Barcelona, Luis Enrique focused on trophies despite club-record run
It's a word that sounds as though it should always have an exclamation mark at the end and accompany every punch thrown by Batman and Robin, written in big letters inside a cartoon explosion. On Wednesday night at Mestalla, certainly. There were just six minutes to go, and it was going wrong, time was running out, the end was nigh. But then, suddenly... "Kaptoum!" Douglas found Juan Camara who put the cross in and there he was, 19-year-old striker Wilfred Kaptoum, to score.
Now, of course, the truth is that not everything was going wrong. Time was running out in the game but not in the context of the tie. And the end wasn't really nigh. Not The End, anyway. Barcelona were going to the Copa del Rey final anyway, and Valencia were not. Everyone had known that since the kickoff, which was the main reason this was such an odd kind of Copa del Rey semifinal, second leg, a game that eventually finished 1-1 thanks to Kaptoum's goal.
Played out before a virtually empty stadium where you not only saw the players kicking the ball but could also hear them kick it, with just two regular starters among the 22 men who began the game, and with Valencia's Shkodran Mustafi, Paco Alcacer and Dani Parejo watching from the stands while Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez watched on telly at home -- if they watched it at all -- there was even a change on the bench. Luis Enrique's assistant Juan Carlos Unzue paraded the touchline. "He was saving my voice," the coach said. "I can't sing every three days."
Luis Enrique could afford to stop shouting for a day, too. His team had won the first leg 7-0, and it would have taken an "enormous accident" for them to get knocked out, he said. Gary Neville wasn't chasing a miracle either. The Valencia manager revealed that the thinking behind his team selection was an Espanyol match on Saturday; Barcelona on Wednesday had already come and gone seven days earlier. Alvaro Negredo's goal mattered, though -- Valencia are rehabilitating the player -- and so did Kaptoum equalising six minutes from the end. Symbolically, at least.
Luis Enrique's team selection showed that the result was not the objective, but if Kaptoum had not scored, Barcelona would have lost for the first time since Oct. 3. At the third attempt, Valencia would have done what Rayo, BATE Borisov, Eibar, Villanovense, Getafe, BATE again, Villarreal, Madrid, Roma, Real Sociedad, Villanovense again, Valencia themselves the first time they'd met, Bayer Leverkusen, Deportivo, Guangzhou, River Plate, Betis, Espanyol twice, Granada, Espanyol a third time, Athletic twice, Málaga, Athletic again, Atletico, Valencia themselves in the second meeting and Levante had been unable to do: beat Barcelona.
Defeat on Wednesday would have ended Barcelona's unbeaten run at 28 games -- Luis Enrique's team would have gone without a new club record, the longest unbeaten run in their 117-year history. They would have had to share the record with Pep Guardiola's side, whose 28-game run ended when they suffered a Copa del Rey second-leg defeat, against Betis, that wasn't enough to see them knocked out.
Instead, Kaptoum! Wilfred to the rescue!
A 10-match winning run came to an end but not the unbeaten one. Barcelona have now gone 29 games without a defeat, back to that 2-1 loss at Sevilla, and so here are some stats. Of those 29, they have won 23 and drawn six, scoring 87 and letting in 15. Their average score is three goals for vs. 0.5 against. The player who has played the most games is Ivan Rakitic, while the man with the most minutes is Suarez. He has also scored more goals than anyone else (30). Messi has 18. Together, they have another record.
It is a record that reflects their talent and ability, of course. Any side with Messi, Suarez and Neymar might fancy its chances of building up a run of good results. Twenty-nine games unbeaten says that this is a very good team with very good players. And looking through that list, some of the performances have been superb: the 3-0 win over Villarreal, the 4-0 victory at Madrid, 6-1 against Roma days later, plus the game that made Wednesday's match so odd: the 7-0 win in the first leg of this semifinal was dazzling even if Valencia were complicit in their hammering.
But it is not only that. Just days before, Barcelona had beaten Levante 2-0 with one goal that went in off David Navarro's rear and a second scored by Suarez in the last minute. They had taken no more shots than their opponent and arguably had deserved no more either. Atletico Madrid had always been in the game against them the week before -- with 11 men, 10 men and even when down to nine. At Malaga the week before that, Barcelona had been under pressure, unable to escape, barely able to breath. Even Sergio Busquets managed not to look very good. But, somehow, it had finished 2-1.
And that's the thing -- Barcelona have looked exposed and uncomfortable recently; their football has not always been brilliant, certainly away from home. But they had done what they have tended to do recently: they won. Levante, Atletico and Malaga are their past three league games. Before that there was a 6-0 win over Athletic (set up by a red card and a penalty in the opening minutes that might have been different otherwise), a 4-0 win over Granada at home and a 0-0 draw with Espanyol.
The first two months of 2016 have not been easy; there has been a vulnerability about them. They played 10 games in 28 days in January, and at times, you could tell. Javier Mascherano admits that there is perhaps a lack of freshness about them. Yet they have kept on winning. And that, he says, is "positive."
It's often said that winning when you are not playing well is the sign of a title-winning team. It's games like these that win you the league, the cliché says. Barcelona certainly seem to have found a way of winning without playing well, something they weren't often able to do before. Thinking back to the Pep Guardiola era, it's hard to recall a match in which they performed poorly -- by their standards, at least -- and still won. Luis Enrique's team have done so more often.
It's perhaps a product of the players: there's always someone likely to win the game. And while recent performances have not always been entirely convincing, there are usually moments in the game when they reach their best level; maybe, aware of the number of games they have this season (a dozen more than Madrid), there's an attempt to conserve energy, to expend only what is necessary. After all, a little expenditure does appear to be enough.
But it is not just that. There is more, like the evolution of their style, the ability to play more directly or more often on the counter, the desire to do so. In fact, it invites the tentative conclusion that some of the pressure they are put under is invited. Or like luck? It might be the simplest, if most unsatisfactory, of explanations, but it plays a part.
Yet there is something else that few have talked about, with Barcelona given the attention focused on the talent, the technical and tactical excellence or the moments of genius. It's something that was there before too, not just now. Barcelona's run, not just in these 29 games but over the past seven years and probably beyond, reflected in the six Copa del Rey finals they have reached in eight years and three Champions League successes since 2009, is explained by quality, sure. But it is also explained by character.
How often have people talked about Barcelona over the past few years? And how often have they talked about Barcelona's competitiveness? The answer to the second question is far smaller, but it is there even if it often goes unnoticed. This is a team that competes and always comes back for more. As one Barcelona player admits, winning at Barcelona is "easy" -- winning again (and again and again) is not.
"To win, the most important thing is to compete," Gerard Pique once said. "There are lots of teams with huge amounts of talent that have never won anything. And you have to have that desire, that hunger to win, to want to get to the top. I am convinced that 90 percent of a player is confidence and hunger and 10 percent is talent. There are generations that haven't ever seen Barcelona win, people like my father, but now it's 10 years that we've been winning things."
That's not chance, nor is it only ability. In elite sports, it never is. There might not be "lots" of teams with as much talent as Barcelona, but it does not mean that the point is invalid. In fact, talking in 2013, Pique was dismissive of the suggestion that Barcelona "only" won the league in 2012-13 because they did not care enough.
"You do not win a league against a Madrid side that has spent I-don't-know-how-many millions on players since 2002, and you don't win by 15 points, racking up 100 points, if you do not work," Pique said.
"I think we're the only team in the world that could have won the league last year with everything that happened to us. ... A team without its coach [Tito Vilanova, who had cancer], with a player who suffers what he suffers, Eric [Abidal, who also had cancer]. People had become so accustomed to winning. We won a league and it's like, 'Well, whatever.' We won the league with all that had happened! That's an amazing season. People say we didn't work. Get out of here!"
Those problems did catch up with them. The next year, Barcelona won nothing. But they recovered. The year after that, they won it all. Defeat hurts, whether it's at the end of the season or the end of a game. Suarez has said before that "it's not that I want to win, it's that I need to win." When he loses, Ivan Rakitic admits: "I kind of retreat into myself. You could be talking to me and I'm looking at you, sure, maybe even listening to, but I don't hear you. I don't respond, I don't engage."
Rakitic joined last summer, of course. "The hunger never fades, and if we relax they'll come for us," he said. "That's why when I went on my honeymoon with my wife, I was in the gym preparing for the preseason. I've got teammates here who have won many medals, and I want that too."
So did they, and they still do. By the end of that campaign, they'd taken the treble. Now they have broken a club record, and not because they wanted it specifically but because they want another treble. The last of those games had been the least competitive of all, the one where winning didn't matter and competing was effectively optional. And yet oddly it was the one that broke a record that underlines just how well they compete. And yet, even then -- Kaptoum!
"The record was not the objective," Rakitic said, but competitiveness makes winning an objective every game. The record does not matter, but it is a reflection of something that does: a character that also defines them.
On Wednesday night at Mestalla, Luis Enrique was asked about those 29 games. His face and his tone said as much as his words did. Barcelona's coach couldn't care less, save for one thing: "Figures like that take us closer to titles."
Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.