Tomorrow we bear witness to perhaps the most anticipated Clasico of the millennium, quite simply because of what is at stake. The best club side in recent memory meets a rival that hopes to finally lay claim to the very superlative it hasn’t relished since the first Galactico era, “World’s Best Team,” a side which hopes to do so in vindictive fashion.
Behind the scenes a philosopher and a mad genius are plotting and planning. Neither will be content with anything less than unequivocal victory. On one hand, Madrid move forward six points (with a game in hand), tightening their stranglehold on the league. On the other, Barca closes the gap and start their meteoric rise to a fourth successive crown. (We’ll ignore the possibility of a tie – since we’re hyperbolic like that – and assume that the match ends in a brilliant victory one way or the other.)
But today we’re donning our Nostradamus beards and looking past tomorrow’s match in Madrid. We wonder, quite broadly: what will it take to displace the Blaugrana at the top of the global heap? When will the Age of the Catalans officially end? And how will we know when that’s happened?
Eric: The two options here seem so obvious that I hope the others don’t steal them first; Barcelona can either go out with a bang or a whimper.
The bang would be to be dethroned; cast from the top of the world by a new king of the mountain, who they themselves scramble back up to defeat only to find it impossible. This year, only Madrid seem like they may be able to do that; next year, who knows, it may be Madrid and Manchester City. They may not necessarily prove better than Barcelona – surely we won’t be treated to two top 5 club sides in history at the same time – but they can beat Barcelona, and that’s what really matters.
The whimper is to fade out, slow up, find that there is a flaw in the Incredible Machine. Whether it be that Thiago is not actually Xavi or a Messi injury that saps just enough of his speed to turn him into merely the best player of our era or the unbolstered defense gives way under the demands of having to always win every competition they enter. This will be signified by a defeat to a side in a lesser battle, to a Napoli who absorbs waves of pressure and gets a goal off a set piece or a Bayern who exploits space on the flanks to provide easy chances for Gomez or an Arsenal who…nah, never mind that one.
As for how we’ll know; it almost certainly won’t be a defeat to Madrid, and if it is, we’ll only recognize it well after the fact. If Madrid wins the league, the cup, and Europe this year, defeating Barcelona in each, we will still say there is next year, that they will figure it out. If they don’t, then we’ll be able to pinpoint the first day they looked vulnerable, perhaps even during tomorrow’s game.
Adams: The best word I can summon to describe the downfall of Barcelona is ennui. Quite simply, the Catalans will grow bored of their brilliant routine. I don’t imagine it’s easy for this group of players to perform the way they do each matchweek (except Xavi, genius is automatic for him). Their style of play, which is highly cerebral, requires a deal of imaginative effort to pull off effectively. For the past few years, that hasn’t been a problem, mostly because the tiki-taka style is relatively new and engaging. Play ping-pong keep away for a few minutes, combine for an inspired sequence of passes into the box, and tap in for another manita. But even creativity can become wearisome, and that will become apparent in the next couple of years.
What drives these players is the prospect of breaking records and making history. That is, winning more trophies than any side before. Once their quota’s met, they won’t have the enterprise to maintain that form.
What I mean to say is, only Barcelona can topple Barcelona. No system has proven consistent enough to beat them (and only the high pressure, counter attacking styles employed by Madrid and Valencia recently have been blessed with any luck). Like an aging rock band tired of playing classics, the fabric of success will rip from the inside. Their downfall will be their own doing.
Wes: I’m going to references Brian Phillips’ great piece “The Long Autumn of Roger Federer” as the keystone for my argument. Let’s face it, a team as good as Barcelona can (in lots of ways) be held up next to a fantastic individual athlete like Federer. Even with Messi there, I think we can all agree that he isn’t bigger than Barca. They are one, linked over the four years of Pep’s tenure: elegant, powerful, unstoppable. As such, I expect them to fade in the same way Roger Federer is currently fading, just modified to the scale of soccer.
Which is to say, they will continue to be a great time for a while, even as the carousel of characters begins to finish it’s rotation. They should win another UCL this year, and they may win one or two more over the next five (that’s really not too drastic, right?). They will continue to win the lesser tournaments (the Copa Del Rey, La Liga, the Club World Cup) with modest frequency. The difference will be this–with every passing year (over the next five), it’ll be clearer that the Barcelona you are seeing then is not quite the same as the Barcelona you watched in 2010. The differences will be subtle at first, and gradual: Messi may lose a step; Xavi and Puyol will retire; Fabregas’ hair will get so long he’ll trip over it constantly. But, like old age, one morning you’ll wake up and realize that Barca aren’t capable of winning a championship that year.
Then the cycle repeats itself.