Monday 18 December 2017

Ger Gilroy: Encore too many catches up with Barca super group

The shadow of Xavi still hangs over the current Barcelona team – and they’ve gradually been on the wane ever since his departure. Photo: Reuters
The shadow of Xavi still hangs over the current Barcelona team – and they’ve gradually been on the wane ever since his departure. Photo: Reuters

Ger Gilroy

'The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes "Awww!'''

Jack Kerouac, 'On the Road'

It's nine years since the iconically dumb headline in the Daily Mail over the photograph of the finalists at the European Footballer of the Year awards. 'Ballon d'Or - The best players in the World (and Xavi): Ronaldo crowned king of football'. By then Xavi had already won three league titles, the European Cup and Euro 2008. It's tempting to extrapolate a lot from the headline about why English football struggles so badly to identify skilful players and how frequently small, talented players go underappreciated in favour of Andy Carrolls and Adam Lallanas or some hideous hybrid of both. Some temptations don't need to be resisted.

This week's nil-all at the Nou Camp confirmed a significant end point in European football, as much as Monaco's brilliance felt like a radical equalisation of forces. Barcelona have become a Super Group where once they were a band. They're touring the same material and it's planed with such muscle memory that occasionally it produces sounds like the original but there's something not quite right with the timbre.

It was nice to eschew careful analysis of the comeback against Paris Saint-Germain for a while and revel in Barcelona fighting back the waves of time. Careful, reasoned questioning about what had happened though revealed all the fault lines that have afflicted the team in recent seasons.

The reason this matters is that the great Barca team is effectively gone and we should pause properly to appreciate now the heights they reached. The creeping sense of closure that had slowly enveloped the team over the last couple of years got hold around the neck this year and one of the great teams in any sport in any era is over.

That's not to say that Messi, Iniesta, Pique, Mascherano et al are done but the truly great peaks they scaled collectively before the band broke up are being cast in amber, becoming bar-room debates and sprouting the wings of mythology. The roman candles had burned out.

The night at the Nou Camp that they beat Jose Mourinho's Real Madrid 5-0 in November 2010 was a point of perfection. Messi didn't score that night but it didn't matter. Madrid, under Mourinho, had spent big and were on a record-breaking run for a new manager. Afterwards Guardiola paid tribute to Johan Cruyff, "laying down the approach we consider non-negotiable".

Eventually Mourinho poisoned the water in his attempts to drag Barcelona down to his level. Perhaps his greatest success at Madrid was ratcheting up the pressure on Pep to the point where Guardiola was fighting unseen enemies in his hunt for perfection. Or maybe it's better to consider Mourinho a force multiplier in the exchange, driving Guardiola to seek even greater heights, forcing Barcelona to be even greater.

Obviously the decision by Guardiola to move on was the formal beginning of the end, but when Xavi started to slow down things were effectively done. After the Mail derided him, he went on to win a World Cup, another European Championship, three more Champions Leagues and five more La Liga titles. There was always a hope that the team could survive his absence when he left for Qatar in 2015, that Iniesta would continue apace for another couple of seasons and that somehow fresh ideas would evolve the team's style. It hasn't really happened, because time is a real thing. There's still breathtaking possibility in the front three but the blueprint feels similar to other teams, just with better players. There's no sense of a sporting movement taking us to new places, trying something for the sake of invention and possibility and because it hasn't been done before. Barcelona are just another team now.

Luis Enrique had an impossible job that he actually succeeded at by most metrics. Having Lionel Messi in your team makes everyone think you need to win the Champions League every year, or maybe it's closer to a feeling of how each year you don't win it with Messi is a year wasted. The Guardiola team never felt in a rush to acquire Champions Leagues because they assumed some baseline immortality; that the super human rondo of Xavi to Iniesta to Messi would last forever. It didn't.

Seeing Monaco blow past Dortmund this past week has been like watching the muscular pacy response to a half decade of tika-taka. This was football as a race, as an explosion of power and pace allied to balletic control. They play Juventus next but no matter which of the remaining sides Monaco drew, they'd have been patronised about chintzy arrivistes against the streetwise Old Europe.

We'll see how far brio takes them now. Barcelona will watch the semi-finals unfold on television, disinterested spectators, reminding anyone who'll listen that once they were the team with the brio and no-one dared patronise them. Even the Mail took down that old headline eventually.

Ger Gilroy is a presenter on Newstalk's 'Off The Ball'

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