The parallels with the epic 2009 match was eerie. Barcelona came to Chelsea as the favourites but this was a side that always caused them problems. Chelsea sat deep, defensive, compact, occasionally hunting Barcelona with the aggressive press. The impotency of possession, trailing to a goal that Chelsea deserved for their organisation. Stamford Bridge had seen this before.
And then, Iniesta and Messi combining to take it all away. In 2009, it was Lionel Messi who was the creator for Iniesta, slamming a shot to lay the seeds for the blossoming of an era that would stretch for nearly a decade. Here Iniesta did what he did best and treasured the ball better than anyone else, punishing Chelsea, finding Messi. Same end of the ground, same result. Stamford Bridge had seen this before.
Chelsea are not by any means out, and Barcelona’s historic struggles against them mean they will always have a chance. But Nou Camp will be a long ninety minutes for them.
Mostly it’ll be the chance to see the nucleus of this Barcelona team, a spine surviving from 2009, in its last embers make possibly one last chase for glories. How fitting it would be to begin the era with a treble and then end it with one too. Of course the sun has been setting on Barcelona for many years now and they have lived to defy critics and usher in new dawns.
This isn’t the same Barcelona side as the team who conquered Europe between 2009 to 2011 with a consuming style of breathless intensity and beauty. There was a feeling of an unbridgeable gulf between them and the rest. Mortality returned in the shape of a 7-0 drubbing to Bayern Munich in 2013 but even then, Barcelona went away and came back.
The last couple of years have dented their hegemony, undone by the emergence of this polished Real Madrid side. Barcelona will want to end that. Again, this team is different. There is less flair and more functionality; their possession is more about protection than penetration, and they’ve moved away from the 4-3-3 that seemed embedded into their DNA and soul.
They have sponsors, and with Qatar, and the slogans of “more than a club” disguise that they are just like any other club. But this team have been special to watch over the years. They invariably are. Madrid have won European Cups but Barcelona created a legacy with their football, a moral divide on how to play the game. They splintered the world into purists and pragmatists and made style a relevant factor in the equation for success. And there was something incredibly satisfying in watching a team of gifted hobbits chop down a game of giants, standing taller than them all, outshining them with the speed of thought, absurd technical control and a wonderful sense of the collective. Football is a team sport, though we revere its moments of individualism. But Barcelona were never about the individual. Lionel Messi provided it with the sprinkle of stardust but there was already a smattering of it everywhere.
Slowly though, the pieces that assembled together to create something beautiful have started falling away: there is no Daniel Alves, no Carlos Puyol, no Victor Valdes or David Villa. Most importantly, there is no Xavi Hernandez, the nucleus of their ideology, the beating heart who breathed life into their identity and imbued it with a sense of meaning and tangibility. Post-Xavi Barcelona haven’t looked as incisive, devastating or imperious, the lack of control in midfield conditioned by Xavi’s departure hastened by for a while a stunning frontline in Neymar, Suarez and Messi. Barcelona’s focus shifted from midfield to the attack, and there was something symbolic in that. But now even Neymar has left, and Suarez is a year older. The team look less fabulous, slower and not as menacing. Dembele is not Neymar or Ronaldinho. Rakitic is not Xavi.
But there is still Lionel Messi and he has not changed. The mazy dribble, the sudden change in direction, angle and speed all in one fluid, graceful blur. The drop of the shoulder and the ball over the top. There is Sergio Busquets, one of the greatest controllers in midfield, defined by his calmness on the ball, the embodiment of the style. When he plays, Barcelona play.
And there is Andres Iniesta, the man who glides rather than runs, weaving through opponents like they weren’t there. For the goal against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge he latched onto the misplaced pass with stunning speed, rolling back the years and rolling back Chelsea. There is an uninhibited joy in watching his dazzling simplicity, the tight pockets he wriggles out of, the angled passes, the vision, and the manner in which he interprets and constructs space. Iniesta has defined this Barcelona team for years, his significance immense: he provided assists in their past three European Cup finals.
Barcelona have been hard for pundits to assess and there is a feeling of vulnerability lurking behind the veil of brilliance. They are more solid than spectacular. This season Manchester City have won the plaudits for their attacking football. And it could very well be that they are the team who put an end to this great Barcelona side and start their era, ironically led by the man who created the blueprints for Barcelona’s own glorious success back in 2009.
Or it could be that Barcelona, the great footballing climbers from respectable domestic force into continental giants, remind the world one last time who they are and what they can do. They still have enough quality in their reserves to pull teams apart with unimaginable precision.
Either way, we should be mindful of a great team slowly coming to the end of its era, fading lights winking out, who have given us more spectacles than we can count. The era of Messi, Iniesta, Xavi and co has been a treat.