Thursday 29 September 2016

Eamonn Sweeney: Barca's demolition of Madrid and Roma completed the most perfect week in the club's history

Eamonn Sweeney - Hold the Back Page

Published 29/11/2015 | 16:00

‘Luis Suarez is indisputably the number one out-and-out striker in the world right now . . . The last great player to play in the Premier League’
‘Luis Suarez is indisputably the number one out-and-out striker in the world right now . . . The last great player to play in the Premier League’

Barcelona just couldn't stop smiling after Lionel Messi squared the ball to Gerard Pique for their fourth goal against Roma on Tuesday night.

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The players were smiling and the people on the bench were smiling too. These were special smiles, the smiles of a punter who'd just gone through the card or someone whose lottery numbers have just come up. They were the smiles of people who almost couldn't believe how good things were for them right now.

It was understandable that Barcelona couldn't hide their utter glee. Because between their 4-0 win over Real Madrid in El Clasico at the Bernabeu on Saturday and the 6-1 drubbing of Roma on Tuesday night the Spanish champions might have Barcelona's Yes, it was that good.

The only drawback was that, like the ambassador with his pyramid of Ferrero Rocher, Barcelona were guilty of spoiling us. There was almost too much good stuff to take in. The 26 passes leading up to Messi's first goal against Roma, the perfect one-two and thunderous finish of Andres Iniesta against Real, Luis Suarez's stunning volley against Roma, Sergi Roberto's burst through the middle and perfectly weighted no-look pass which set up Suarez to get the ball rolling at the Bernabeu, a host of stuff from Neymar. . . the two games seemed like an extended highlights reel designed to convert sceptical nations to the joys of the beautiful game.

Many sports fans suffer from an odd variation on nostalgia. It's regret at not having seen the great displays of the past as they were happening: the Busby Babes in action, Bob Beamon's Mexico long jump, Christy Ring in his pomp and Brazil 1970, above all Brazil 1970. Well, right now Barcelona are producing this kind of immortal stuff in front of our eyes. Take every chance to watch them because no-one else is playing football like this.

They've been doing it for almost a decade now, with an odd hiccup along the way. But I'm not sure they've ever reached the same kind of formal perfection they achieved last week. Barcelona might have held a slight edge over Real Madrid in recent Clasicos but the games tended to be close-fought affairs. In 22 matches since 2011, on only four occasions have there been more than one goal between the teams. So there was something out of the ordinary in the spectacle of Barcelona going to the home of their main rivals and humiliating them. You have to go back to 1974 for a bigger away win in a Clasico, a 5-0 win for Barcelona inspired by Johan Cruyff.

For all the suggestions that Rafa Benitez isn't doing the business at Real, they are still probably the third best team in Europe, after Barca and Bayern Munich, and one of only a handful of teams with genuine pretensions towards challenging the dominance of the Catalans. The team which was so completely dismantled on Saturday contained Ramos, Modric, Kroos, Rodriguez, Benzema and Ronaldo and would win the Premier League in a canter. Yet Barcelona made them look like a junior hurling team playing in a senior championship.

The slaughter of Roma was not quite so unprecedented; Barca have produced a few spectaculars like this in the Champions League. Yet peaking again so soon after the emotional high of the Clasico display was a remarkable achievement. Roma, last year's Serie A runners-up and a team good enough to hold the reigning champions to a draw earlier in the competition, couldn't lay a glove on the home team.

Yet we haven't even come to the most remarkable thing of all, which is that Barcelona's performance against Real involved only a cameo contribution from Messi, who returned from a two-month absence through injury and played 33 minutes in the second half. By the time the Argentinian appeared, Barcelona were already 3-0 up and, as in recent weeks, getting the job done without him.

I think there's always been a feeling that for all the excellence of the Barcelona system and the supporting cast, the team has owed an inordinate amount to Messi. 'Put Messi in any team and they'll look great,' insist the sceptics. It's not quite the same now. Messi's knee injury originally looked like a grave setback but it may turn out to have been a blessing in disguise because in the absence of the little wizard, both Neymar and Luis Suarez have flourished and are currently playing the best football of their careers. Messi remains, as he has been for almost a decade, the best player in the world, but for the moment he's not even in the top two for his club.

Last year in Brazil Neymar was almost expected to win the World Cup on his own for the host nation, and the disappointing nature of the denouement couldn't hide the fact that he really was an extraordinary talent. In his first season with Barcelona he seemed at times to be deferring to Messi. But the Argentinian's absence gave him the chance to make the team his. Watching Neymar cut through the Real defence time and again on Saturday, it was as though we were seeing the not so distant future when Messi hands on the crown to his heir.

Suarez sits just one goal behind Neymar, who has three penalties to his name, at the top of the La Liga scoring charts and is indisputably the number one out-and-out striker in the world right now.

Two seasons ago he was toiling in a Liverpool shirt and bringing a mediocre side to within touching distance of a title. The last great player to play in the Premier League, he is head and shoulders above anyone currently appearing in that competition. Though perhaps his sojourn in England has benefited both the Uruguayan and his club - there is a directness about him which has given a new dimension to a team which in the past was occasionally too eager to walk the ball into the net.

Neymar and Suarez have brought something new to the Nou Camp but perhaps the most impressive performer over the past week is a man who made his debut all the way back in 2002 when Barcelona were finishing sixth in La Liga - when Patrick Kluivert, Marc Overmars and Frank de Boer were the big names at the club, and an under-sized kid named Lionel Messi was just completing his growth hormone treatment.

Andres Iniesta may be only 31 but he seems eternal. It is five years since he scored the winner in the World Cup final for Spain at a time when the Barcelona team run by himself and Xavi in midfield was at its height. Xavi's day has passed but Iniesta seems to get better.

Nothing epitomised the irresistible nature of Barca's football at the Bernabeu more than the goal he scored to make it 3-0, drilling a pass into Neymar at the edge of the box, striding forward to receive the delicate nudged lay-off and not breaking that stride before striking a ferocious shot to the corner of the net for a finish so emphatic it seemed to have an exclamation mark beside it. I was going to write that Iniesta is the best creative midfielder since someone. But after racking my brains I can't think of anyone who's been better. Who has been?

Barcelona abide. Before last season two fallow years suggested that they might be on the verge of becoming just another team. It even looked as though Pep Guardiola was creating Barca 2.0 in Munich. Now they are back on top and still doing things their way. It's said that they've changed and become just another big spending club but the fact remains that six of the players who played in El Clasico have come through the academy. Neymar may be the new Messi but it looks as though Sergi Roberto, born in Catalonia and at the club since the age of 14, may become the new Iniesta.

They do things their way. Would any other top European club have given Luis Enrique, whose only previous managerial appointments saw him fail at Roma and finish ninth in La Liga with Celta Vigo, the top job?

But he had experience training their B team. He was one of their own and knew their way of doing things. That was enough for them. And why not?

It's the best way.

Fenway Classic not quite Irish enough

FAO: Pat Murphy  (or something like that)

The Gullible Paddies Association.

Dublin,

The Pale,

The Emerald Isle.

Dear Pat,

Top of the morning to you and God bless all here. This is just to let you know that we were very pleased with last weekend's Fenway Classic. Thanks for arranging the traditional Irish Donnybrook with the guys beating the bejesus out of each other in the middle of the field which has gone down very well with the American audience. Twitter reaction has been what we in the trade describe as 'hilarious', and 'golden'.

You may recall that it was originally my idea to introduce a Stage Irish element to the proceedings and this having gone so well last week, I have a few more suggestions to make before Fenway Classic 2016.

(a) Would it be possible for both teams to be dressed in green? A nice waistcoat and trousers combo would be ideal, I believe they are widely available as my uncle's tour party returned home last summer with suitcases full of emerald clothing.

(b) I think it would be a nice ethnic touch to have the players holding pigs under their arms as they trot out on to the field. The players will be doing the trotting obviously, not the pigs as that would be ridiculous. I think somebody mentioned a company named Anthony's Cunning Ham which might provide the pigs. Though come to think of it the Galway guys seemed to have a problem with this company. I think someone might have lost their job there.

(c) Two priests doing umpire duty at either end of the pitch seems a good idea. The Bing Crosby masks are optional.

(d) I was a bit disturbed by that stuff in the odd Arabic sounding language which you claimed was the Irish National Anthem. Next year could we have something that sounds a bit more Irish? Me Husband's Flannel Shirt perhaps or I'm Digging Up My Mother From Her Lonely Leitrim Grave.

(e) I think it would be terrific if after every score players could celebrate by jumping up and clicking the backs of their heels together. The technique is really well displayed in the documentary Darby O'Gill and the Little People.

(f) Could we cut all those references in the promotional material to 'the fastest game in the world', and 'one of the most skilful of all sports'? No-one's interested in that. Instead I propose something like, 'look at those crazy Micks leathering the shit out of each other with their big sticks'.

(g) Speaking of which, is there no way we can use shillelaghs instead of those hockey sticks? I know you said you don't use shillelaghs in the game of hurling but you don't have 11 players a side either, do you? You want an American audience, you've got to make a few sacrifices.

(h) I noticed quite a few of the players taking drinks from bottles of water at the sideline during the game. I believe the GAA has been trying to cut down on this kind of thing. Well I agree with them. Let's have pints of Guinness instead. What better opportunity to show that it really is good for you?

(i) For next year we'd like to present the winners with a genuine Irish Crock of Gold. Ideally we'd like to have a leprechaun doing the honours. Do you know if there's any little bearded guy who's highly respected in the GAA and might be persuaded to wear the costume? He could get a good gig with Disney out of it.

Finally, we'd love to have Galway and Dublin back again next year as they showed by their behavior this year that they knew exactly what we were looking for. May the road rise up to meet them.

Yours Toor a loora loora-ly,

Shawn McPatrick,

Paddy Whack Promotions.

PS: I was going to send you the money for the TV rights but I'd closed the envelope before I remembered it.

Their bigotry a lot like our principled stand

The SDLP's idea of hosting a joint reception at Belfast City Council for the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland football teams is a lovely one. This is, after all, the first time that both have qualified for a major finals. And in an ideal world the reception would be followed by a return engagement in Dublin.

However, the idea has been placed in doubt because of opposition from Unionist councillors.

Brian Kingston of the DUP said it would be "inappropriate to hold a joint reception for the Northern Ireland squad and a team from another country." And the Official Unionist line is that, "If this is the road we're going down, then we must invite the English and Welsh teams as well."

Our natural tendency down here is to lambast the Unionists for being bigoted and wonder why they can't put aside their old grievances and make a bit of an effort to get along with people. Fair enough. But I'd wager that the people complaining loudest about the Unionists were also the most vocal in support of James McClean when he refused to face the Union Jack during West Brom's pre-season tour of America.

McClean was right to do this, we were told, because he comes from a community which was affected by the Troubles and feels strongly about the matter. Well, the DUP also come from a community which was affected by the Troubles and they undoubtedly feel strongly about the prospect of a team from this side of the border being feted in Belfast. I think they're wrong, but then again I felt McClean was wrong too. You can't praise one side for hanging on to their sense of historical grievance and criticise the other for doing exactly the same thing. It perhaps goes to show that there are times when sense is more important than sincerity.

It's at times like this one wishes that FAI head buck cat John Delaney hadn't been filmed singing an IRA song in a pub like a drunken spacer. Delaney's defenders made the point that he had the right to sing whatever song he wanted. And McClean has the right to snub the Union Jack, just as the DUP have the right to object to the Republic of Ireland soccer team.

But wouldn't everything be a bit better if they weren't all so keen to insist on the rightness of their indignation?

When one of our side does it, it's a principled stand. When one of theirs does it, it's bigotry. And there's the problem. It's always been the problem. Good luck to the SDLP on this one, at least their hearts have always been in the right place.

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