FC Barcelona have instantly begun to play like Barca once more, which is to say they appear to be the overwhelming, enticing, dynamic groups through which their present supervisor, Xavi, used to conduct magical soccer symphonies.
There was numerous dross from Spain‘s champions over the previous few months. Profitable 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 working, 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 lads in Blaugrana produced something even vaguely related.
That efficiency was eight lengthy months in the past, so perhaps it is the proper time for the Catalan supervisor to be reacquainted with somebody who symbolises each the perfect 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 might corrode and undermine the values Xavi’s making an attempt to ascertain, 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 damage of his profession. The Dutchman began effectively — in reality, 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.
Minimize to the tip of that 2005-06 season. Xavi had missed 31 LaLiga and Champions League matches via damage however performed 4 occasions, together with two begins, instantly earlier than the Champions League closing towards 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 omitted of the squad altogether in favour of Maxi Lopez, a giant, brawny, not noticeably gifted ahead who’d performed one single minute in that Champions League marketing campaign.
Subsequent: each Xavi and Iniesta had been benched for the check towards Arsenal, which supplied Barcelona their first European Cup win since 1992. As a substitute, 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 good, 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 “unless Andres came on in that match, we weren’t going to win.”
Iniesta finally 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 return all the way 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 evening 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 evening because of 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 residence 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 could be 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 old friend” (the trophy, quite than me), he informed me that when the celebrations in Paris had been finally completed that evening, 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 you can get a cab. As a substitute, he phoned his brother, who was a painter and decorator by commerce, acquired 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 resort in Versailles.
Think about the scene of a Champions League winner and his spouse rattling round behind a fan surrounded by paint pots, ladders and quite a lot of workman’s instruments. “Painting the town?” At any price, what glamour!
Simply earlier than leaving the Van Bommel topic to give attention to 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 closing 4 years later. That evening 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 finally scored that wonderful aim reacted and admitted that he, himself, was somewhat lucky to not be despatched off.
This week, it will be attention-grabbing to see whether or not Van Bommel sanctions ways aimed toward testing the referee’s tolerance by aggressively bullying a aspect filled with 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 to be… Robert Lewandowski once more.
His aim 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 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 “before coming to Barcelona, I was a bit of a goal machine … here I’ve become a bit more ‘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 regarded just like the “missing piece” and every of them, you would possibly say, has arrived at Barcelona simply in time. I guess Van Bommel can have his personal ideas on the matter. They will most likely be grumpy ones, too.