FC Barcelona have immediately begun to play like Barca once more, which is to say they appear like the overwhelming, enticing, dynamic groups during which their present supervisor, Xavi, used to conduct magical soccer symphonies.
There was numerous dross from Spain‘s champions over the previous few months. Successful dross, however pattern-free, cussed, uninspiring stuff all the identical. But this weekend’s 5-0 win over Actual Betis was an exhilarating show of instinctive, daring, one-touch, third-man operating, passing-triangle soccer. Not since Xavi’s staff performed with sprint and enjoyment of beating Actual Madrid 3-1 in January, within the Tremendous Cup closing, have the boys in Blaugrana produced something even vaguely comparable.
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 one of the best and worst of occasions for Xavi, and for the values of Johan Cruyff which have infused this membership because the Dutchman grew to become 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 attempting to determine, simply because the Champions League arrives in Catalunya’s capital metropolis once more.
Defined briefly, that debate is: peak, energy and aggression vs. imaginative and prescient, approach, pace of motion and thought.
Van Bommel joined Barcelona in 2005 simply as Xavi suffered the worst harm of his profession. The Dutchman began effectively — the truth is, there isn’t any higher introduction to Cules (Barca followers) tradition than to announce that you simply’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.
Lower to the top of that 2005-06 season. Xavi had missed 31 LaLiga and Champions League matches via harm however performed 4 occasions, together with two begins, instantly earlier than the Champions League closing in opposition to Arsenal in Paris. He was prepared; nonetheless extra prepared was Andres Iniesta. He’d starred all through that championship-winning season, however when recreation day arrived in Paris, three dramatic lightning strikes hit within the Barcelona beginning XI, introduced effectively earlier than Jens Lehmann’s 18th-minute purple card.
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Lionel Messi — who’d loved six matches and 4 begins within the competitors that season — was not noted of the squad altogether in favour of Maxi Lopez, a giant, brawny, not noticeably proficient ahead who’d performed one single minute in that Champions League marketing campaign.
Subsequent: each Xavi and Iniesta had been benched for the check in opposition to Arsenal, which provided Barcelona their first European Cup win since 1992. As an alternative, 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 abilities.
What occurred? Barcelona had 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 “until Andres got here on in that match, we weren’t going to win.”
Iniesta ultimately revealed in 2018: “Rijkaard took me apart and stated one thing actually powerful to me, one thing that had no logic to it, and that meant he selected to not begin me in that match. It is nonetheless one of many hardest issues to digest all these years later in a sporting sense — one of many profession moments that left the worst style in my mouth.”
Van Bommel, large, aggressive and hard, 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 livid when individuals used to say that Barca wanted extra ‘muscle,'” he wrote. “What had been they saying? The extra necessary muscle wanted to play soccer, as Cruyff stated, is the mind. The bravest, Most worthy factor is to make use of intelligence. You and I simply needed to undergo in silence: we most popular to do our speaking 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 back all the way down to the pitch and be a 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 keen, I will have many extra possibilities 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 staff to Barcelona’s non permanent stadium on Montjuic this week — not simply the apparently perpetual brains vs. brawn argument. Barcelona beat Arsenal 2-1 that night time due 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 house the winner.
Earlier than 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 reproduction Champions League trophy. Impressed by being with “my previous good friend” (the trophy, quite than me), he instructed me that after the celebrations in Paris had 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 they usually randomly requested the nightclub bouncer if he knew learn how to get a cab. As an alternative, he phoned his brother, who was a painter and decorator by commerce, obtained him to get away from bed at 5 a.m. to show up in his work van and drive the Larssons again to Barca’s lodge in Versailles.
Think about the scene of a Champions League winner and his spouse rattling round at the back of a fan surrounded by paint pots, ladders and quite a lot of workman’s instruments. “Portray the city?” At any price, what glamour!
Simply earlier than leaving the Van Bommel topic to deal with Xavi’s Barcelona, it is price remembering that these sick emotions, which sprung up between the Dutchman and his two former Camp Nou teammates, resurfaced within the World Cup closing 4 years later. That night time in Johannesburg, the now-Antwerp coach correctly put the boot in, was extraordinarily fortunate to not be despatched off earlier than half-time and bullied Iniesta so usually that the person who ultimately scored that wonderful aim reacted and admitted that he, himself, was a bit of lucky to not be despatched off.
This week, it’s going to be attention-grabbing to see whether or not Van Bommel sanctions ways geared toward testing the referee’s tolerance by aggressively bullying a facet full of bodily diminutive abilities like Alejandro Balde, João Félix, Gundogan, Frenkie de Jong, Ferran Torres, Lamine Yamal and Gavi.
Again to the comparisons with Larsson and Belletti. With the arrival and speedy eruption of Joao Felix subsequent to him, Lewandowski has begun to appear like… Robert Lewandowski once more.
His aim in opposition to Betis, the essential strike to make it 2-0, was embellished by him turning to Felix and warning the Portugal worldwide that he needed a dummy when the ball was performed in. Then getting that, when Andreas Christensen slid the ball via, and the Pole produced the kind of dash and end he hasn’t actually proven for simply in need of a yr.
Final week Lewandowski admitted to the Polish media that “earlier than coming to Barcelona, I used to be a little bit of a aim machine … right here I’ve develop into a bit extra ‘human.'” Is he again?
After which there’s Cancelo. Like his Portugal teammate Felix, he appears to be like custom-made for this staff not solely due to his talents, 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 is intoxicating to observe.
Every of the Joaos scored, every of them seemed just like the “lacking piece” and every of them, you may say, has arrived at Barcelona simply in time. I wager Van Bommel can have his personal ideas on the matter. They’re going to most likely be grumpy ones, too.