For both Barcelona and Real Madrid, the legacy of a season born amid tumult, and defined by a manic reimagining of expectations, disappointment and potentially historical triumph hinges, for all intents and purposes, on a pair of upcoming Real Madrid outings – the first, tonight at Camp Nou, followed by the finale of the Champions League, on May 26, in Kiev.
From a Barcelona perspective, that so much of the meaning of this season – by all objective measures a successful one – rides on the failure of their eternal rival cannot be comforting. One cataclysmic evening in Rome stripped them of the opportunity to more emphatically etch the club’s name into the annals of European football, with a third league/domestic cup/Champions League treble – a feat that no other European club has managed more than once. More than that, however, it’s deprived them any chance of curtailing Madrid’s ongoing dominance of the competition.
A week ago, Barcelona took the field at the Estadio Riazor, needing only a point against all-but-relegated Deportivo La Coruña. The Copa del Rey already in hand thanks to a vintage pasting of Sevilla the previous weekend in Madrid, the remainder of 2017-18’s to-do list consisted simply of formalizing their 25th league title (with the aforementioned point), while inching ever closer to the first undefeated La Liga campaign in more than 80 years. Watching the game, as the vast majority of Barcelonans do, at the neighborhood bar, some simple but somewhat revealing observations crystallized as the evening wore on.
For starters, rarely during the 115 or so minutes between the opening kickoff and the final whistle in A Coruña did it feel like we were witnessing a competitive venture. This is to suggest neither indifference nor disengagement on the part of the locals, but rather the sense that we, in our cozy, delightfully nondescript pocket of L’Eixample, along with tens of thousands around the city, in gatherings similar to ours, were, intently, collectively watching the latest episode of our favorite TV show. The story’s written and there aren’t many twists that will change the arc.
Certainly, striking after just seven minutes didn’t hurt. Nor, half an hour later, did the sense that the purpose served by Luis Suárez’s high ball to the far post, from which Leo Messi beautifully volleyed home Barça’s second goal, his 30th of the league campaign (in the process becoming the first player to score 30+ goals in seven La Liga seasons), was entertainment more than fending off an onrushing opponent. Taking a smaller lead than the assembly would have expected or preferred into the halftime intermission didn’t really hurt matters.
The second half delivered something of a twist, as Emre Çolak capitalized on some shaky defending in the 53rd minute to level the score at two goals apiece. However, while the strike cast some uncertainty over the final outcome and theoretically opened the door for the home side to rekindle their dimmest of survival chances, there weren’t any gasps to be heard, nor pins and needles to be sat on. Perhaps it is simply the belief – the reality – that Messi, as he’s seemingly always and forever done, will sort things out. Which invariably, he did abut half an hour later, netting a pair of goals in a three-minute span to sew up the game and yet another hat trick (#30 of his La Liga career). Each strike was met with a massive cheer, as was the late introduction of Andres Iniesta. The final whistle was greeted similarly a few minutes later, with a mini-standing ovation, some hugs, and a brief chant of “Campeoni!”, while the Cant del Barça played in earshot somewhere nearby, and adorable toddlers played with their superstar dads on the television. It was great.
What it was not, however, was rapturous or truly euphoric. This isn’t because anyone was thumbing their nose at, frankly, a very impressive domestic double, but because the evening kicked off with an air of inevitability, and wound down amid thoughts of a specter at our feast. Item #1 on the to-do list has been checked off. This Barcelona squad now sits just four games from a lasting place in the La Liga Pantheon. That this monumental achievement must involve a performance of some quality against Real Madrid adds at least a bit of spice to a final month that’s something of a formality (with due respect to Villarreal, Real Sociedad and Levante). However…
If the feeling in this man’s gut aligns with those expressed in a highly unscientific straw poll of locals, in approximately six hours, we will reunite, and cheer, and scream, and gasp, bitch, moan, and curse. Laughter, and probably some tears somewhere. Alongside all of this, there are butterflies. Don’t let them win.
Please, don’t let them win.
Barcelona have made the best of a season that, because of self-inflicted wounds, firmly capped the heights to which it can ascend. Whether last month’s Champions League debacle is remembered as a fluke blemish accompanying an otherwise brilliant domestic campaign, or a stain that transforms that nominally successful campaign – and the swan song of one of the game’s all-time greats – into an ache that will never truly go away cannot be decided tonight. However, this is the last opportunity that Barcelona will have to leave their mark on Real Madrid’s season.
And then, in three weeks, we cheer like f**k for Liverpool.