23 February 2016

Barça are bootless, boil-brained canker-blossomed bullies. Say "boo" and they buckle. Pity we lost to that lot.

I don't know if I've ever seen a chintzier, cheaper display from such a massive, monolithic behemoth as I did when I watched Barça, they of the half-billion pound squad, dive and flop about the pitch on Tuesday, doing their best impression of one who has simultaneously had a rug yanked from under him while also being shot by a sniper and also uppercutted by Lennox Lewis. The only pity is that they wasted the performances so close to this year's Oscars, when their theatrics will be ineligible for any awards this time through and likely all but forgotten by this time next year. For a squad that boasts no fewer than a half-dozen world-class starters in its XI and could probably field a second-choice XI that might still win La Liga, it was more than a bit pathetic to see them resort to such desperate measures. Still, they're atop their little league and have an inside track on winning the Champions League, so maybe it's my own priorities that are all bass-ackwards.

Don't get me wrong. I like and respect the idea that Barça represesnts, what with that old UNICEF sponsorship and the més que un club motto. I love the idea that the club represents a region seeking autonomy from a once-dictatorial regime that owned that club's chief rival, turning every Clásico into a referendum on obeisance or ownership. Every time Barça defeats Real Madrid feels like a blow for lofty ideals of self-determination, cultural expression, and freedom. I was uncomfortable having a guy known as Tito manage the club. Why then do I come away hating this squad? It has little if anything to do with Tuesday's result.

I expected a loss. Braced myself for it. I saw it coming. However, I didn't anticipate the way we would lose. I didn't expect Lionel Messi to make a meal out of glancing contact in the box to earn a game-killing penalty. Maybe that's the winning mentality that Thierry Henry mentioned a few weeks ago. Maybe Arsenal should borrow another page from Barça's playbook and go to ground faster than a house of cards during an earthquake. Before we proceed, let's admit that Flamini clearly made contact with Messi but that Messi sold it very, very well. However, by that point, the horse was already well out of the barn. Here, then, is a quick rundown:
  • 26'—Busquets scythes Alexis down from behind. No yellow issued.
  • 28'—Alexis makes contact with Alves, who hops about as if he's been stabbed.
  • 36'—Mascherano clatters Oxlade-Chamberlain knee to knee. Nothing.
  • 55'—Alba throws a shoulder-block into Giroud. Giroud touches Alba's chin, sending Alba to a Shakespearean death. Alba experiences a miraculous resurrection and headbutts Giroud. Three bookable offenses, none given.
  • 58'—Alves and Coquelin both slide in on a 50-50. Coquelin gets the ball, but Alves swings his leg in wildly from the side to kick at the ball, the ball Coquelin had poked away. There's contact, after which Alves acts like he's broken a tibia. Maybe a fibula. Maybe neither. He bravely soldiers on for the remaining half-hour. 
  • 82'—Messi draws contact from Flamini and makes a three-course meal of it to earn the penalty.
  • 85'—Piqué brings Welbeck down and sees yellow. He'll miss the second leg, for what that's worth.
  • 87'—Özil fouls Alves, who must be suffering from kind of osteoporosis, the magical kind that heals itself in moments. He should patent that. Merck might be interested... 
Ironically, none of the worst histrionics involved the most theatrical of thespians as Suárez and Neymar managed to miraculously stay upright for most if not all of the match. Good on them for that. The larger question persists, though. Why would a squad so rich and deep and dynamic, so dominant as to eye up an assault on Arsenal's own 49-match unbeaten streak, resort to such cheap, sleazy tactics? 

I'll bring us back to that whole més que un club motto. Barça have represented to me a beacon of something better, a way of achieving success while committing to certain aesthetic and philosophical ideals. To them and to us, this is more than just a game, more than just a diversion; it's a way of life. Based on Tuesday's performance, though, I have to wonder whether Barça's commitment might be wavering just a little bit. How might the game have turned on its head had Giroud gone to ground after Alba's headbutt (mild though it may have been)? Would Çakir have seen fit to send Alba off? Enquiring minds want to know.

So we've set ourselves up for yet another famous second-leg almost-comeback. Fine. I'm more interested in what our performance suggests across other competitions. We've displayed a strange predilection for playing up to or down to the level of the squad we face. A scoreless draw against Hull says more about us than an 0-2 loss to Barcelona. If we can summon the determination that we showed against 12-man Barça against our opponents in the Prem and FA Cup, we'll win the double. I don't care about the second leg. Let the Barça have its bottle.  Més que un club? More like més com qualsevol altre club.