Barça. The Mestalla. The Copa Del Rey Final.
These were the elements which began Pep Guardiola’s glorious reign of fire.
Ten months into his first season that 2008/9 team went 1-0 down to Athletic Bilbao in front of a frenzied Basque travelling support – and then wiped the floor with Joaquín Caparrós’ side scoring a goal every 10 minutes between the middle of the first and the middle of the second half.
Barça. The Mestalla. The Copa Del Rey Final. 2014.
Is this the beginning of the end?
Either for this generation of Camp Nou legends or, much more chillingly, for this football philosophy?
Vastly fewer Barça ‘Socios’ wanted to buy tickets to this final, distinctly fewer want to attend the Camp Nou every second week.
An admittedly rag-tag band of abusers was waiting for Barcelona’s players when they returned, tails between legs, from the 1-0 defeat at Granada at the weekend.
Promises are broken (‘We’ll make Messi the best-paid player in the world’, ‘Abidal will get a new contract the minute he plays for the first team again’, ‘There’s nothing to hide in the Neymar deal’ ‘It only cost 90 quid, a couple of sacks of spuds and a toaster’, Zubizarreta: ‘Victor Valdes has no plans to leave and we are on the way to renewing his contract’).
The President with the biggest landslide electoral victory in the club’s history and inheritor of possibly the greatest football legacy ever lasted three and a half years before walking away in disgrace.
Having made the Champions League almost a personal domain from 2006 until 2011 incredibly unfortunate semi-final defeat in 2012 became chaotic semi-final destruction to Bayern 12 months later .. and a limp quarter final departure this month.
Time for a Nou start?
So, yes, defeat to Madrid in the Copa del Rey final having won the last two Liga Clasicos could genuinely become the footballing punctuation mark at the end of one of the most awe inspiring and joyful football reigns in history.
It definitely isn’t obligatory that defeat brings down the curtain – but likely.
The need for intelligent, strategic (that word is so, so vital), well-planned revitalization of this squad couldn’t be more pressing.
Many forget that it wasn’t just the arrival of Pep Guardiola in 2008, the sale of Ronaldinho (below) and Deco plus promotion from the Cantera which brought glory.
That summer Barcelona signed Dani Alves, Gerard Piqué, Seydou Keita and showed Edmilson, Oleguer, Deco, Zambrotta, Ronaldinho and Gio Dos Santos the door while Lilian Thuram retired. Eto’o was told to shape up or ship out. The effect was cathartic.
I neither believe that Gerardo Martino will stay on past this season if he wins the Copa final, nor that it would be the right move for him, the squad or the club to do so.
Whether the club opts for a radical divergence and hires a talented, ‘personality’ coach who’ll bring a totally different brand of football (Klopp, Villas Boas, Klinsmann, Simeone, Scolari) or attempts to re-instate the Cruyff/Ajax/Guardiola/La Masia model (Valverde, Joachim Löw, Frank De Boer, Oscar Garcia) Martino has found this atmosphere, these players, the demands to be too much of a test.
He’s learning as he goes, but that’s not the kind of man this club requires at this critical time.
If Madrid happen to duff this big opportunity to beat a wounded Barcelona and Tata Martino can boast two trophies plus three straight Clásico wins at the end of his first season there will, of course, be some who want him retained.
Tata for now?
But a man who, basically, doesn’t have full faith in Andrés Iniesta, who’ll take off Sergio Busquets and leave Alex Song on, who’s managed to create conditions where we are watching the most lethargic and morose Leo Messi for years and who was happy to see his team lumping the ball long throughout last week’s Champions League quarter final … that’s not the way out of the current Camp Nou problems.
Bids, enquiries, offers, whispers, enquiries have come for Leo Messi every summer for the last decade: Espanyol, Rangers, Inter, Juventus, Milan, Real Madrid, Manchester City, Paris St Germain.
Bids will come for Iniesta despite him having just signed a big contract renewal – the world knows that IF he’s as bemused with Tata Martino as he looks and sounds then this is the last great opportunity to test both him and the board.
My interpretation is that Iniesta remains committed and is the way forward. He and Messi, rather than Neymar, are the pillars around which to build.
But, from the macro to the micro.
Saying all the white things
While Madrid are favourites and a victory for Los Blancos would accelerate many of the heated debates I’ve detailed above, it’s a Clásico and, like Iker Casillas says, ‘don’t put an inch of faith in the form Barcelona have shown over the last week in losing to Atlético and Granada’.
Never mind the rabid media, never mind the 20,000 travelling fans, never mind the growing swell of demand for Catalan independence from Madrid – these players simply cannot help themselves from responding when they see those famous white shirts in front of their eyes
It’s Pavlovian. Will that be enough?
Cristiano Ronaldo and Gerard Piqué will definitely miss the game. The CR7 fan club won’t thank me but the loss is greater on Barça’s part.
Piqué has lost very few Clásicos since returning home in that first mad Guardiola summer.
The corollary is that while he’s been with the club the majority of the defeats to Madrid have come when Piqué is absent for one reason or another.
Then, with all due respect to Ronaldo who I’ve never ceased praising even when his stock was generally low, there’s the fact that Madrid respond well without him.
Not only has the team generally produced a really high win % when the Portuguese is out there’s real evidence that Gareth Bale, too, rises to the challenge with goals, assists and a more central role.
The referee is Mateu Lahoz – a liberal. Slow to book and red card, happiest when he’s able to apply the advantage rule and no pansy when it comes to allowing physical play akin to what we see in the Premier League.
Madrid are bigger, taller, more athletic and a little younger on average – plus they’ve been showing massively more stamina and sharpness for the last few weeks than Barcelona have.
At the back for the Blaugrana Javier Mascherano continues to make midfielder’s tackles around the edge of his own penalty area … and continues to be outjumped in front of the Barça goalmouth.
Him conceding a free kick which Gareth Bale converts or him being outjumped by Bale, Benzema or Ramos seems to me far from unlikely and possibly worth a wee punt. In fact I think Bale will score.
Whether Neymar plays given his under-par performances for weeks is up to the increasingly individual interpretation of Tata Martino.
But if, as in the last Clasico, he’s played on the right touchline then Dani Alves can expect insufficient support, Angel Di Maria can expect to double up with Coentrao or Isco and the Argentinian, too, can have a reasonable expectation of scoring.
For Madrid it’s essential that the very promising Dani Carvajal dramatically improves the positional sense and concentration he’s shown in the last two Clásicos. Drawn of position for both goals at the Camp Nou, posted absent as Iniesta scored from Barcelona’s left in the 4-3 win last month – has Carvajal learned?
Then there’s Messi. Twenty-one goals in 27 Clásicos – even for this magician it’s a remarkable record.
When he dropped deep at the Bernabeu Xabi Alonso (in particular but not exclusively) found it hard to get near him and thus allowed Messi too much space to make killer passes (to Iniesta and Neymar) and to start the bullet-quick 1-2 pass with Cesc Fabregas which created the equaliser just before half time.
An outside bet? I still think that Alba’s precocious finishing matched with his legendary speed and the fact he was once an inside-forward may catch Real Madrid (Carvajal) too far up field – the full back scoring isn’t outlandish.
But, overall, the final presents itself as a real chance for Carlo Ancelotti, Paul Clement and Gareth Bale to seal their very high-quality first season with 33 llbs of solid silver a.k.a the Copa del Rey.
And perhaps, in doing so, mark the end of the beginning of their reign – en route to the same treble which Guardiola and Barcelona won at the Mestalla, on the fields of Spain and then finally in Rome’s Olympic Stadium back in 2009?