FC Barça are in town tomorrow night. They are, of course, no strangers to making the 385 mile trek south to Madrid for season-defining games: they tend to do it every year. What makes tomorrow night’s affair a little different however is the location of this season’s big six pointer. Rather than an evening living it up in Madrid’s version of the Champs Elysees, the Azulgranas with continue on down the wide leafy boulevard that is the Paseo de la Castellana, slip under the massive Spanish flag domineering the Plaza Colon, cruise past the Cibeles Fountain where Madridistas gather to celebrate their triumphs, before entering deep into Rojiblanco territory. Vicente Calderón, rather than Santiago Bernabéu, plays host for this particular partidazo.
Cholo’s XI pretty much picks itself these days and there are unlikely to be any surprises. Courtois, Juanfran, Miranda, Godín, Filipe Luis, Koke, Gabi, Tiago, Arda, Diego Costa and Villa should be the starting line-up. David Villa has been a shadow of his former self for a few months now, and Raúl García will surely get his change sooner or later, but Villa has a history of scoring against Barça so I think Simeone will stick with El Guaje for this one.
Tata Martino, on the other hand, has a few decisions to make. Puyol played in the cup the other night but the smart money would be on Mascherano and Piqué in the heart of the defence, flanked by the little flyers, Alba and Alves. Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta will be tasked with controlling the midfield and feeding any three of the following five: Pedrito, Cesc, Neymar, Alexis and Leo Messi.
The BBC’s Andy West somehow managed to produce over one thousand words answering his own question: Lionel Messi – Are Barcelona a better team without him? One word would have sufficed. No. No they are not. West gamely tried to argue that the likes of Pedro, Cesc and Alexis tend to get more goals in Messi’s absence. True, but that is a bit like saying Liverpool are better off without Suarez because it may allow Sturridge, Henderson and Coutinho to score more. To be fair to West, I think that by the time he wrote that Messi has 287 goals in 286 games since he became a Barça regular, even he realised he had wandered into the realms of fantasy but had to get 1,000 words on something to his editor and so carried on regardless.
It is my view that in football there are very good teams, great teams and then beyond that, special teams. Barça are a great team without Messi. But with him they are special. It is actually quite rare that a special individual finds himself in a great team and is able to elevate his side into the pantheon of legendary sides. Cristiano is a special player but his clubs (Utd or Madrid) have perhaps only ever reached a level somewhere between very good and great. The same with Maradona and Napoli or Platini and Juventus. But Cruyff made the great Ajax side of the early 70s special. Pele made Brazil special in Mexico 1970. Di Stefano made the great Madrid of the late 50s special. If Leo, the monster, is fit, he plays every minute. Simples.