Are Barca slowing down a little? Or are teams at least starting to finally figure out more effective ways to defend and contain them? I continue to notice how much Carles Puyol’s absence effects this team, tactically and from a leadership presence and perspective. I’m also wondering if the cumulative emotional and physical toll of the World Cup (particularly Iniesta and a banged-up Xavi), which decimated the offseason of nearly every Barca player, is finally starting to catch up with some of them. Then again, they could just be victims of their own ridiculous standards of success, unable to constantly and continuously reach the stratospheric levels of precision and beauty that they’ve treated us to for months on end.
I watched the Athletic Bilbao match in this crazed, cubist manner with Spencer, wherein we watched certain some sections of it live, some recorded. There were sections we watched two or three times, stretches of play that overlapped between our live and recorded viewing, sections we sped forward etc.–as well as missing sequences (gratuitous Voivod reference), which very well may have skewed my perceptions of what actually happened. Barca dominated the first half. But Athletic were superior in the second, only to, cruelly, be done-in by yet another ethereal Messi moment. It’s almost sad how he’s making astonishing, beautiful things seem so ordinary.
On Wednesday, I thought Valencia deserved at least a point and were actually the better side for long stretches of the match. But, of course, the fact remains: Barca won both matches. Valencia had a goal called back on a questionable offsides call before Messi, ultimately, shattered their dreams by striking in an exquisite cross from Adriano in the 77th minute. Athletic and Valencia are quality teams, so on one level it isn’t really surprising that they gave Barca so much trouble. It’s a case of La Liga quality and pride coming to the fore in the heart of the season, as teams like Athletic and Valencia struggle for European spots and the chance to pull Barca back down to earth. And it isn’t like Barcelona has played bad, it’s just noticeable that they don’t seem to be cruising at the same seemingly unattainable (by everyone else) heights that they were in, say, December. Part of me feels bad even holding the team to these impossible standards and benchmarks, but they are the ones who set them so vertiginously. Despite Madrid’s 7 goal explosion yesterday, Barca remain solidly on pace for the La Liga title. Their performance in the Champions League and the Copa del Rey is what will really show us if they are slowing down due to fatigue and/or effective defensive tactics systematically arrayed against them, flying to close to the sun, or just accessing more ordinary levels of beautiful dominance.