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The highlight of the international break is the call-up and first caps for new Spanish star Marc Cucurella. He deserves it. Back at home, we review the intake of this year’s youth candidates. As promised, it’s a highly promising clutch of prospects. Patrick Kluivert, our Head of Youth Development, waxes lyrical about Amara Kelepliy, a 15 year old winger who stands at 5’ 2” but already comes in with a sharp suite of technical merits. There are the two players called Roger, one an attacking midfielder, the other a very fast right-back. Oscar and Nissim Weiss have the capacity to become central midfielders for us in the future. The latter is English and seems to have a smart reading of the game. It looks to me as though Barca knows how to source good young talent.
By the time we come to April Fool’s Day and a home game against Valencia, I can call on a full squad once again. Messi and Bellerin, who have both just returned from lengthy injury lay-offs, need to be used sparingly, but I expect to play them increasingly as the number of matches and the sheer tension develops. Of course, we can’t expect to keep the situation as it is forever. Frenkie de Jong lasts around twenty-five minutes before going down with a twisted ankle and four weeks when he will be out of action. Otherwise, we’re good enough to put down a spirited Valencia team. Despite squandering the chances, we produce for a 2-0 win. Antoine Griezmann scores early in the game, and then much, much later, as the visitors chase an equaliser, Bennacer provides the assist that Ousmane Dembele hits first time to beat the keeper. This is an important victory, against a side designed to challenge for the title. There are now eighteen points between us, which should be enough to kill off their pretensions.
Things get harder still as we travel back to my old haunt of Serie A and Internazionale. Now managed by Ernesto Valverde, the Nerazzurri are tucked neatly into third place, a bit distant of challenging Napoli and Juve for the top of the table but in their own way highly potent. Valverde has spent a lot of money to enhance his already pretty good ranks. After drafting in Gio Wijnaldum from ourselves, he has added Spurs’ Ryan Sessegnon on loan and plays him on the opposite flank to Kingsley Coman, a winger I really like who was signed for £39.5 million from Bayern. Midfield has been strengthened considerably by the acquisition of Ruben Neves, costing £68 million from Wolves. With the likes of Lukaku, Tagliafico, De Vries, Sensi, El Shaarawy, and intrepid right-back Achraf Hakimi all present and correct, they’re a stiff challenge, which they go on to prove by beating us 1-0 at the Giuseppe Meazza. For long, long swathes it looks for all the world as though this will dribble out to a 0-0 result. The home team have the lion’s share of the scoring opportunities but Lukaku plays indecisively, Torres stopping the bulky striker from putting his anatomy in the way to divert assisted balls into the net. There isn’t much to us. Fati, Kane and Griezmann do little, and even Messi is marginalised by stuff Inter defending. In injury time, they finally get the breakthrough when a typical Hakimi maraud deep into our half leads to the cross that Stefano Sensi slams home for the winner.
1-0 isn’t a disastrous result to take back to the Camp Nou, but our toothlessness in attack is a concern. The Barca board expects, and going out of the Champions League at the Quarter-Final stage would be viewed as an aberration. Winning La Liga might save my bacon, but I’d prefer to avoid any further black marks beyond the criminally juicy contract I handed to Sam Umtiti, and to pile on the pressure we are taking on Real Madrid at the weekend.
This one is considered to be nothing short of a title decider. Win this and I think we will have widened the gap to almost insurmountable proportions. Lose and they come roaring back, and gain the satisfaction of having done the Classico double over us. I still smart from the defeat they handed to us back in the season’s early stages. It’s our only reverse in La Liga. I don’t like losing, not ever, and especially not to the preening jackanapes from the capital.
To everyone’s surprise, Maurizio Sarri orders his talented side to play a game of containment, expecting a rush of Barca pressure and attempting to halt us while stinging on the counter. The Camp Nou is a vast wall of noise, 103,700 attending on a gusty spring evening, a mass of expectation. We have to deliver, tearing into the opposition from the start and getting our reward in the seventeenth minute when Bennacer’s corner kick is headed viciously towards goal by Milan Skriniar. The effort is so powerful that Thibault Courtois can only palm the ball into his own net. In the second half, another corner is converted by Pau Torres’s header, and Real are undone. It surprises me that for all our good play, which we produce with nine shots on target, it’s set pieces that win the day. Griezmann is excellent as Messi is rested for the Inter return. Fati has one of his more exciting displays on the left. Real feel that if they stop Kane then they do the same to us, which isn’t true as we can score from various positions. Just as importantly, we restrict them from inflicting any punishment on Ter Stegen’s goal. The white shirts amass two shots during the entire game, an exercise in shutting the door on them. And with that a considerable hoodoo is broken.
In midweek, Inter bring the same spirit of halting our attacking elan to Catalonia and set out to defend their slim lead. I pick what I consider to be just about our best eleven, and watch as we pile into the Milanese visitors. We’re at our absolute best in defence, specifically in defensive midfield where Florentino Luis provides a masterclass in halting Inter attacks and sparking moves of our own. It takes us a while to get back on terms. In the fiftieth minute, as my fingernails fall victim to the tension, Luis fires a long ball that picks out Ansu Fati. The winger evades Hakimi and shoots a virtuous volley that beats Handanovic at his far corner. Lovely. Messi and Fati have two further efforts ruled out by VAR, both fairly, before substitute Tammy Abraham finally produces the game’s decisive moment. A Messi corner is headed towards goal by Skriniar. His shot clatters off the crossbar, but the Englishman is there and has to do nothing more than poke the ball over the line. It’s a win, claimed more closely than I would like but a win all the same.
In the Semi-Final we will almost inevitably come across Real Madrid once again. The Quarter-Final against Paris Saint-Germain is a pair of 3-1 results, the two sides using home advantage to their benefits and cancelling each other out. In the end penalties decide it. The French go home after Joao Cancelo’s climactic spot-kick is saved by Courtois. This sets up a clash with our bitter rivals that guarantees five matches against them this season. They’re up next, at the Camp Nou in the Spanish Cup Final.
We welcome Sarri’s Real in a Catalan rain shower, admiring the way they line up with a wall of defensive midfielders featuring Toni Kroos, Casemiro and Antonio Blanco. What they intend to do here is clear enough, Torres and Pique reminded to be mindful that Brenner is a considerable threat for the opposition. It isn’t a problem. As we pass through them ill discipline takes over for Real and when Ramos thugs Coutinho over in their box we have a thirty-first minute penalty. Harrington Kane takes it, not the guaranteed converter that I hope he would be, but he makes no mistake in sending Courtois the wrong way. Just before half-time, Coutinho fires a free-kick into the penalty area, where the terrific Ilaix Moriba beats the keeper with a header. Things get worse for Real in the second half. Sarri’s calls for passion are misheard through a fog of nicotine when Kroos piles into Dembele and earns himself a straight red card. We know we have won by this stage. Very late on, Bennacer collects Griezmann’s cross and cues the ball for Coutinho who both drives the ball home and collects the match ball. The Spanish Cup is ours, a thirty-second triumph in the competition.
Yet another banana skin awaits in midweek as we make the short journey to Estadio Cornella-El Prat to face Espanyol. The ‘other’ Catalan side can’t touch us in the league, but derbies contain risks of their own and they are very competently managed by Age Hareide. A 69 year old Norwegian who has picked Espanyol as his first non-Scandinavian assignment, the veteran manager was in charge of Denmark before coming here and picks a good side featuring striker Raul de Tomas and Sergi Darder in midfield. We come into this one feeling the weight of all those big matches. Messi starts, because I think it’s important to use someone who appreciates the merit of winning the Catalan Derby. Sergio Busquets captains, for much the same reason.
For much of the game it looks as though this isn’t going to go our way. The home side are ahead after the nineteenth minute, when Yanatan Cohen converts from de Tomas’s cross. It’s a nadir moment for Cucurella, whose job it is the mark the winger and instead falls over on the wet turf as Cohen gives him the slip. We move into attack mode, bringing on Coutinho and Griezmann for Fati and Kane, who aren’t making much of an impression. The former has his moment when Cabrera challenges him clumsily to gift us a seventy-eighth minute penalty. Lionel Messi converts. Later still, Messi lays the ball off the Antoine Griezmann in the area, who evades the luckless Cabrera and finds the net from close range. It’s a deserved win, a contest we have dominated, and a victory for our fighting spirit. Barca simply refuses to accept defeat here, battling until the final whistle, and in Messi we are fortunate enough to have an absolute winner who personifies everything about us that’s good.
First plays last at the weekend, as we venture deep into the Basque Country and Eibar. At last, a straightforward contest, one in which I can pick an eleven of back-ups – Umtiti gets the call – and save my best players for Real in the Champions League. The one starter who gets the nod is Ismael Bennacer, who is of course the injury victim here, collapsing to a rough tackle that twists his ankle and removes him from the contest for three weeks. This is bad. Bennacer has emerged as a potent deep lying playmaker for us, someone on whom we can depend, and now he’s gone. Not that his absence makes things much easier for Eibar. We score six unanswered goals, two apiece from Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele, and best of all a brace for Tammy Abraham, who announces himself in predatory fashion and defies the beleaguered home team with his pace and shooting élan.
On to another clash with Real Madrid, the first leg played at home within a tie that must have the schedulers rubbing their hands with glee. If we played no one but Real, an endless cycle of head to heads, then they would probably be delighted. In the other half of the Champions League Semi-Final draw, it’s an equally embittered rivalry as Manchester United take on Liverpool. Spoiler alert – Liverpool win.
The first leg is to be played at home, and we come up with a fine 2-0 victory to give us an advantage. Pedro and a rare Florentino Luiz shot that fires through a sea of legs on its way to the back of the net do the business. In truth it’s all over by the end of the first half, Varane’s reply on the hour mark ruled out for offside representing their best opportunity. We’re imperious, especially at the back, as Brenner and Luka Jovic fail to find a way through.
A frantic April concludes with the visit of Villarreal. Even after this there are seven league games remaining, and the season is now feeling very long and absolutely gruelling. Thank goodness for a good squad. Abraham, Dembele and Riqui Puig makes our starting line-up, and then it all seems to go wrong when Yeremi Pino puts them in front straight from kick-off. It’s a horrible one to concede. The blame lies with Gerard Pique, who is starting to look very old and not so quick as he is unable to keep up with the marauding winger.
The visitors’ advantage forces us to move into the attack, producing a blizzard of shots that Villarreal are forced backwards to defend, DM Mattia Zaccagni emerging with real credit as he breaks things up with skill and concentration. But he’s one man, and he isn’t enough. By the end, Tammy Abraham has bagged a hat-trick, a brilliant personal display that makes his £21.5 million price tag look cheap indeed. Pau Torres heads in from a corner as we go on to record an important 4-1 victory. Over in Madrid, Real won’t give up, so wins like this one might look routine but are absolutely vital to the cause.
As it happens, our 4-1 against the Yellow Submarine coincides with a 2-0 reverse for the Madrid giants at Athletic Bilbao, which puts us thirteen points clear in the league. There are twenty-one still to play for. It isn’t over, but by now I feel that we would need to collapse completely to cough up the title. Surely it won’t happen.