By François Koundouno
Rabat – The Real Sociedad demonstration on Sunday night was not a mere game. It was a history to make, to remake. Or to undo. Or to write. Or to rewrite—You choose. It was miraculous. But what does miracle mean anyway when the team concerned is Ernesto Varlverde’s Barcelona?
“You must have thought again”, a journalist said to Valverde in the aftermath of the game, as he mentioned those bleak minutes during which Sociedad was leading the game by two-nil. “Exactly. Everyone did”, Valverde answered.
Sociedad’s pitch, despite Barcelona’s unrivalled saga of tantalizing football and masterful passes, had remained, for over a decade, a nightmare to Blaugrana, “the worst place”, as Valverde has it. Pep Guardiola, with all the legend he brought to the squad, failed the Sociedad test. For a decade, since 2007, no Barcelona squad had beaten Sociedad at home. And even if Barça went there on Sunday unbeaten, playing Sociedad was still a daunting task, a tormenting doubt: for a decade, the Sociedad test ferociously roared in Barça’s ears like a wounded lion.
But when you have a manager like Valverde, you can break curses, maintain your invincibility, and show your opponent the side you have become with the coach you have. Paulinho scored, again; Suarez regained the beastly instinct that had so far been eluding him; and Messi! Messi! He did what he does best, his specialty: score goals that send everyone in raptures, even the opposing side. That night, as on numerous other nights before, the Argentine genius gave Valverde what he needed to maintain the gulf of difference with other La Liga teams. Jorge Sampaoli was right when, leading a desperate Argentina to Quito late last year, he calmly told journalists: “when you have Messi on your team, everything is possible.”
When Messi caressed the ball, put it on the ground, and gave it that magical touch of which he alone has the secret, the Sociedad keeper just stood there and, in the disbelief of a thief caught in action, he powerlessly watched the ball go in. There is nothing he could do. Geronimo Rulli, like many other goal keepers, will tell you this: There are times when, confronted with Messi’s magisterial free kicks, all you can do is be clueless, drop your hands, and pretend to be disappointed. Deep down, however, you revel in having Messi score against your side. For, as a football fan (only Messi has that spell of transforming opponents into fans. Well, perhaps Ronaldinho, too), you know that it is not every day that such goals are scored.
“No one can stop them”, read Marca’s front-page on Monday morning. You might not—as do I—fully agree with that. What about Bayern? Or PSG; or Manchester City; or Chelsea? Valverde has an answer: “We’re not ruling anyone out.” There you have it—the mentality of a coach approaching every game like a final, like a defining moment of a glory yet to come.
Valverde knows that to dream of the top, you must be able to beat the best. But he knows something more: To be competitive, you need to constantly work on the morale of your squad, convince them that they’re the best, get the best out of them—the exciting season that the likes of Paulinho and Sémodo are now having speaks volumes about the manager that Valverde is. But there is more to Varlverde’s style: Even with Messi (arguably the best footballer there is) on your team, you need to attract fresh, youthful talents. So he brought Dembélé and Coutinho in. And when everyone thought he was done, he detected another talent who he thinks can bring more vibrancy and youth to the squad’s defense: Yerry Mina. The Colombian is thought to bring the reinforcement and consistency that Barcelona need in their sometimes flabby defense.
Victory tastes delicious—it has that wonderfully spicy taste that no tongue wants to miss. But besides the joy that victory brings to Barcelona fans, for the rest of us who, for some reasons, find ourselves on the side of those not supporting Barcelona, there is something much more beguiling about this Valverde squad: watching them play.
“This is hard. It is a terrible blow”, Zidane told the press after last week’s debacle against Villareal. “We did everything but the ball just didn’t go in. There is no explanation”, he added. The following morning, AS dramatized Zidane’s press conference: “No goal, no luck, no explanation”, they wrote.
But Zidane was right. How can anyone explain what is ailing his squad? Could anyone anticipate that Zidane’s boys, the same that single-handedly dominated Europe for two years in a row, making teams like Bayern and Juventus look amateurish, would be this desperate and uninspiring? After the humiliating slap that they inflicted upon Varlverde’s clueless, Neymar-less squad in the pre-season, who could dare predict that the numbers and performances would be what they now are? And now, while Zidane can forget about La Liga and focus on the daunting task awaiting him from Paris’ boys in February, Barça fans can rhapsodize about a future sure to be rosy.
With Coutinho at his scintillating best (well, he always is), Valverde will surely exploit his master-class midfielder techniques and his otherworldly shooting accuracy. With Messi-Alba becoming an unstoppable duo; with Suarez being, on important occasions, the killer that he was on Sunday night… This squad might equal Guardiola’s record. Or they might not—this year, at least. One thing, however, is certain: Valverde has shown that he is a team builder, the right man for a team in transition. Out of the season that pundits said would be Barcelona’s worst in recent years, he has made one of the deadliest squads. What seemed lousy is now magnificent.
“Barcelona are not invincible”, read a Marca headline yesterday night, as Oscar Melendo’s late goal allowed a compact Espanyol to inflict on Messi and co their first defeat of the season. It was a stunning, astounding, “frustrating night all around for Ernesto Valverde’s men”, Marca added.
Unbeaten no longer. But still tactically unstoppable.
Barcelona dominated the game yesterday night, as Espanyol barely created chances and did what many teams do best when playing against Barcelona: refuse to play, be stubbornly defensive, count on physicality, and, like a student who has not done his homework, pray for the mercy of the gods: Playing against Barcelona is torturous. Espanyol players’ composure after the game said it all: “How did we even resist the thunder of this squad; how did we manage to win?”
“We were not lucky. We did what we could and we dominated the game.” We often hear this from managers of losing squads. But that is not Valverde’s style. For Valverde, it is not about being lucky; it is all about being clinical, converting your chances, however few, into goals.
“We tried to do what we always do, dominate the game and make them on our turf”, he said after the match. “They defended well and were clinical in that move… Now we have to bounce back… We await them at the Camp Nou”, he added.
When the score to come back from is a mere one-nil, and when the second leg is scheduled in their magical Camp Nou, a ground famous for its unbelievable remontada scenes, who can doubt this Barcelona’s ability to bounce back?
Maybe Zidane’s predicament is that the gods of football have finally decided to give up on their French genius; they have, in the fickleness and unpredictability that is theirs, chosen their new man: Ernesto Valverde.
And Barcelona’s triumph, should they triumph this season, will be Valverde’s.