What is it that gives some teams that annoying ability to score late on, to come back at the death when all seems…well, dead? Barcelona have had this particular ability for some time now, demonstrating it during a quite amazing game in midweek at Villarreal where they turned around a 4-2 deficit in added time to draw 4-4, and persisting against Atlético in Saturday’s crucial game until the 85th minute, then scoring again immediately afterwards. The great Liverpool side of the 1980s had this as part of their repertoire too, and sometimes it’s difficult to analyse exactly how it works.
One is tempted to suggest that it’s a physical thing – that Barça are fitter than the average – but that seems too simplistic. There is no particular evidence to indicate that they run more than Huesca, for example. They may run more efficiently because they are better at retaining the ball and thus determining the tempo of their games, but again, it doesn’t quite nail the theory. Personally I think it’s a question of maintaining the same patterns of their approach, whether they’re winning or losing or whether it’s the 5th minute or the 95th. Most teams begin to hoof the ball long when matters get desperate, relying on the knock-on or randomness to get them out of trouble. It’s an understandable approach. But Barça just stay calm and play the same way, perhaps attempting to get the ball into Messi more than before and perhaps looking for a foul outside the box – practically equivalent to a penalty now that the Argentine has perfected the art of the free-kick to such a degree. But this keep-it-the-same approach shows remarkable sang froid, and because you can never quite ensure that you’ve killed the beast, it rises again and bites you on the bum. The corollary of Barça’s ability to win games late on is that their opponents have become over-aware of this, and thus overdo the self-doubt. Poor Villarreal must have really thought they’d won it on Tuesday night, when Bacca scored their 4th in the 8oth minute. And yet, some little worm of paranoia hit them when they least needed it, letting Barça back in.
Of course, having Messi and Suarez in your team kind of helps. Suarez is generally an unpopular figure, and has never figured in the top three for the Ballon’d’or lists. Maybe he’s not pretty enough, or serial biters don’t get to adorn the stage, but it makes you wonder. His equaliser on Tuesday night in the 95th minute was actually a better goal than Messi’s (wonderful) free-kick because in a sense it was a more difficult shout – but he hit the volley with such power and conviction that it flew through the forest and into the back of the net before the Villarreal players had time to blink. Similarly, on Saturday night in the big match at home to Atlético, the Uruguayan, having tired of attempting to beat the supernatural Oblak from close range decided instead to try from afar, with sizzling success. The goal more or less hands Barça the title, their 8th in the last 11 seasons.
The other thing about Barça is that Valverde doesn’t commit the error, like so many other coaches do, of throwing on extra strikers when the chips are down. Perhaps this is because, as we’ve noted, Messi and Suarez will always threaten to score, and Messi was actually on the bench against Villarreal – but by continuing to build from the back and dominate in midfield, the idea is that the chances will still come. And they do. Villarreal losing Alvaro Gonzalez late on didn’t help either, but the 10-man factor is only an occasional help. It’s irrelevant as regards Barça’s general ability to score late on. Perhaps, as putative champions again this season, they will want to reflect on the amount of times they have been on the back foot, and the amount of goals scored against them – 31 this season, with 16 of them at home – and without Piqué on Tuesday they looked very disorganised, but……they could be champions in two weeks’ time if Atlético slip up against either Eibar or Celta.
The big match against Atlético on Saturday was disappointing in the sense that 11 versus 10 often is, particularly in a match of so much importance. However, ref Gil Manzano is obliged to apply the rules in all games irrespective of their significance, and if darling Diego swore at him and insulted his mum, then he had to walk. Atlético have seen 7 red cards in their last 11 visits to the Camp Nou, but you might argue that the stat is a simple reflection of their style of play and general life philosophy. Diego Simeone has rarely espoused the Corinthian values, either as a player or as a coach, but maybe Atlético were hard done by on Saturday, and that as a result, the league is as good as over.
People who are not Spanish speakers are often baffled and horrified when they read a translation of what a player said here on the pitch. If Gil Manzano’s report is to be believed, Costa protested about a non-given foul by shouting in his direction ‘I shit on your whore-like mother!’ Well – it sounds pretty bad, and it is pretty bad, but the fact is that it gets said an awful lot in Spain, almost like a reflex expletive, if such a concept exists. It’s not necessarily aimed at anyone in particular. Costa attempted to suggest that he’d said ‘my whore-like mother’ but the ref wasn’t having it. Gil Manzano was forced to consider the tone and the context of the expletive, which is exactly what the linguistic law of Pragmatics would expect him to do, and he decided that the outburst was inappropriate. The fact that Costa is not a native Spanish speaker might have complicated matters, but Portuguese has similar phrases. Whatever – would it not have been better, for all concerned, to have laughed it off as Mateu Lahoz would have done, and just got on with life?
But the damage is done, and Atlético may once again be forced to consider whether Costa’s negatives outweigh his positives, because there was every reason to suppose, up to that point, that Atlético could have won the game. It was clear why they were still the only contenders for Barça’s crown – rugged, organised and dangerous on the break, with the security of knowing that they have the best keeper in the world. The summer will be an interesting one for them, with plenty of suitors for Griezmann, and money in the bank from the Lucas Hernandez transfer. The only problem for them is, try as they might, that they can never really compete for the Hazards and Pogbas of this world – which is unfair but so is life.
Talking of life, Madrid’s press lackeys attempted to whitewash RM’s poor display against Eibar by explaining that the squad is unaccustomed to be ‘playing for nothing’ at this stage of the season, save the obligation on some of them to impress Zidane sufficiently to secure their berth for the next voyage, with Hazard and Pogba allegedly Bernabow-wow bound. Well, be that as it may, one is tempted to remind those journalists (and Real Madrid) of the phrase ‘welcome to the real world’. Oddly enough, the fact that most football teams exist in this non-trophy winning desert is a good reason for inviting Real Madrid over from time to time, to observe the barren wastes of normality. And hey, it must be tough to motivate yourself to play when you’re only on 300 grand a week. Perish the thought!
To conclude, you look at the week gone by and you see that nine points were up for grabs. Villarreal, with the noose tightening, only picked up one. Valladolid too. Girona lost the lot and have still only won twice at home all season. Rayo Vallecano gave themselves a ray of hope by surprisingly beating Valencia 2-0 at home, ending the visitors’ 12-match unbeaten run and Huesca continue to believe, signing off an entertaining week with a 3-3 draw against Celta and a 2-2 draw at Levante at the weekend. Seven games remaining, six points adrift. In a twist on the idea of late-show stoppers, they’re still believing.