Last month in San Siro, FC Barcelona were outclassed by AC Milan. That hadn’t happened to Blaugrana – against anyone – really since Pep Guardiola took control at the (more than a) club in 2008. Since that 2-0 reverse, though, Barca have been dismissed twice by Real Madrid – in La Liga and the Copa del Rey. They have already won the league but, unless they can turn this Champions League deficit around, their season will be effectively over. In early March.
We may be tempted to label this state of affairs critical. Doing so, however, would be to invite a series of inarguable counter-facts. The first of these being, of course, that insurmountable Liga lead: 13 points, currently, with eleven games remaining. If that’s a crisis, then it is a deeply tolerable one. To the objection that they have become overly reliant on Lionel Messi and that the Argentinean, after years of consecutive football, has fallen short of his own unprecedented standards, a laughable scale of responses is available. You have to go back 120 days to find the last Barcelona league game in which he didn’t score; he has 27 goals in his last 17 Liga games. Other teams would love a crisis that stable.
Barcelona’s problems, indeed, are tempered further by the managerial situation. Having suffered a relapse of the cancer of the parotid gland that first affected him in 2011, Tito Villanova has been receiving treatment away from Barcelona since the end of the year. Jordi Roura – regularly head opposition scout – has acted as interim coach in his absence and, the defeats to Milan and Madrid would suggest, has struggled to lead the side through fixtures at the absolutely highest level.
To roll a man’s fight against cancer into a club in CRISIS narrative seems, though, distasteful. "Tito's health is the most important thing", said club president Sandro Rossell recently: "everything else is secondary. Tito is our coach, nobody else. We are not going to move anyone, even if it means winning nothing. For us, a good season is Tito making a full recovery". And he’s right; whatever Bill Shankly may have said, football is not as important as life, or death.
So the solution to the problem is semantic, and psychological. Barcelona are not, of course, IN CRISIS. But their situation is relatively critical - even if there are mitigating circumstances governing their difficulties. We need a psychological state that renders us capable of acknowledging this sort-of-contradictory state of affairs. Just as smoking both kills you, and makes you look cool, Barcelona are both struggling and cruising. They, like any and every football club (they’re not unique here), exist at all times on a spectrum between CRISIS and glory and, right now, are further to the left than usual.
And so we need a vocabulary that reflects this; that’s why I want to describe Barcelona as in crIsIS: because while things could be better, they could also be worse. Tonight, they have a change to lower-case some of those capitals – perhaps even all of them. But, such is the peculiarity of their situation, that even if they lose it can’t actually get worse. They will still win the league; Messi will still score loads of goals: that is a tolerable crIsIS.