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Another English Club Cracks Under Barcelona’s Pressure

October 19, 2016 8:51 PM
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BARCELONA, Spain — Claudio Bravo is not alone. He would have felt that way, of course, as he trudged off the field at Camp Nou, disconsolate and deaf to the warm ovation afforded him by Barcelona’s fans. He certainly felt that way in the locker room as the dust cleared on Manchester City’s humbling 4-0 defeat and even his manager, Pep Guardiola, acknowledged that Bravo, City’s goalkeeper, was “sad.”

Perhaps, in time, it will be of solace, though, to know that others have gone before and that more still will come after. It is starting to feel something like an unwanted, unavoidable tradition: Whenever an emissary of the Premier League meets Barcelona, sooner or later, a player is getting sent off.

Numbers swirl around this great Barcelona team. They came thick and fast in Catalonia on Wednesday night: four goals without reply, a deeply unhappy homecoming for Guardiola; a 38th career hat trick for Lionel Messi; an 18th straight home win for Barça in the Champions League.

That is just the start. The really eye-watering figures are longer term. Luis Suárez made his competitive debut for Barcelona on Oct. 25, 2014 — just less than two years ago. Since then, Suárez, Messi and the third member of the club’s attacking trident, Neymar, have scored 281 goals among them. Messi’s three and Neymar’s one on Wednesday mean they have 103 this year alone.

“If they get close to your box, they punish you,” Guardiola said. (And they always do.)

If those bare statistics demonstrate the devastating scale of Barcelona’s brilliance, there is another one — less immediately arresting — that does much to illustrate the effect of it on the team’s opponents.

In the nearly seven years since January 2010, Barcelona has faced English teams six times, excluding finals. Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City have all crossed its path in that time, either in the Champions League group stage or in the knockout rounds. Only one team — Arsenal, last season — has managed to play Barcelona for 180 minutes and not pick up a red card somewhere along the way.

Each sending-off is different, of course. Robin van Persie’s dismissal for Arsenal in 2010 — he picked up a second yellow card after kicking the ball away after a marginal offside call — was almost comically harsh. John Terry’s, a year later, was just comical: Terry, Chelsea’s captain, steered his knee into Alexis Sanchez’s back, with neither the ball nor an explanation immediately at hand.

City, meanwhile, has now had four players sent off against Barcelona in five meetings. Gaël Clichy, Pablo Zabaleta and the now-departed Martín Demichelis will all know how Bravo felt Wednesday.

His red card, at least, was for an honest error. Guardiola and City had acquired Bravo over the summer because of his playmaking ability: A goalkeeper capable of building attacks, of retaining possession, is central to Guardiola’s nonnegotiable style. He accepts that, occasionally, it comes at a price; on Wednesday, it was a heavy one.

For 53 minutes, City had delivered on Guardiola’s promise to go toe to toe with Barcelona. Messi had given his team a slender advantage, thanks to an unfortunate slip in his own penalty area by Fernandinho, but there was little separating the two teams. Both created chances. Both pushed forward.

And then Bravo rushed from his penalty area to intercept a long ball, aiming to send a short, simple pass to one of his teammates. He misjudged it. The ball fell to Suárez, who tried to lift a shot over him. Bravo’s instincts took over. He reached out both hands and blocked the ball while still well out of his box. He could muster only the most cursory of protests to his inevitable punishment.

The crowing was immediate. There are many in England who bridled at Guardiola’s willingness to sacrifice the national team’s first-choice goalkeeper, Joe Hart, for Bravo, and they welcomed Bravo’s mistake here not only as the moment that the game got away from City — a finely balanced contest soon turning into a rout — but also as proof that Guardiola, on this one, was wrong.

Focusing on the particular circumstances of the victim, though, is not nearly so worthwhile as examining the pattern as a whole. Worse, it distorts the very fact that there is a clear pattern: When confronted by Barcelona, English teams, almost without fail, will at some point lose their heads.

In some ways, of course, treating each case in isolation provides succor. Immediately after the game, Bravo suggested that such a heavy defeat was in some way unjust — “We were comfortable, and it was clear the game changed after the sending-off,” he said — as if the result were in some way invalidated by his dismissal. City can cling to the idea that if only Bravo had not been correctly punished for his offense, things might have been very different.

The frequency with which English teams suffer this fate, however, suggests that this is not simply a succession of unfortunate coincidences. No, it is more than that: It is an intrinsic consequence of facing Barcelona.

That the dismissals are not all for last-ditch tackles gone awry is telling, too. Red cards are not just handed out to defenders doing all they can to stop Suárez, Messi and Neymar running amok. They are picked up for all manner of offenses, as many of them failures of temperament — not least those by Terry and Bravo — as technical errors.

That is the effect of Barcelona, just as much as all of the goals picked up by that extraordinary trident. The relentless passing, the breathless hounding, the endless waves of attack demand complete focus from those hoping to keep Barcelona at bay.

The crushing pressure first highlights and then exposes any shortcoming at all. Even the most experienced players lose their nerve, do things they would not normally do. And in the end, at some point, somebody cracks.

Here, it was Bravo, just as it was van Persie, Terry, Demichelis and the others. It will be somebody else next time. That is what Barcelona does to teams, and to English teams, it seems, most of all.


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