This is not the Barcelona of old. This is not a team capable of dominating European football as they once did.
Oliver Holt, champion of ignorance and naivety for The Mail on Sunday
Quick question for any of the so-called journalists who have stumbled their way to this side of the web: don't you ever get tired of being wrong? Honestly, doesn’t it get just a little bit embarrassing when -- once again – your "expert insight" is exposed as nothing more than short-sighted, boneheaded ignorance?
I mean, I would have thought that it does, but here we are for the umpteenth time looking back on the latest examples of clearly avoidable stupidity and I wonder, how long will it be before you finally learn your lesson?
In the headline fixture of yesterday’s UEFA Champions League Round of 16 action, FC Barcelona took a huge step towards securing their place in the quarter-finals with an impressive 2-1 victory against Manchester City. It’s a scoreline that perhaps does not reflect the true nature of the match; a 90 minute exhibition that, for the most part, was characterised by Barça dominance.
Even in their own backyard, the defending English Premier League champions were made to look decidedly pedestrian and very much second-best, mesmerised by the talent and ability of the team they had welcomed from Catalunya. Save for the crossbar and a number of heroic saves from City goalkeeper, Joe Hart, the margin of victory could and should have been far more emphatic – handing Manuel Pellegrini’s side what is seen to be a glimmer of hope.
Maybe, just maybe, their journey doesn’t have to end here.
Of course, to suggest as much is possible is reasonable – there are few tasks in this world that are truly impossible, yet one would be foolish to imply that progression is even remotely plausible for City. Since the advent of the UEFA Champions League in its current format in 1992, Barcelona has never been eliminated from the competition after securing a first-leg win away from home.
Their home form in the same competition makes for similarly grim reading too: in 82 UEFA Champions League fixtures at the Camp Nou since the turn of the millennium, there have been only three results that, if replicated, would send Manchester City through in March.
Equally, with much of City’s chances hinging on their ability to contain Barcelona’s attack, consider that Pellegrini’s side have only kept four clean sheets on their travels this campaign. Yes, anything can happen in football but really, truly, does anyone think that Manchester City have a fighting chance at pulling off a comeback?
Doubting FC Barcelona – we’ve been here before, and quite frankly, that whole business turned out to be completely unfounded.
In his pre-match column for The Mail on Sunday this past weekend, Oliver Holt was guilty of as much. At best, it was an optimistic piece, engineered to promote a sense of hope amongst City fans. At worst, it was a hatchet job: short-sighted, naïve and egregiously arrogant.
Giving us his "hot take" on the latest state of affairs at FC Barcelona, Holt was all too happy to cast credibility and responsible reporting to one side, epitomising the trashy reputation of his tabloid-media brethren.
Who cares about the bigger picture, I’ve got a narrative to uphold!
What few facts were reported were conveniently robbed of their context; with reference to the weekend’s shock defeat against Malaga CF, Holt implied that Barcelona’s anthem was played after the final whistle to drown out the whistles of the crowd, as if el Cant del Barça wasn’t a famous tradition at the club. There was a description of the "swathes" of empty seats around the Camp Nou, ignoring that Saturday’s 78,276 attendance ranks well above the Blaugrana’s season average.
Having all but run out of facts to report, Holt soon began to parade his own flawed opinion as gospel, irrespective of the idiocy that would ensue.
"Individually, Messi, Neymar and Suarez are three of the best players in the world. As a forward line, though, they look like an awkward fit."
It’s a wonder that modern journalism has such a poor reputation, when hard-working, honest writers like Oliver Holt exist in this world. I mean, think of all the effort and research that he must have put into crafting this one line of dialogue. Their record as Barcelona’s starting attacking triumvirate reads as the very definition of awkward: 13 wins out of 16 prior to the match with Manchester City, yielding an average of 2.75 Barcelona goals per game.
Tallying up their individual goals and assists, they really take that awkwardness to the next level: a measly 24 goals and assists in 16 matches for Lionel Messi. Just 14 for Luis Suarez and what about the meagre total of 13 registered by Neymar? Dust off your trophy cabinet Ollie; I sense another prize is headed your way for making such an insightful contribution to the world of sports journalism.
Naturally, there’s more. In quite blasé fashion, the mood shifts and the piece becomes something of an obituary. First up in the Oliver Holt football morgue is Barcelona’s very essence: "tiki-taka is passé" – a sentiment that may very well be true in select scenarios, yet clearly did not apply last night.
Andres Iniesta and Ivan Rakitic treated the Etihad crowd to a spectacular carousel of passing; the mumbling from the crowd in the City end, in fact, from the City fan standing right next to me was that the game was lost in midfield. Barca’s dainty passing game was simply too smart, too advanced for the City midfield to handle and that no amount of power and pace, at least within their squad, could compete with such an accomplished display.
Having eventually gained something of a foothold in the second half, City improved; yet it was Barcelona’s complacency and own arrogance that proved to be the raison d’étre, certainly not the athleticism of the hosts’ midfield. Or perhaps, if tiki-taka is outdated and no longer relevant, then what of the English Premier League, when its finest representatives – the champions of England – are so thoroughly outclassed and dominated by what is perceived to be an antiquated philosophy?
Equally, Holt decided that we should also be mourning the decline of one of the Premier League’s finest recent exports: Luis Suarez. While it may be true that Suarez has been relegated to a supporting role at FC Barcelona behind both Lionel Messi and Neymar, Holt’s implication that Suarez had lost his edge was shallow and so too was his dig at the rest of the squad as he continued to peddle a narrative that served to only bring his own reputation into question.
"The feeling here is that, for all their stars, Barcelona are more dependent upon [Messi] than they have ever been. If they are to stave off further decline, if they are to quell fresh talk of crisis, he will have to be at his very best on Tuesday night in Manchester"
Suarez always has been and always will be a big-game player; against Atletico Madrid, Suarez has been pivotal. Even in his Barca debut, as an out-of-shape starter in the Clasico against Real Madrid it was Luisito who provided the all-important assist for Neymar’s opener.
His production has dipped, particularly against the lesser sides as Messi and Neymar take centre-stage, but there was never any doubt: given the chances and given the space he was afforded last night by a porous Manchester City defense, Suarez was going to deliver.
On a night where Neymar ultimately struggled by his own high standards and on a night during which Lionel Messi missed a gilt-edged chance from the penalty spot, not to mention the follow-up rebound, FC Barcelona still got the job done.
In a sense, it was almost poetic. Over in England, it had been proven once again that the blind were leading the blind. Transfixed by the propagandistic marketing of the Premier League, the British media and indeed their title-winning representative were championing a false truth and as a consequence, had underestimated their foe quite markedly.
Their focus had been on all the wrong areas, their belief in all the wrong ideals and for the umpteenth time, the so-called greatest league on earth was shown up on the world stage.
This might not be the FC Barcelona of old, but that sure was one heck of a passable impression…