To say that Barcelona supporters have been on a bit of an emotional roller coaster this week would be a hell of an understatement. Surpassed only by their neighbors to the South in Valencia who, let’s face it, have been surpassing the entire world for the better part of two years now, Barca have had their psyches shaken.
It all started last Sunday, when Barcelona traveled to the newly minted “Ceramic Stadium” to take on Villarreal. Mission critical arrived in the 90th minute with the Catalans behind 1-0 and their dreams of winning another LaLiga title facing a slow and arduous death. Just when it appeared that all was lost, the ‘Yellow Submarine’ committed a sin that even the worlds most novice of football fans knows better than to do — fouling right outside your own box, giving the world’s most feared free-kick taker another chance. Messi stood a couple paces behind the ball, and with a surgeons precision, placed the ball in a part of the goal even mosquitoes would have trouble flying through.
A point was earned but any semblance of a “victory” felt hollow. Two pretty blatant penalties for Barcelona were ignored by the referee, sending Gerard Pique into a rage after the final whistle that saw his venom directed at someone in the stands. That someone happened to be none-other than LaLiga president Javier Tebas, who earlier in the week had to hear Pique insinuate his league was rigged after some controversial calls went against Barcelona in their match against Athletic.
The following day, FIFA was awarding its Best Football Player trophy in Zurich. For most, it was a foregone conclusion who the winner would be, as is the case with almost any of these types of awards. Regardless, the other nominees are expected to attend as a sign of respect and humility. With Cristiano Ronaldo slated to be the winner, Messi, Gerard Pique, Andres Iniesta and Luis Suarez chose not to attend, with Barcelona releasing a statement ahead of the ceremony that due to their fixture schedule that sees them play on Sunday and Wednesday, they could only send club officials. Criticism then followed, with Barcelona being categorized as “sore losers” and “lacking sportsmanship.” Whether deserved or not, perception is often times reality, and the deed was no doubt a stain on the clubs image in the eyes of many outsiders.
Wednesday would bring more controversy off the pitch, as chief executive Oscar Grau stated that Leo Messi's contract renewal should be "analyzed with a cool head and common sense", before adding that "Barca cannot spend more than 70 percent of the budget on salaries, therefore we have to make sure things balance.” Grau’s comments fueled speculation - most notably in the Madrid press - that Barcelona could be tempted to listen to offers.
Luckily for Grau, people’s attention would be drawn away from his comments as Barcelona and Athletic had to play out the 2nd leg of their Copa del Rey tie, with the Blaugrana facing a 2-1 deficit and more questions than answers. In the first 48 minutes, all appeared to be going according to plan as Luis Suarez and Neymar were both able to find the back of the net to give Barca the lead via away goals. But then in the 51st minute, Enric Saborit was able to grab a goal back for Athletic due to some shambolic defending from Sergi Roberto, and all of the nerves had returned. But then again there he stood, the ginger-beard man with a free-kick and the opposition at his mercy. The ball of course found the back of the net, an event that has become such common-place that it is almost shock when it isn’t the outcome. Barcelona won 3-1 (4-3 agg) to advance to the quarter-finals and things were looking up.
Just when all seemed right in the world, controversy again would rear its ugly head. The league held their Copa del Rey draw Friday to determine the rivals for the next round of the tournament. During the event, Pere Gratacos, the director of training and education at Camp Nou and a key figure in the running of La Masia youth system, suggested that Messi would not be the same player without his stellar team-mates' support. “Barcelona are not here only because of Messi. He's very important but it was the team who won [against Athletic Bilbao in the last 16]. Without Neymar, Luis Suarez, [Andres] Iniesta, [Gerard] Pique and the others, he wouldn't be such a good player."
Almost as quick as the breath left his mouth, Barcelona stripped Gratacos of his director role, releasing a statement in which they stressed his comments "do not coincide with those of the club.” With 18 months remaining on his contract, Cules around the globe are walking on eggshells with anything in regards to Messi. Say the man isn’t Jesus and can’t score goals by pushing the ball into the net with his mind — “You’re sacked!” It has all become a bit comical really, especially with so much time left on his deal, but that is the climate you live in when dealing with the world’s best player.
Yesterday again brought another opportunity for all of Barcelona’s supporters to focus on what really matters - the pitch. Las Palmas would come to town, a Jekyll and Hyde club that resembles 1950’s Brazil at home, but present-day Osasuna on the road. Nonetheless, it would be a tricky encounter that was made a bit more worrying after eyeballs got a look at Lucho’s starting XI. In was Aleix Vidal, Andre Gomes, Arda Turan and Javier Mascherano. Out were Neymar, Iniesta, Pique and Sergi Roberto. Reserves that had so many times let supporters down this season were again being counted on to keep Barca in the title race. The first half saw Luis Suarez put Barca ahead on a terrific Andre Gomes cutback, but their 1-0 halftime lead was anything but comfortable with Las Palmas still looking capable. The second half saw Barca put on the type show that has been few-and-far between this season, especially at home. Messi, Suarez and Arda would all add goals within a 10 minute span, while perhaps one of its most unlikely of scorers, Aleix Vidal, added one for good measure in the 80th minute, with much of Barcelona’s coaching staff able to do nothing but laugh.
The ones who weren’t left laughing was the rest of the league. Although is was just one game, it could be argued that three of Barcelona’s most criticized, albeit justified, reserves had their finest performances in the blue and claret. Aleix Vidal seemingly had one foot out the door with a rumored loan-move to Sevilla being imminent, and now the talk is whether he should start over Sergi Roberto. Andre Gomes was able to record an assist, while also getting himself into some wonderful scoring positions that just lacked a finishers touch. And finally there is Paco Alcacer, who has been a colossal flop, scoring one goal in ALL competitions. Although he again fumbled a glorious chance, his movement was good and his confidence seemed to grow by the minute. The biggest difference in this LaLiga season has been the contrast in the play of the benches. While Real Madrid have dealt with significant injury issues of their own, reserves have stepped in a barley missed a beat, making many forget they have even been missing players in the first place. Even Sevilla have been able to count on their “others” more than Barca, a huge reason they are neck and neck in the top three. Getting Barca’s reserves to play to the best of their abilities is not only important, it is imperative. MSN can only shoulder so much, while many other of Barcelona’s key cogs are up there in age requiring rest that will be critical with all three trophies left to play for.
Saturday provided a glimmer a hope. A hope that many supporters have maybe taken for granted during this glorious run but one that they surely shouldn’t overlook again.