For both Barcelona and Real Madrid, the legacy of a season born amid tumult, and defined by a manic reimagining of expectations, disappointment and potentially historical triumph hinges, for all intents and purposes, on a pair of upcoming Real Madrid outings – the first, tonight at Camp Nou, followed by the finale of the Champions League, on May 26, in Kiev.
From a Barcelona perspective, that so much of the meaning of this season – by all objective measures a successful one – rides on the failure of their eternal rival cannot be comforting. One cataclysmic evening in Rome stripped them of the opportunity to more emphatically etch the club’s name into the annals of European football, with a third league/domestic cup/Champions League treble – a feat that no other European club has managed more than once. More than that, however, it’s deprived them any chance of curtailing Madrid’s ongoing dominance of the competition.
A week ago, Barcelona took the field at the Estadio Riazor, needing only a point against all-but-relegated Deportivo La Coruña. The Copa del Rey already in hand thanks a vintage pasting of Sevilla the previous weekend in Madrid, the remainder of 2017-18’s to-do list consisted simply of formalizing their 25th league title (with the aforementioned point), while inching ever closer to the first undefeated La Liga campaign in more than 80 years. Watching the game, as the vast majority of Barcelonans do, at the neighbourhood bar, some simple but somewhat revealing observations crystallized as the evening wore on.
For starters, rarely during the 115 or so minutes between the opening kickoff and the final whistle in A Coruña did it feel like we were witnessing a competitive venture. This is to suggest neither indifference nor disengagement on the part of the locals, but rather the sense that we, in our cozy, delightfully nondescript pocket of L’Eixample, along with tens of thousands around the city, in gatherings similar to ours, were, intently, collectively watching the latest episode of our favorite TV show.
The story’s written and there aren’t many twists that will change the arc. Certainly, striking after just seven minutes didn’t hurt. Nor, half an hour later, did the sense that the purpose served by Luis Suárez’s high ball to the far post, from which Leo Messi beautifully volleyed home Barça’s second goal, his 30th of the league campaign (in the process becoming the first player to score 30+ goals in seven La Liga seasons), was entertainment more than fending off an onrushing opponent. Taking a smaller lead than the assembly would have expected or preferred into the halftime intermission didn’t really hurt matters.
The second half delivered something of a twist, as Emre Çolak capitalized on some shaky defending in the 53rd minute to level the score at two goals apiece. However, while the strike cast some uncertainty over the final outcome and theoretically opened the door for the home side to rekindle their dimmest of survival chances, there weren’t any gaps to be heard, nor pins and needles to be sat on.
Perhaps it is simply the belief – the reality – that Messi, as he’s seemingly always and forever done, will sort things out. Which invariably, he did about half an hour later, netting a pair of goals in a three-minute span to sew up the game and yet another hat trick (#30 of his La Liga career). Each strike was met with a massive cheer, as was the late introduction of Andres Iniesta. The final whistle was greeted similarly a few minutes later, with a mini-standing ovation, some hugs, and a brief chant of “Campeoni!”, while the Cant del Barça played in earshot somewhere nearby, and adorable toddlers played with their superstar dads on the television. It was great.