, and Tevez feasted on those yawning gaps between the lines.
The goal he set up for Morata came from one especially large pocket of space Claudio Marchisio found him in in the half space between the center of the pitch and the right wing. All day, Tevez repeatedly slipped into these soft spots in Real’s formation and drove his team forward on counter after counter. He created Juve’s first, drew the penalty he then coolly converted for the second, and could’ve (and maybe should’ve) scored or assisted at least another goal or two.
Tevez, alongside fellow South American Arturo Vidal—himself a boundless fount of energy and passion—led Juventus through sheer effort to victory over Real. The final 2-1 scoreline is a little unflattering to the way Juve played, and you can’t help but feel that they missed their opportunity for a commanding win. Real are still favorites to return to the final, but Madridistas shouldn’t feel too confident just yet. El Apache got his first taste of Real’s blood, and if there’s one man you wouldn’t count out to finish the job and snatch off that scalp, it’s him.