"What happened in Rome was our fault and nobody else's. Don't let it happen again," Lionel Messi said.
But it happened again.
There were just a few minutes to go before FC Barcelona headed out into Anfield for last year's Champions League semifinal second leg when he delivered that message to his teammates, but maybe the reminder made it worse, the threat more real. Two hours later, he walked off without a word, head bowed. Behind him, the scoreboard said 4-0; for a second year in a row, they had blown a lead that appeared unassailable, collapsing into chaos. It was all over.
Except that it would never be over. "To be honest, it will always be there," Messi admitted in early December, and maybe it was there on Thursday night; maybe not while it was happening, but certainly after it happened. Worse, it may grow, like a recurring nightmare. This could be anywhere, Liverpool or Rome; it was Jeddah, of all places. No escape, not even in the middle of the desert.
"We can't always be thinking about what we went through last year and the year before," Messi said a month ago, but how could they not -- how were they not? -- when suddenly, somehow, no one really knew how, familiar ghosts appeared in Thursday night's Spanish Supercopa semifinal in Saudi Arabia?
Barcelona were 2-1 up, with goals from Messi and Antoine Griezmann. Messi scored again and Gerard Pique scored too, but the VAR made both of them vanish: one for a handball, the other for an offside so fine it might be an idea for Arturo Vidal to change his distinct haircut. Vidal tumbled in the area too, Saúl impressing his studs on the Chilean's shin, but there was no penalty. Jan was an Oblak-topus, tentacles everywhere. Barcelona led. It was two; it could have been three, four, five. "They were practically dead," Messi said afterward, and he was right.
Then, suddenly, Atlético were revived.
"It was very strange," Ángel Correa said. Griezmann said that Atletico had the "legs" his team lacked, but maybe what they missed was more in the mind. "Their second disallowed goal was key," Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone said. Emotionally, VAR can tip you over the edge. And when Barcelona are on the edge, there's something about their balance that appears unreliable, like they're too easy to tip.
It had taken Koke just 18 seconds to score the opener after coming on at half-time and, invited in, it didn't take his teammates much longer to turn the entire game around. Wide open, a motorway through the middle, Barcelona were at their mercy. It was all so easy. Sergio Busquets lost the ball, Griezmann too, and it was done. It was 2-2 in the 82nd minute. By the 87th, it was 3-2 to Atlético. In eight minutes, Barcelona had fallen to bits, from brilliant to bleeding. It might have been more: a moment later, Marcos Llorente ran through and almost scored Atletico's fourth. It might have been swifter, too: Between the two goals, Piqué had got away with a handball inside his area.
That might even have been better for Barcelona, time perhaps for a counter-reaction, but there was precious little of that. The clock showed 92 minutes, 49 seconds when Messi clipped a perfect pass onto Piqué's head, but he couldn't guide it. A moment later, Piqué was looping a long, desperate overhead kick into the area. Vidal fell and his team fell with him. The whistle went and Messi walked, wearing that look. The one where it's easy to imagine him thinking: Seriously?! And what else do you want me to do? A dozen travelling Atlético fans celebrated. One Saudi supporter stood, holding a piece of card. On it, he'd written: "Valverde out."
Every time Barcelona's manager had appeared on the screens in the stadium, he had been booed. Long and loud and with no letup. On Monday, there is a Barcelona board meeting. Josep Maria Bartomeu, president and vice president in charge of sporting matters, needn't put his manager on the agenda. At least not yet. At the end of the season, Valverde will be gone anyway -- and that knowledge is not without its consequences, affecting life in the meantime -- although the temptation to axe him sooner will certainly be there.
There are plenty inside the club trying to get their voice heard, plenty saying "Sack him, presi." Outside, many are even clearer. Jeddah may not be the same as Catalonia, but nor does that make it a lone voice. Valverde can't much fancy it now, either. There are 10 days for manoeuvre, there's time to act, to find someone to blame, but maybe not to find someone else to take that blame. And what if for some he is a useful shield? There are not many viable coaching candidates, not at this point. Nor are there any guarantees that it will get better; it might even get worse. The moment gone. The preference is for Ronald Koeman, who will come after the Euros, he says, but not before.
Nicol: Atletico played like a mid-table nonsense team vs. Barca
Steve Nicol says although Atletico got the 3-2 win over Barcelona, they shouldn't be happy with their display.
Yet the urge is there, eating away at them. The desire to do something, anything. To act. To stop this, if that would stop it. There are those inside Barcelona who regret not acting last summer, and plenty who suggested as much at the time, their voices unheard or unheeded. Barcelona have not convinced this season (insert your own "or last season" here). It's been hard to avoid the feeling of slow but steady decline, the whole thing unravelling, a cultural collapse. A sense lingers that this just isn't the team -- or the club -- it was. Beneath that lies implicit, rarely expressed recognition that this goes beyond Valverde.
In the meantime, everyone looks to Messi: a shield to hide behind, consciously or not. And not just on the pitch. Barcelona can feel dysfunctional, their ills systemic, and he is part of that. But most days Messi is there. They're top of the league, which buys them extra time. Even if few expect them to stay there playing like this, that position means that the desire to do something drastic is tempered and restrained. They're waiting for the right moment. Like today, when it is brought back to the surface by this defeat, by the manner of it. Another title gone -- albeit this is a trophy, the Spanish Supercopa, that matters least -- another embarrassment, another night like those. Liverpool and Rome. Paris and Turin, too. Now Jeddah thrown onto the pile. Something is wrong.
Afterward, Messi and Suárez both defended Valverde, suggesting it was not his fault. Suárez spoke of individual errors, as did Griezmann -- his own -- while Messi said that the manager had the players' support. Which, maybe, they would say and which, maybe, was meaningless. "We have to be more united than ever," is pretty standard fare, even from Messi. Why they say so and whether that's a good thing, whether they protect their own comfortable existence, may be a useful debate, too. But they did.
And let's go back to the top; that day at Anfield, Messi said it to his teammates, not the public: nobody's fault but ours.
While the problems are deeper, are these ones on Valverde? Perhaps more so if they keep happening, it would be reasonable to conclude. Perhaps if they reflect an inability to exercise control. But here's the awkward thing: Some of the recurring problems -- the play, basically -- weren't there Thursday night. This wasn't exactly like those times, where they were overrun, unable to respond, dominated entirely, lacking personality or play. It wasn't really like the rest of this season, which makes reactions to it risky, analysing it flawed. Because this didn't really make much sense, this defied logic.
Before it broke down, this broke with the bad. Pressing high -- yes, that's Vidal imposing a bit of Barcelona DNA -- winning the ball early, not allowing their opponents a way out, Barca dominated. Messi, who has meandered lately, had been put on fast-forward, hyperactive. Aggressive, progressive too, they pushed into Atlético territory, the ball circulated quickly with intent. A dozen shots and half a dozen good opportunities. Against Atlético, remember. This might have been a revival, some hope to cling to, and then it was gone. More likely another reason to announce their death.
This was the best Barcelona have played this season, certainly away from home. They were more "Barcelona" than before. At the other end, though, they were also more "Barcelona" than ever too. It was striking that Messi admitted after the game: "we're conscious of the fact that we are not playing the way we would like," but he was talking about the previous months, not this match. Striking, too, that he said they had "felt like we haven't done for some time: we took a step forward tonight."
Messi called it a "path to follow" and this was a performance to remember, at least until the last eight minutes, when it became a performance that they don't want to remember but they will, one it will be hard to rid themselves of. Just like Liverpool and Rome.