If there’s been one consistent attribute of Barcelona’s play over the past decade or so that has seduced fans and neutrals and even ostensible enemies to buy a ticket to the Camp Nou or to flick on the TV to whichever obscure channel wound up with the La Liga broadcasting rights or to trawl sketchy video sites for the least fuzzy stream of the game one could find, it’s been the near guarantee of the unique joy that comes from witnessing soccer magic.
The current edition of the team is no exception. Here is Lionel Messi: the best player you’ll ever see; a living, breathing, legend still in the thick of his prime; a man who in every game performs a handful of feats of wonder so captivating, so spectacular, they would become indelibly seared into your mind like a permanent brand if not for the fact that he’d already fried your brain with too many similar moments of genius for you to possibly retain them all.
Here is Neymar: the sport’s closest approximation of a Messi-lite, with the best chance of becoming the closest approximation of Messi-proper in a few years time; a bullfighter on the pitch whose very existence enrages opponents and causes them to charge with their spikes up, only to see him to swivel and twist himself and the ball away from their challenges.
Here is Luis Suárez: the best goal-scorer in the world over the past couple years; the best assist man in the world over the past couple years; a man with unrivaled tenacity and effort and hunger to win; a player who never stops running, never stops trying (though who has hopefully stopped biting) in his efforts to attain victory.
Barcelona in the MSN era have reached a status the likes of which the sport has probably never seen before, with three master forwards that perfectly compliment each other and selflessly combine their brilliance to create an almost unending flow of magnificence. Watching them do what they do has been a delight and a privilege, and in the best of times it has obviously been at least as fun for them to perform as it’s been for us to watch. Which makes the difference between those happy days and the miserable spectacle of this weekend all the more stark.
Scroll back up and look at the photo at the top of this post. It’s taken from yesterday’s 2-1 Barcelona win over Leganés, moments after Messi scored the winning goal from the penalty spot late into what had been a hard-fought and important match. The players are hugging, but their heads are cast downward, with not a single hint of a smile to be seen. Here’s a video from the same “celebration”:
Messi and his teammates were just as subdued after scoring the opener:
There does not appear to be any joy at all in playing for Barcelona at present.
It’s no great mystery why. We’re not even a week out from one of the most comprehensive and demoralizing defeats in recent club history when Paris Saint-Germain decimated Barça in the Champions League by a score of 4-0. That loss was violent, stunning, and course-altering. It was arguably the worst performance during the Messi era. It almost certainly sealed an ignominious exit for the treble-winning manager Luis Enrique in the summer, it could spell a premature end to the current club board’s reign in charge, it most likely will lead to a serious roster shake-up in the next transfer window, and though it’s still incredibly unlikely to actually happen, the chance that Messi has had enough of the club’s sorry leadership and decides to leave the only club he’s ever known can no longer be dismissed out of hand. It’s hard to overstate just how monumental of a loss the PSG game was.
On top of all those potential long-term ramifications, that PSG loss and what it means for Barça’s season seems like it has robbed the players of any enjoyment they might find on the pitch. The follow-up match to last week’s PSG debacle was always going to be a downer, but the utter joylessness of yesterday’s match was alarming.
Barcelona scored that opening goal at the very start of the match—one they desperately needed to win in order to keep their hopes of a potential league title alive (Barça are currently one point behind table-toppers Real Madrid, though Real have played two fewer games)—and reacted as if they’d just scored the sixth goal in the second half of a meaningless preseason friendly. True, it wouldn’t have made much sense to celebrate taking the lead in a match everyone expected them to win with a big explosion of elation, not after what happened in Paris, but to see those uniformly austere expressions after what was a nice goal felt odd.
By scoring that early against a team struggling to avoid the relegation places, Barça had a chance to recover some of their mojo with a resounding win. Maintain the energy they’d started the game with, paste Leganés by four of five goals, and maybe the team would start to feel better about themselves, maybe gain some faith that the otherwise slim odds of a comeback in the second leg of the PSG tie wasn’t so far fetched with a team stocked with the wizards on the Barça forward line. But the game followed a different script. Barcelona remained in that sedate state and allowed the visitors all sorts of chances to level the game without creating many good chances of their own to extend the lead. The halftime score was 1-0, but it could’ve just as easily have been 1-2 in Leganés’s favor if not for the heroics of keeper Marc-André ter Stegen.
The second half was more of the same. Barcelona, once a team known for completely dictating the terms of every match, had no control over the game’s pace and tempo, and Leganés threatened repeatedly. In the 70th minute the visitors finally got their much-deserved equalizer. Barcelona, once a team of such passing fluidity and positional structure that pressing them high up the pitch was basically the equivalent of craning your neck before a vampire, had the ball taken off them deep into their own territory while trying to build play from their back line, and Leganés, like so many other Barça opponents this season, were rewarded for their initiative with an easy goal.
This Barcelona group, even when in a dour mood, never quits, though. They continued fighting for a winner to prevent the season from slipping from a state of malaise into one of bedlam, and earned the opportunity to steal a win when Neymar was taken down inside the penalty box near the very end of the match. Messi converted the spot kick in the 90th minute, and Barcelona hung on (though not without a scare or two in stoppage time) to take all three points. Nevertheless, there was no happiness to be found on the faces of the victors.
The reality of the situation is that Barcelona are more or less playing the string out for the rest of their season. The Champions League is done. They still have a very real chance to come back in the league, but they’ll need Real Madrid to slip up a couple times in the coming weeks. On top of hoping for some help from their rivals, Barça will also have to start playing better and more consistently themselves to prevent more than a couple more dropped points in the league for the rest of the season—a proposition that doesn’t look all that promising judging by how flat the team has played so far and the team’s mental state after the PSG loss. All that’s left is to see if Real offer a lifeline back into La Liga’s title race and if not, they’ll just have to wait around until the end of May for the Copa del Rey final against Alavés, then see what changes are in store for the summer.
It’s quite the anomaly to see a Barcelona team this far away from the big trophies this early in the season. Even more bizarre is seeing how little pleasure the players are taking in their play and how little joy that mindset offers us spectators in return. Many will still show up to the Camp Nou or turn their TVs to the game or hunt down a decent online stream every week to see Messi and Neymar and Suárez play. Whether the magic will still be there as often, and whether watching the magic will feel as thrilling as before, is anyone’s guess.