FC Barcelona have instantly begun to play like Barca once more, which is to say they seem like the overwhelming, engaging, dynamic groups through which their present supervisor, Xavi, used to conduct magical soccer symphonies.
There has been a variety of dross from Spain‘s champions over the previous few months. Winning dross, however pattern-free, cussed, uninspiring stuff all the identical. Yet this weekend’s 5-0 win over Real Betis was an exhilarating show of instinctive, daring, one-touch, third-man operating, passing-triangle soccer. Not since Xavi’s crew performed with sprint and enjoyment of beating Real Madrid 3-1 in January, within the Super Cup remaining, have the lads in Blaugrana produced something even vaguely related.
That efficiency was eight lengthy months in the past, so possibly it is the proper time for the Catalan supervisor to be reacquainted with somebody who symbolises each the most effective and worst of occasions for Xavi, and for the values of Johan Cruyff which have infused this membership because the Dutchman turned coach in 1988. That somebody is Marc Van Bommel, the Royal Antwerp supervisor and somebody whose persona, physique and soccer mentality embodies a debate that would corrode and undermine the values Xavi’s making an attempt to set up, simply because the Champions League arrives in Catalunya’s capital metropolis once more.
Explained in short, that debate is: peak, energy and aggression vs. imaginative and prescient, method, pace of motion and thought.
Van Bommel joined Barcelona in 2005 simply as Xavi suffered the worst damage of his profession. The Dutchman began nicely — the truth is, there is not any higher introduction to Cules (Barca followers) tradition than to announce that you just’d supported the membership since visiting the Costa Brava on vacation as a child and stumping up the cash it price to go on the Camp Nou tour.
Cut to the tip of that 2005-06 season. Xavi had missed 31 LaLiga and Champions League matches by damage however performed 4 occasions, together with two begins, instantly earlier than the Champions League remaining towards Arsenal in Paris. He was prepared; nonetheless extra prepared was Andres Iniesta. He’d starred all through that championship-winning season, however when sport day arrived in Paris, three dramatic lightning strikes hit within the Barcelona beginning XI, introduced nicely earlier than Jens Lehmann’s 18th-minute pink card.
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Lionel Messi — who’d loved six matches and 4 begins within the competitors that season — was unnoticed of the squad altogether in favour of Maxi Lopez, an enormous, brawny, not noticeably proficient ahead who’d performed one single minute in that Champions League marketing campaign.
Next: each Xavi and Iniesta have been benched for the test towards Arsenal, which supplied Barcelona their first European Cup win since 1992. Instead, Van Bommel began in midfield alongside Edmilson and Deco. Barcelona’s then-coach, Frank Rijkaard, had opted for peak, energy, energy and brawn proper throughout the board — preferring these attributes over the smaller, slighter, technically sensible, Barca-trained, house-style skills.
What occurred? Barcelona have been outplayed by 10-man Arsenal for a very long time, trailing 1-0 earlier than Iniesta got here on at half-time. Henrik Larsson joined him quarter-hour later and the ultimate turned on these two males. Xavi would later state that “unless Andres came on in that match, we weren’t going to win.”
Iniesta ultimately revealed in 2018: “Rijkaard took me aside and said something really tough to me, something that had no logic to it, and that meant he chose not to start me in that match. It’s still one of the toughest things to digest all these years later in a sporting sense — one of the career moments that left the worst taste in my mouth.”
Van Bommel, large, aggressive and difficult, was whom Rijkaard went with. When Iniesta left Barcelona to play for Vissel Kobe, Xavi wrote him an open letter that alluded to that state of affairs. “It made me furious when people used to say that Barca needed more ‘muscle,'” he wrote. “What were they saying? The more important muscle needed to play football, as Cruyff said, is the brain. The bravest, most valuable thing is to use intelligence. You and I just had to suffer in silence: we preferred to do our talking on the pitch.”
As for Messi? He was so livid at having been displaced by a bang-average participant like Lopez, countryman or not, that he misplaced his mood and refused to come down to the pitch and be part of the trophy celebrations with the remainder of his teammates. A few months later, I had my first-ever interview with him and he was clear that he regretted the assault of fury, stating firmly that “God willing, I’ll have many more chances to win it.”
There have been a few different parallels between that wet night time in Saint-Denis and the go to of Van Bommel’s crew to Barcelona’s momentary stadium on Montjuic this week — not simply the apparently perpetual brains vs. brawn argument. Barcelona beat Arsenal 2-1 that night time thanks to a striker in his mid-30s (Samuel Eto’o), Larsson along with his two assists and a Portuguese-speaking right-back, Juliano Belletti, who crashed dwelling the winner.
Before drawing the thread tight, and mentioning Robert Lewandowski (a striker in his mid-30s) or rampaging Portuguese right-back João Cancelo, it is perhaps enjoyable to throw in a really little-known anecdote.
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Two weeks in the past I used to be with Larsson, and we had a duplicate Champions League trophy. Inspired by being with “my old friend” (the trophy, reasonably than me), he advised me that when the celebrations in Paris have been ultimately completed that night time, he and his spouse, Magda, ushered all the opposite squad members into taxis after which could not discover one themselves. A few drinks had, understandably, been loved and so they randomly requested the nightclub bouncer if he knew how to get a cab. Instead, he phoned his brother, who was a painter and decorator by commerce, acquired him to get off the bed at 5 a.m. to flip up in his work van and drive the Larssons again to Barca’s resort in Versailles.
Imagine the scene of a Champions League winner and his spouse rattling round behind a fan surrounded by paint pots, ladders and a wide range of workman’s instruments. “Painting the town?” At any price, what glamour!
Just earlier than leaving the Van Bommel topic to deal with Xavi’s Barcelona, it is value remembering that these in poor health emotions, which sprung up between the Dutchman and his two former Camp Nou teammates, resurfaced within the World Cup remaining 4 years later. That night time in Johannesburg, the now-Antwerp coach correctly put the boot in, was extraordinarily fortunate not to be despatched off earlier than half-time and bullied Iniesta so usually that the person who ultimately scored that superb purpose reacted and admitted that he, himself, was a bit lucky not to be despatched off.
This week, it will be attention-grabbing to see whether or not Van Bommel sanctions ways geared toward testing the referee’s tolerance by aggressively bullying a aspect filled with bodily diminutive skills like Alejandro Balde, João Félix, Gundogan, Frenkie de Jong, Ferran Torres, Lamine Yamal and Gavi.
Back to the comparisons with Larsson and Belletti. With the arrival and speedy eruption of Joao Felix subsequent to him, Lewandowski has begun to seem like… Robert Lewandowski once more.
His purpose towards Betis, the essential strike to make it 2-0, was embellished by him turning to Felix and warning the Portugal worldwide that he wished a dummy when the ball was performed in. Then getting that, when Andreas Christensen slid the ball by, and the Pole produced the kind of dash and end he hasn’t actually proven for simply in need of a 12 months.
Last week Lewandowski admitted to the Polish media that “before coming to Barcelona, I was a bit of a goal machine … here I’ve become a bit more ‘human.'” Is he again?
And then there’s Cancelo. Like his Portugal teammate Felix, he appears custom-made for this crew not solely due to his skills, however due to the issue he solves at right-back. He performs with Pep Guardiola orders in his head and pops up as an “inside” fullback, perpetually providing himself as a “free” man in midfield. It’s intoxicating to watch.
Each of the Joaos scored, every of them regarded just like the “missing piece” and every of them, you may say, has arrived at Barcelona simply in time. I guess Van Bommel may have his personal ideas on the matter. They’ll in all probability be grumpy ones, too.