“I know it’s a risk,” Ernesto Valverde admitted.
It was Thursday night and FC Barcelona’s manager was contemplating only his eighth defeat since taking over at the club. For the second time in eight months, it had come away at Levante. In May 2018, it cost them the chance to become the first team to ever complete a league season unbeaten; now, in January 2019, it left them on the edge in the Copa del Rey, departing the Ciutat de Valencia beaten again, surprisingly weakening their the defence of the title they have won for each of the past four years.
Back then, Lionel Messi didn’t play: he was rested because of a friendly in South Africa, something of a scandal about which surprisingly little was said. On Thursday night, Messi didn’t play either. Nor did Luis Suarez, Jordi Alba, Marc-Andre Ter Stegen or Clement Lenglet. Even Ivan Rakitic was rested. The surprise was that Sergio Busquets didn’t and when you do that, your chances are always reduced even if the opponents rest players too. Even if Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele — combined cost, almost €300 million — do play.
Had he risked too much, Valverde was asked. “I don’t know,” he said.
With 10 minutes to go, most would have said: yes. But Coutinho’s late penalty, won by Denis Suarez, gave them hope that they would get through anyway, giving them an away goal to take into the second leg and allowed them to maintain a run of scoring in 35 consecutive games. In fact, Barcelona might well expect to progress even after the 2-1 defeat and that, of course, is part of the point: underlining one of the fundamental flaws in this competition, Valverde described his team as the best XI he could put out given that there was a second leg. A second leg that doesn’t look so bad now.
“Golden Goal,” ran the cover of El Mundo Deportivo. “It could have been worse,” Sport said. “A shipwreck, avoided” was the headline in AS, while El Pais declared: “Denis recuses the worse Barcelona.” According to Marca, “Denis averts a tragedy.”
But had he?
“It wasn’t our intention to lose,” Valverde said. Of course it wasn’t, but would it really be such a tragedy to get knocked out? Given their schedule, and recent experience too, might it actually be good for Barcelona not to be in the Copa del Rey instead?
The old cliche always had teams “concentrating on the league” when they’re knocked out of the Cup, consolation offered up when in truth there was none; add the word “Champions” to that and it would fit Barcelona. In their case, it might even be true too.
You can never know what will happen or how a season will play out. Sevilla and Atletico fans who wonder what might have been had they not pursued the cup in 2007 and 2014 could only ask that after the fact, at the end of historic seasons, perhaps their best-ever, that might just have ended even better with a fraction more freshness at the finish. At the time, they were not in a position to make a choice, still less to loosen their grip on one competition in favour of another — the league for Sevilla, the Champions League for Atletico — that still appeared impossibly far off. But here’s the question: could it be that Barcelona are?
No club is ever going to throw away a competition deliberately. Equally, drawing a direct correlation between holding back in one competition and pushing on in another is always flawed: forced at best, false at worse. Two of the last three times Barcelona have won the European Cup, Barcelona also won everything else, cup included. But there is certainly a question that floats about prioritisation.
This season, the Cup is not Barcelona’s priority. The Champions League is, and publicly so: “that lovely cup,” as Messi put it as he took the mic to address the Camp Nou back in August. That he said it so openly was striking: the most direct of messages.
The way last season played out was particularly painful: Barcelona appeared set for a treble but that night in Rome, everything crumbled before their eyes. One dreadful night and it was gone. Again, which is why there’s more to it than last season and more to it than just this season too. It’s about this generation. About Messi. About the sense, perhaps, that time is running out. It’s about legacy and memory, what really matters and what’s really remembered. It’s maybe even about a sense of justice.
Barcelona have won just one of the past seven European Cups. If this is the Messi era, and if it is theirs, they have not stood atop its pinnacle as much as they think they should have. And while they have never been prevented from doing so by their oldest rivals — since 2011, they’ve been knocked out by Chelsea (semifinals), Bayern (semifinals), Atletico twice (in the quarterfinals both times), Juventus (quarterfinals) and Roma (quarterfinals) — it is Madrid who have been there, lifting the trophy.
There’s a line in Real Madrid and Hungary star Ferenc Puskas’ book in which he notes: “While we were winning the European Cup in 1959 and 1960, Barcelona were winning the league twice on the run. They had a great team and seemed to be able to ‘do’ us any time they wanted. The Hungarian lads there took the piss mercilessly… even phoning me up to rub it in.” It’s a curious insight that sits uneasily with the collective conscious: the kind of remark that sends you dashing off to check the record books. For most, certainly outside Spain only one of those teams is remembered; that “great team” able to “do” Madrid whenever they wanted are largely forgotten.
This era is not the same, nor are these teams, but there may be a tentative parallel.
Barcelona have won the last four Copa del Reys. They have won seven of the past 10 league titles and nine of the past 14. They have beaten Madrid 5-0, 4-3, 6-2, 4-0, 3-0, 3-2, 3-1, 5-1. No one who has watched Spanish football can seriously argue that they haven’t been the dominant team of the decade. And yet it is Madrid who have won three European Cups in a row and four of the last five. Outside of Spain, at least, that is what remains and always will. And that hurts: Messi described last year’s Champions League failure as a “thorn” in their side.
This season, they would do anything to remove it. Could removing the cup be one of the ways of doing so? At the very least, it is an idea, a thought some have dared think.
When Madrid won the Champions League last season, Carles Puyol tweeted his congratulations, then added: “four Champions Leagues in five years with the best Barcelona in history [around]… we have to reflect on our priorities.”
Asked if he meant that the should throw the league – Madrid have only won the league in the same season as one of their last eight European Cups — Puyol replied: “You can’t ever throw the league, but the cup should be played by those who don’t play regularly, [so you can] be at peak for the Champions League.”
It’s not just that the cup is the least important of the three competitions; it’s not that Barcelona have won it four times in a row now, either. It’s not that it doesn’t matter: it does. It’s more in the nature of the competition, the way it fills the whole of the month, a game every three days, up to the return of the Champions League. It’s five matches maybe you can do without. It’s natural to wonder that, at least. Especially when you’ve been through it, seen what it might mean.
In the summer, Suarez admitted that he “regretted” not having rested more before that fateful trip to Rome. By then it was too late, but the lesson was learnt.
It was a risk resting players against Levante, Valverde admitted. But not resting them would have been worse.