Camp Nou rehearsal
I spent late Saturday night at the Camp Nou, and once again the weather turned Siberian when I decided to go. In fact, there was the rare sight of a snow-covered pitch in Barcelona, albeit a light dusting, on Saturday morning. Last season, I experienced the coldest night in the Camp Nou for some 50 years, and Saturday's late game against Sevilla can't have been far behind in the temperature stakes.
I was with a young couple who were over from London for the weekend but, despite my prior warnings, they weren't altogether wrapped up against the elements and were visibly suffering by the end - when it was almost midnight, of course. They had brought umbrellas, to be fair, but the moon shone coldly all night long.
It was a strange game, almost as if neither team really wanted to be there. Barcelona had reasons to be less than cheerful after their midweek defeat in Milan, and Real Madrid come to town for the second leg of the Copa del Rey semi-final on Tuesday night, the first in yet another mini-series of Clásicos with the league encounter at the Bernabéu as dessert on Saturday.
With the return leg against Milan also in thinking distance, the visit of an improving Sevilla side seemed a kind of distraction, but a distraction that couldn't be lost or drawn for reasons of morale. The visitors also had their minds on other things - they too have a Copa del Rey second leg to play this week, when they must try to turn around a 2-1 deficit against Atlético Madrid.
Wandering around Barcelona from Thursday night onwards and reading both the Spanish and Catalan press, I'd have been forgiven for not knowing that Sevilla also had a meeting with destiny on Wednesday.
Indeed, reaching the final would bring a smile to a season that has so far been turbulent (with the sacking of Michel and the legal problems faced by their president) and disappointing in terms of results, although the arrival of Unai Emery as manager appears to have perked things up a little. Before the Barcelona game, they'd picked up a decent ten points from 15, but you get the feeling there's nothing much to aspire for now, save the Copa del Rey. Was this just the practice match for the eventual final?
There had been plenty of speculation in the local press as to who would figure in the opening line-ups and, as some predicted, David Villa made a rare start, over to the left as in bygone days, with Alexis Sánchez down the middle. Villa probably felt bittersweet about this, since he might have suspected that the relative lack of importance of this fixture will mean he returns to the bench on Tuesday night.
Martin Montoya started at left-back - an understandable choice if you want to rest Jordi Alba, but potential suicide for a right-footed defender up against one of La Liga's nippiest conventional wingers in Jesus Navas. If Tito Vilanova had phoned over the line-up from his convalescent centre in Manhattan, perhaps the line had been crackly. Or perhaps the caretaker, Jordi Roura, had taken things into his own hands.
Poor Roura, who has been doing a decent job in ambiguous circumstances - a temporary leader with allegedly few executive powers. All seemed well until San Siro-gate. Now the faithful are getting a bit fidgety about whether Vilanova's recovery is really not as it seemed a month or so ago. Barcelona's handling of this issue, as with that of Eric Abidal, has been exemplary, but suddenly the Champions League has exposed some frailty, a lack of incisive leadership from Roura, and questions are being asked about the precise nature of his internship.
Sevilla put out a strong side, with only Alvaro Negredo missing from the initial line-up. They looked compact and organised in the first half as the hosts prodded and probed in their usual manner, never quite supplying the final pass.
The ground seemed strangely muted, as it sometimes can late at night, in the cold, with bigger games on the horizon. The Camp Nou faithful are also an oddly nervous bunch, easily spooked into a sort of collective neurotic murmur and mumble whenever there is the slightest threat from the opposition. Having gorged on so much success, you'd think they'd be more confident souls - but they're anything but. Every time the excellent Navas got hold of the ball and ran at Montoya, a spooked silence descended.
Despite the fact that Barcelona were the better side in the first half - albeit never truly dominant - it was as if the stadium expected Sevilla to score, a prophesy self-fulfilled on 42 minutes when Dani Alves forgot to jump and Alberto Botía rose above him to nod home the first clear chance Sevilla had carved out. It was a poor goal to concede, and the 11th consecutive game in which a Barcelona 'keeper has been obliged to pick the ball out of the net.
Curiously enough, Botía came up through the ranks with Barcelona 'B' but ended up at Sporting Gijon on loan, from where he was transferred to Sevilla for €2.5 million, 30% of which Barcelona are currently claiming. The case goes to court this week, but Botía, who had scored the grand total of three goals in almost 100 senior appearances, decided to score a fourth just for the occasion. Did he celebrate? Yes.
Up in the dank but warmer catering area at half-time, it became apparent - as it often does at the Camp Nou - just how many foreign tourists make up the numbers for this type of game. The crowd was a relatively low 58,000, but there was an awful lot of English being spoken (British and American varieties), mixed in with Japanese, Korean and other less recognisable tongues. The World Mobile Congress is being held in Barcelona this week, so there were probably some folks combining business and pleasure, but it's easy to forget just how cosmopolitan a Camp Nou game can be. Lousy coffee, though, if you can find it.
In the second half, Alexis unsurprisingly failed to appear (the crowd also murmured whenever he received the ball, in a permanently grumpy tone of disapproval), and Villa moved back to where he seems more comfortable, with Cristian Tello joining the fray on the left.
For some curious reason best known to themselves, Sevilla abandoned their high-pressure line, parked the bus, and allowed their hosts to pummel them. Within six minutes, Villa had nodded home Alves' cross at point-blank range, and eight minutes later Tello and Lionel Messi combined rather cleverly for the latter to score from just inside the box and make it 15 consecutive league games with a goal. He hadn't played particularly well up to that point, slightly subdued in the absence of the metronomic assistance of Xavi, but the gear-change was sufficient to bring down Sevilla's resistance. Tello, in particular, seemed to liven matters up, giving the left side the threat it had lacked with the previously hesitant Montoya and a Villa who still looks off the pace.
It's not entirely fair to judge Barcelona on this display, with Xavi, Alba, Sergio Busquets and Pedro on the bench and Carles Puyol and Cesc Fabregas in the stands, but the ease with which the opposition score against them these days does not augur well for the duels with Real Madrid and Milan to come. As the taxi driver insisted as he took me back at some time around 1am: "Si el Milan nos mete uno, se acabó. Y ojo, son unos zorros." ("If Milan score one against us, that's it. And hey, they're a crafty lot").
As soon as Sevilla went 2-1 down, Emery reverted back to the successful tactics they had bafflingly abandoned. Navas pushed further up on Montoya, Negredo entered the fray and Ivan Rakitic pushed higher up the pitch when the promising-looking Geoffrey Kondogbia took over the central midfield position.
Thus the anti-Barcelona formula looks quite simple at the moment. Threaten them with anyone who, like Navas, is quick on the break, and they will go into a mild state of disorganised anxiety. Every time Sevilla countered, they could have scored. Gerard Pique, as my London friend pointed out, is technically accomplished but lacks the authority and support of Puyol, and Alves continues his missing-in-action phases with worrying consistency. Rakitic missed a sitter and Negredo, having done everything right, just put too much power on his chip over Victor Valdes towards the end.
In truth, Sevilla could have won it, despite the steadying introduction of Xavi and Busquets later on in the second half. They will feel fairly confident about their chances against Atlético, a side invincible at home but more unpredictable away.
Real Madrid prepared for the Clásicos with an equally hard-worked 2-1 win at bottom club Deportivo, who had gone ahead courtesy of Riki, an ex-player from their youth side. Cristiano Ronaldo started on the bench, and Kaká played from the start, looked good, and even scored (his first for a year in the league). Does Kaká always start to perform when he thinks he's on the way out, or is it just coincidental? To be fair, it's difficult to shine if you don't get a decent run of consecutive games, but if he keeps playing like this Madrid might even get some money for him in the summer. He has a contract until 2015 and earns €13 million a year. A little nudge in a Parisian direction might not be amiss come the end of the season.
I couldn't be at San Mames on Friday night for the last Basque derby to be played in the old stadium, exactly 100 years after its inaugural match against Racing de Irun. Having been (unfortunately) invited to supper in Barcelona, I sat with my mobile phone discreetly positioned so that I could pick up the score being texted by my son. The occasional beeps of Morse code were enough to tell me that Real Sociedad were winning (3-1) as I smiled and pretended to converse with the rest of the table.
It'll be sad to go to San Mamés, probably the last of its breed, no more. The last game they will actually play there will be against Levante, by which time they will hope to be clear of the relegation zone, over which they are still hovering precariously - especially after third-from-bottom Celta, with their new boss Abel Resino, managed a rare win against Granada.
It's going to be an interesting few weeks now in Spain, what with the Clásicos and the European competitions, where only little Levante are safe. In the Champions League, it could be all over bar the shouting for Spain's big four, but I'd prefer to be optimistic. When the going gets tough, I suspect some of the tough will get going.