BARCELONA—Talk about a tease.
In the space of a week FC Barcelona have, like a long-time crush, turned its head and offered a quick, enticing smile before flirtatiously spinning back around, providing its admirer the back of its head for projections of interest, affection and even a love that is as hopeful as it is unrequited.
A week ago (it now seems so long ago) the Catalan giants delivered one of their best performances of the season, shellacking Levante 5-0 at Camp Nou in a display that showcased the very best of both Neymar and Lionel Messi and featured, for good measure, a spectacular bicycle-kick from second-half substitute Luis Suarez.
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The victory—Barca’s 11th in a row—returned them to serious contention in La Liga and drew an exultant response not only from the fans inside the stadium but also from the local press, which quickly forgot the January debacle at Real Sociedad and the administrative turmoil that followed the Anoeta defeat.
Love can do that, especially the one-sided kind. It can paint an idyllic, fantastical reality because its plans are being drawn by the projector, without a contribution from the object of its desire. And the future it imagines, as Spanish novelist Javier Marias explains in “A Heart So White,” seems always attainable because it is, and remains, unrealized and pursued.
There are moments, however, when the futility of it all arrives like a hard landing after a long fall and provides a shock to the system. Saturday was one of those moments.
Decorated with confidence and swagger the Barcelona players emerged from the tunnel and quickly set about probing Malaga’s defence. But in the seventh minute a wayward ball from right-back Dani Alves put Juanmi through to score for the guests and, rightfully stunned, the Blaugrana struggled to impose themselves.
Rafinha quite nearly restored level terms with a shot to the far corner blocked well by the perfectly-stationed Weligton, but they would come no closer to breaching a determined opponent described post-match by Sergio Busquets as “two banks of four” and “very focused.”
At the final whistle Barcelona had been kept off the score-sheet for the first time since San Sebastian—before the run of wins that culminated with that 5-0 win at home to Levante and inspired the wishful talk of titles and trebles.
“We found it difficult to make chances,” analysed Luis Enrique, the much-scrutinized manager who had suddenly seemed to emerge from former boss Pep Guardiola’s shadow just six days prior. “There was disorganization. Order is basic to win games.”
And it will be vital if Barca is to see off Manchester City in the next round of the Champions League.
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Its restoration could well require the reinsertion of Xavi Hernandez to the starting lineup and, for that matter, a duplication of the team that so beguiled its supporters a week ago. The Malaga loss, if anything, might have at least picked Enrique’s next XI for him.
Pedro—so industrious against Levante—will almost certainly play from the start at Etihad Stadium; ditto Javier Mascherano and Martin Montoya, the latter of whom can expect regular minutes following Dani Alves’ latest faux pas.
But what of the future? Of the plans that so recently seemed so promising and so nearly at hand? It’s impossible to know.
This Barcelona team has a mind of its own, unpredictable and flattering to deceive. And all its admirers can do is continue to look with brooding eyes, awaiting the next turn of the head and inviting smile. And the next.
Jerrad Peters is a Winnipeg-based writer. Follow him on Twitter