They were at it again, on Saturday night, laying waste to an opponent with the kind of brilliant indulgence that we have come to expect of the modern Barcelona. For much of the game Rayo Vallecano played the role of the archetypal cartoon victim, held by the lapels and slapped repeatedly around the chops. They were as good as bystanders at their own destruction.
A 6-0 victory for Barcelona took them up to first place in La Liga, ahead of Atletico Madrid on goal difference. But once again it was all about the execution. The first of two goals from Lionel Messi was his trademark finish, the vertiginous lob that clears the advancing goalkeeper with ease and bounces slowly, tantalisingly, out of the reach of the chasing defenders.
For the spectacular, there was the sixth from Neymar, who rode a challenge in the centre of midfield and after a few strides, as unhurried as a man putting the bins out, arched a shot over the goalkeeper. As with so many of Barça’s great victories against the small fry – Rayo are 19th in the table – the goals looked like a more modest club’s end-of-season highlights DVD.
It was accompanied with the usual avalanche of statistics, most of them around Messi who, now firmly back in the groove after his injury, went to joint-third place in the all-time La Liga goalscoring chart with 228. He went above Alfredo Di Stefano, drew level with Raul Gonzalez, and is hunting down a third Real Madrid hero, Hugo Sanchez, on 234. Before the end of 2014, Messi will surely overhaul the all-time leader Telmo Zarra (251), whose record dates back to a time when they only took pictures of footballers in black and white.
The question for Manchester City, starting on Tuesday night, is how they go about eliminating the phenomenon that is Barcelona from the Champions League over two legs.
The first hurdle with English teams and the modern Barcelona has been the psychological barrier, which is always set high. Manchester United never overcame it for their second Champions League final against them in 2011 and went down meekly at Wembley.
Yet that same season, 2010-2011, Arsenal drew them in the first knockout round and proved they had learnt the lesson from the previous year. Then, in March 2010, there had been the Theo Walcott-inspired comeback at the Emirates for a draw followed by the 4-1 tonking at the Nou Camp.
In 2011, Arsenal won 2-1 at the Emirates and might well have prevailed in the tie were it not for the very soft dismissal of Robin van Persie at the Nou Camp. He was given a second yellow for shooting after the whistle with the score at 1-1.
By then, Arsenal had broken through that inferiority complex Barcelona so often inspire in opponents. Had they drawn them again (and not sold them Cesc Fabregas) it might have been different. As it turned out, Chelsea met Barcelona the following season, in 2011-2012, and prevailed in that great 10-man siege at the Nou Camp for a 2-2 draw and a place in the final. They too had suffered their defeats at the hands of Barça, but had chipped away at it over the years.
What will City make of it? They have Yaya Touré, a Champions League winner at Barcelona, and other big hitters like David Silva and Sergio Aguero, who have faced Barça in the Spanish league. Are they another English club in a process that will take a few seasons, and a couple of disappointments before they can finally overcome Barça? Because no English club has been better equipped to do it at the first time of asking.
Beating Barcelona, or besting them over two legs, is the gold standard baccalaureate for elite European football clubs. If you aspire to be the best you have to do it at some point. Internazionale, Chelsea, Real Madrid (domestically) and Bayern Munich (most emphatically) have all done it. Yet City have nothing to fear. As for goals, this season they have even outscored Barcelona, 117 to 111 in all competitions.
The problem is that, even for a team as experienced as City, no club in the world wields its reputation like Barcelona. Mark Hughes talked about the last Manchester United side he played in as being capable of “beating teams in the tunnel” – and he wasn’t talking about Roy Keane’s vendettas. It was the aura of the familiar red shirts, the badge, the reputations and the satisfaction of catching the occasional opponent, in an unguarded moment, glancing in trepidation at him and his team-mates.
Barcelona have that too, and with some justification. Certainly, Messi is among the greatest ever to have played the game. Yes, Barça play beautiful football and have a wonderful tradition of developing players. And, yes, every club would like to do it that way, were it not that the door to Europe’s elite is bolted shut to all apart from those who have the benefit of the überinvestment of the nouveau owners of City or Paris Saint-Germain.
Because of that investment, this will be portrayed in some quarters as the beauty v the beast, with City the beastly big spenders. They are wide open for anyone who wants to take a shot at their balance sheet but, while Barcelona like to position themselves as a saintly institution, above the petty squabbles of lesser lights, they too are far from perfect.
They are as much a part of the old-money elite as the likes of Arsenal, Manchester United and Bayern, who benefited from decades of guaranteed Champions League revenue that allowed them to lord it in their domestic leagues. The former Barça president, Sandro Rosell, was forced out over the investigation into how much he paid in the Neymar deal. Not to mention a European Commission investigation into the legislation that makes Barça one of four Spanish clubs with protected not-for-profit status.
It was that status that allowed Barcelona to pursue another former president, Joan Laporta, for losses incurred during his reign. And let’s not get started on the iniquitous television rights deal for Spanish football clubs.
This week is when the Champions League comes into its own, when it becomes the good old European Cup again, knockout ties with everything on the line. There are two marvellous games, pitting City and Arsenal against arguably the two best teams in the competition. Barcelona have a fearsome reputation, and one that some opposing players for English clubs have struggled with in the past. City just need to remind themselves that they are not Rayo Vallecano.
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