Messi watches his team from afar. He doesn't move much. He appears to be just standing there, walking, but he is judging the course of things. As always though, the game comes to him. In this one against Espanyol, he is watching Neymar run up the field, coming right at him actually, in a suicidal hurry. Messi knows how to help. If he darts across the Espanyol back line, he’ll open a channel for Neymar to run through. He knows how to create space. Neymar nears and Messi goes, but the Brazilian doesn’t wait for Messi to paint the picture. He doesn't see the space Messi is building. He is 25 yards out, and he shoots. Messi is still running across. The ball hits him and goes harmlessly wide.
It is very schizo.
One of Messi’s greatest traits is his temperament. It's a look at Neymar, a shrug, nothing more. He has the prespective of buddha and the firepower of Jehovah. He is the strong, silent type. Take the issue of diving/simulation. When guys like Neymar and a bunch of others are touched, they drop to the ground and cry. Messi's histrionics come during the run of play, not when he cheats his way through. But maybe it's that he doesn't want to be seen rolling around on the ground, crying like a bitch. Maybe he doesn't want to insult the intelligence of millions of people. Players who dive are driven by competition, but they are missing spirit. We see far too much actual violence to make their lies effective. These players might fool referees, but they don’t fool people.
Messi, if for no other reason, is special because he doesn't do any of that crap.
He's there to play.
He's there to stay up.
Back to the game -- against the run of play, Espanyol scores first.
Nine minutes of attacking, and then Barca’s Dani Alves loses the ball.
It’s a two-on-two in a lot of space.
The Espanyol duo, Caicedo and Asensio, finish.
Barca lay on the table dissected.
Messi comes to put them back together as he always does when the team is on the fritz, when there is only one pair of footsteps in the sand, when it's the shit-times. Despite his aloofness, he does care. He is watching, and when you are in need, he will intervene on your behalf.
A few minutes later, Suarez picks up a loose ball on Espanyol’s right side. He tries a cross that hits a defender’s elbow, just inside the penalty box. No call — it could have gone either way. Play continues and Suarez is livid. He’s screaming for a penalty. If he can’t have justice, he won’t play. Meanwhile, Barca collect the ball and play continues.
Suarez is a knuckle-head. Messi has to step in.
Andrés Iniesta, a long-time priest of Messi's, is on the ball and sees Messi's run. Angles and timing are important here. There are a few defenders that will need to be navigated. Like a putt in golf, there is a channel the ball must be put through and a correct speed to do it at. Iniesta plays through these channels as well as anyone.
Messi slices off the head.
Is there a punishment for Suarez?
Not from Messi. He does not punish players.
He does it without them.
You are not shunned.
You are not thought less of.
You are still in the flock.
Messi loves you.
That never changes.
Barca continue to attack, and all is right until Espanyol start playing bush league. They see no way to win if they play it straight. Messi and his team are more talented, so Espanyol will try to win through intimidation. To beat that, Barca has to see through the charade and remain cool, not easy when you're being harassed.
In the 20th minute, Espanyol chops down Ardan Turan. They get Neymar in the same, then get him again in the 24th. The second time Neymar goes to the ground, he acts like they shot him in the leg. He's screaming and holding his calf. The incident happened in the box. He's being a diva, and the referee is not fooled. As the ball goes up the field, Espanyol's defenders stand over the Brazilian and taunt him as he cries and rolls around on the ground.
Meanwhile, Caicedo, Espanyol’s goalscorer, a lumbering and aggressive Ecuadorian, is being a punk. He's wreaking havoc on Barca’s outside backs. He’s alone up front and chasing after each of Barca’s passes. By the time the ball sweeps around to the outside back, Caicedo is full-steam, ready to burst, and he slides and crashes into the player. He does it once to Jordi Alba, who jumps over him, avoids contact, but flips himself in mid-air, falls to the ground, then starts to fake being injured. To be honest, he whacked his head after he flipped himself. He probably is hurt.
Caicedo finds a new way to be a pest. At about a half-hour in, he comes down with a mysterious injury that he goes to ground for. The game has to stop and the Espanyol medical crew comes out. Caicedo is laying on his back, rubbing his legs. He covers his face with his arm. The med guy squirts water on his leg. There's nothing wrong with him. It’s time-wasting. The Barca players call him on it immediately.
All over the field, the players start arguing.
They want to win.
I want to play.
When the game starts again, Messi restores order. He receives the ball in his normal spot on the right wing and immediately occupies five Espanyol defenders. Two players cover passes, three engage, and though Messi has to pass the ball, he effortlessly skins a guy before doing it. And that's a reminder for those out there who think their bullshit holds sway on the field. Intimidate, cheat, it doesn't matter. Eventually, you have to play the game, and that's where Messi waits, that's where he beats you. The simplicity in how he does it shows he's special.
But skinning a guy like that heats up a game if it already has this much tension. Eventually, the ball falls harmlessly to Espanyol’s goalkeeper, who controls it, but doesn’t pick it up. He’s letting more time run off. It's still the first half, and Espanyol already are trying to kill the game. Suarez sprints at him, now the keeper picks it up. Suarez gets close to him, too close, he can't stop. The goalkeeper lowers his shoulder then swipes up at him -- his shoulder going for the jaw. Suarez swerves around it.
No such luck for Iniesta a minute later. At midfield, his legs are taken out from under him. Play goes on. Messi receives a pass about 40 yards out. He skirts around the first defender, lays it off to a teammate, then runs towards the goal for a return pass. Before he can get it, the defender and Messi collide and Messi goes down.
Did he go down too easily?
Did he plan the collision?
Does he dive as perfectly as he plays, and nobody can tell?
Don’t question gods.
If you bring them down, you are always punished.
As Barca set up their free kick, Messi and Neymar stand over the ball.
Neymar is the one who prepares it.
Messi doesn't touch the ball. He stands alone, thinking.
His players have sinned.
They've faked injuries.
They've been lured into petty arguments with chippy bush leaguers.
They have walked onto land that is harsh and dangerous.
He must keep their roots in the stream.
Neymar is on one knee whispering to the ball, fluffing up the grass underneath it, brushing off anything stuck to it. He is a key member of the flock, humble and pious. He knows that he is strong, but knows Messi is stronger and he finds comfort in that.
The whistle blows.
One more look at the goal.
Then back to the ball.
Messi squints a little more.
The ball turns into a flaming rock of sulfur.
He hits it.
It hits the underside of the crossbar.
The energy has to come out somehow. Messi runs and screams. The whole spectacle becomes fuel for everyone else to burn on.
When he reaches the sideline, he stops.
His people love him.
You don't have to be a god to make everyone think you are.
Barca go on to win easily, 4-1.