Barcelona fans, after two or three years of horror-football, have returned in the last month to do something they had almost forgotten: enjoy their team. They have smiled again when they saw Barça. To get excited with their collective game and their goals. To get excited about a title.
Ronald Koeman, who took on the challenge of his life and came to do the impossible, has turned the season around. The Dutch coach arrived at the club in August to find a catastrophic scenario: a sunken giant in crisis, a flaming internal conflict, a depressed and battered crowd. A perverse president on the brink of resignation and a Messi who wanted, above all else, to leave the club and play wherever he went, but far from Catalonia.
A little over six months later, Barça is second in La Liga, three points behind Atlético and two ahead of Madrid, and they play the best football of the three. He also has a mental clean and jerk that seems to put him ahead of the fight for the championship. He is also a finalist in the Copa del Rey, which may be the Copa del Rey, but it is still a title.
The only stain, of course, great, indelible, is the defeat against PSG, which meant another chapter of a tragic novel of disappointment and misery in the Champions League. It was a cold blow for the club and the fans, increasingly used, more insensitive, to losing like this. But since then the team has grown, it has unequivocally improved, going back to Sevilla in the Cup, passing over PSG itself in Paris, and leaving the best game of the season in the win against Real Sociedad ten days ago.
The new system that Koeman found – a 3-5-2 with Messi and Dembélé up – has allowed the team to achieve results through good football. It took Barça time to reach this level, and it is logical. A new coach always needs time to adjust to the context, and the players to adjust to what the coach wants. Even more so if it is a change in the scheme, like the one Koeman implemented, and even more so if we are talking about a group of players that brought morale to the ground; that was preparing — surely — for a new season of rare joys.
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Today’s team, which enjoys and wins, in that order, which seems to play on skates, which found defensive strength and scored goals, is very different from the one that played the first leg against PSG. That fateful game, to the frustration of the Catalans fans, perhaps fell somewhat early in the season. If the game is repeated today, surely we would be talking about a very different result.
Sometimes it is easy to forget that Barça is rebuilding itself after having fallen into a very deep hole in the last two seasons. Reviving takes time. We cannot expect that, after hitting rock bottom just a semester ago, the team will suddenly flow and fly and begin to crush rivals and reach the semi-finals and Champions League finals as it did in better times. They have been almost five years of involution, decline and setback – surely it will take more than one season to see Barça again at the comfortable table of European giants.
It will be a long process, it must be carried out little by little, and at least Koeman is clear on that. He has been making adjustments, with patience, and already certain improvements are seen that are exciting. The emergence of Dest from the right (does anyone remember Sergi Roberto?), The consolidation of Araújo and Mingüeza in the first team (of which very little is said), the level of Pedri, the rebirth of Jordi Alba, the improvement by Dembélé. And the happiness of Messi, unleashed, as in his best days, that he has once again felt comfortable in a team that competes again, being part of a game system that is being built with and not for him.
This team is already better than Setien’s and Valverde’s, it’s clear. But more importantly, the process makes more sense, more promise, and more potential. There is young talent, there is hope, there is a project – what Messi got tired of asking Bartomeu’s deaf ears.
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Hopefully the board keeps Koeman for next season. Hopefully the pride and the political speeches do not flood everything; I hope the corporate antics that has characterized this club lately will evaporate. Hopefully there is not much talk about bringing Xavi, nor mention Håaland or Mbappé. Hopefully this team will be allowed to work with what it has, so that it adjusts to what Koeman wants and continues on the good path that leads to better football. Hopefully no major tweaks are made (the whole world knows that there is no money for it), and instead support work and development from within. For now, Koeman has shown himself capable for the position. The team, for its part, promises, has fire, has talent. And Messi, finally, is happy. Little by little.