Liam Mackey: It’s time for Barca to shout ‘stop’

No knee slides, no leaping and punching the air, no elaborately choreographed hand-shake routines. Just a little fist bump here, a fleeting palm slap there or maybe a passing pat on the back. 

Liam Mackey: It’s time for Barca to shout ‘stop’

And then it’s straight back to business.

Most of us who fell in love with football at an impressionable age did so because of the goals and the goalscorers and, for all the faults of the game in the modern age, we continue to keep the faith for much the same reason.

But, sometimes, you just have to doff the cap to those charged with extracting the ‘ow’ from ‘wow’, the ones entrusted with ensuring that the net doesn’t billow.

They didn’t used to call them ‘stoppers’ for nothing, you know.

Wednesday night at the Nou Camp was one of those occasions.

A nil-nil involving the Barcelona of Messi, Neymar and Suarez should probably feel like a mockery of all that we consider uplifting about football but, as Juventus comfortably progressed to the semi-finals of the Champions League, you could be left with nothing but admiration for the way Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci had gone about their business at the heart of the Juve defence.

Their celebrations would have to wait until after the final whistle, of course – that’s the defenders’ lot after all —but be in no doubt that every clearance, intervention, tackle and block were sources of pride and as crucial to their team going through as the three goals Juve had put past Barca in the first leg in Turin.

Here was a masterclass in the art of defending which, while not exactly watertight, ensured Gigi Buffon had one of the most untroubled nights even that seen-it-all-before veteran can surely have experienced at such an exalted level.

And I only say not watertight because Barcelona did have a couple of decent chances to get themselves back into the tie, but when you see Messi contriving to miss the target from an inviting position, it’s hard not to conclude that his self-belief had been so undermined by the general impregnability of the Italians’ defending across the two legs, that when a rare sight of goal did finally present itself, even the greatest player in the world was inclined to snatch at the opportunity.

There has been much talk about end of era for Barcelona on the back of this Champions League exit but let’s not lose the run of ourselves: this isn’t Leicester City we’re talking about here.

(By the way, thanks for the wonderful memories, fearless Foxes; it’s just a pity you had to stain them with the undeclared strike that did for Claudio Ranieiri).

If there are signs that Messi’s greatest days might be behind him, it doesn’t mean that, should he stay at Barcelona, he can’t continue to be an influential player for another couple of seasons.

There may be less of those Maradona-esque runs and maybe even less goals but, just as Ronaldo is busy reinventing himself as an out and out striker for Real Madrid, Messi’s ability to retain possession, allied to his visionary passing, can see him take over from the great Andres Iniesta as the side’s playmaker-in-chief.

At 25, Neymar is still approaching his prime but with Suarez already 30 and Messi turning the same age in June, there’s a lot of talk about Barca urgently requiring another marquee signing, with Man United target Antoine Griezmann, the scintillating Atletico Madrid and France forward, attracting much popular support (not least, if reports are to be believed, from Neymar himself).

But if we can accept that Barcelona are in need of rejuvenation, then the powers that be in the Nou Camp would surely do well to focus their most urgent attention on the four letters which spell ‘juve’ in that word.

Barca’s extraordinary comeback against PSG ultimately eclipsed the grim reality that they had shipped four goals in Paris, a lesson conspicuously not learned in the first leg away to Juve when the visiting defence twice adopted the pose of flat-footed onlookers as the terrific Paulo Dybala put the home side two goals ahead.

And for the third goal, Javier Mascherano, who was actually facing the wrong way as a corner came in, seemed more concerned about attacking the man not the ball, only for the warrior Chiellini to hold his ground and head home to give the Italians what proved to be an unassailable lead in the tie.

Subscribing to the notion that the best form of defence is attack is all well and good so long as you don’t take it to mean that the last line of defence is not, of itself, a crucial component in its own right.

The textbook example of such lopsidedness was probably the Brazil team of 1982 who were an absolute dream to watch going forward but more like the stuff of nightmares at the back, a weakness ruthlessly punished by Paolo Rossi when Italy famously beat them 3-2 in the World Cup in Spain.

That experience of elimination so shattered Brazilian football’s confidence in itself that the incomparable Socrates would later reflect: “It may have been the last side to represent Brazil in a World Cup that epitomised the country. It was irreverent, joyful, creative, free-flowing. From that point onwards, the Seleçao became like any other first-world country national side.”

Now that’s end of era stuff, alright.

Such a fate need not befall Barcelona. They don’t have to betray their signature attacking style in order to address the basic problem of how best to go about keeping clean sheets.

With Luis Enrique departing at the end of this season, the opportunity presents itself for the club’s next coach, if he’s permitted, to get Barca’s priorities right. At the Nou Camp, it’s time for somebody to shout ‘stop’.

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Saturday, November 27, 2021

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