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Football Reporting


Barcelona didn’t just find a way to win in improbable Copa del Rey comeback, they found themselves

Ronald Koeman described the Copa del Rey as the shortest route to a trophy for a team that, he admitted, “isn’t in a position to win much,” and yet by a little before 11 o’clock on Wednesday night, even that looked like a very, very long way away. They had kept going, but everywhere they turned they found the road blocked, no way through. The ball bounced off the post, off the bar and off Aaron Escandell, shots coming from everywhere and going every which way but in as time, and another title, slipped away.

“It seemed like we were going to lose…” the Barcelona manager said afterwards.

“… but no.”

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There were two minutes to go in their quarterfinal and Barcelona were losing 2-0 against Granada. They had racked up 30 shots, but the only ones that landed were the ones they aimed at their own foot. It was over.

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And then, suddenly, it wasn’t.

Lionel Messi’s long, deep ball dropped into the area on the left, Antoine Griezmann dived forward and, somehow, diverted it into the net. Next Messi hit the post and then, in added time, it happened again. The same pass from Messi, the same movement from Griezmann, the same position, the same outcome. This time, he headed it back across the six-yard box for Jordi Alba to score the equaliser.

From two down with two minutes left, it was 2-2 and heading to extra time — although only because Granada’s Luis Suarez shot wide on 93 minutes and 40 seconds. There, Barcelona went 3-2 up, Granada made it 3-3, and then Barcelona scored two more. Final score, Granada 3, Barcelona 5 (after extra time). By the end, they were as exhausted as they were elated. The players embraced, albeit not as tightly as they had after the second goal, when the players had piled up in the corner.

They had deserved it, too. The shock, really, was not that Barcelona had won it, but that they won it the way they did. That they had to win it the way they did. Barcelona had taken 18 corners, Granada none. They had played more than a thousand passes, Granada less than 300. They had 79% of possession. The shot count read 7-36. Barcelona had 20 on target, Granada just four. Three of those went in.

Messi alone had a direct hand in 20 shots on goal, either taking them or providing the pass for others to do so. Alba scored twice, offering more evidence of the Alba Conundrum: a problem sometimes, yet still so, so far ahead of anyone else on the left and entirely irreplaceable. Frenkie de Jong is everywhere. Pedri is silk. And Griezmann, as one paper put it, “came dressed as Superman,” which is considerably better than some of the things he’s come dressed as in the past.

It’s not the first time this month, either. At Huesca, left out of the team, Griezmann lingered alone in one corner of the ground while the rest warmed up, standing there looking forlorn alongside an exit sign — a photo metaphor so blunt, a subtle message so unsubtle, that you could be forgiven for wondering if he had even done it deliberately. A month on, that look has gone, replaced with a huge smile, a sense of purpose and validity.

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“With the confidence of the manager and my teammates, everything is easier,” he says. With a position it is, too: at last, Griezmann seems to be making the left-side role his own, out of the way but not too far out, no longer an obstacle for Messi, but an accomplice. Against Granada, Messi played 15 passes his way, including the two that rescued them. With six goals and five assists this month, Griezmann might well be the best player in Spain in January.

If not him, then maybe Messi is. Of course. Or maybe De Jong — that’s four goals and two assists from him over the past month. Meanwhile at the back, Ronald Araujo has, in Gerard Pique’s words, shown signs of being Barcelona’s centre-back “for the next 10 or 15 years.”

All around them, players seem to be falling into place. Partly by planning, partly by trial and error, partly by obstinacy and opportunism (a much underrated quality in a footballer), partly by changing plans (a much underrated quality in a manager), yes, but it’s happening. Sergio Busquets has found his feet and slowly seems to see something resembling a structure around him. Ousmane Dembele is finding a role, his teammates won over. Pedri is special. De Jong has license to roam in midfield, yet is also increasingly trusted to use that freedom well.

It’s not perfect, no — far from it — but it fits. It is starting to look like it makes sense; it feels more or less rational, about right. The wide spaces are closing, a structure emerging in their place. Koeman says they’re not in a position to win much, and he’s right, not least because they’re so far behind (especially in La Liga). But could they actually be… quite good? And with everything that’s happened — everything that’s still happening — that alone is something.

Since the turn of the year, Barcelona have only lost once — in extra-time in the Spanish Super Cup final against Athletic Bilbao. They had beaten Real Sociedad in the semifinal. They have won five in a row in the league. They have won three in a row in the Copa del Rey. This is not yet reason to declare a full revival and recovery, of course — still less a revolution. At the back they still look mostly dreadful, apart from Araujo. In La Liga, they have beaten Athletic twice, Elche, Granada and Huesca. Teams they should beat. Huesca was only 1-0. Elche was 2-0, the second goal coming in the final minute. Against Athletic, Griezmann got the winner 15 minutes from the end.

That Super Cup win over Real Sociedad was on penalties.

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In the Cup, they needed extra-time against Segunda B Cornella. Against Second Division Rayo Vallecano, they had to come from a goal down to win 2-1. And on Wednesday night, they needed another comeback, and more extra-time, to get past Granada.

Yet maybe that’s a good thing. It wasn’t that they won — again — or even that victory confirmed an upward trend; it was how they won. “Bestial!” Sport called it. “Heroic,” El Mundo Deportivo said; this was a “mad and epic” Barcelona. It wasn’t that they played well, which they mostly did, it was that they played, that they rebelled. Soon after Granada’s second goal, it had seemed over and it seemed like Barcelona knew that. The introduction of Ricard Puig with 15 minutes to go though seemed to be part of (and maybe the spark for) a collective reawakening, accelerating everything. It was chaotic, everyone everywhere but they were fighting for their life, not just giving up. And they were in it together.

It wasn’t so much the quality that mattered — although there was plenty of that, and there always has been — as the character, which there hasn’t always been. “The thing you have to highlight is the mentality,” Koeman said. He talked about great physical and mental work. Martin Braithwaite and Marc-Andre ter Stegen both tweeted about the spirit of the side.

That spirit alone doesn’t see them through, but it helps. And it self-perpetuates too. Had Barcelona swum and swum only to die on the shore, as the Spanish phrase has it, it might have destroyed them. Fatalism might have flooded in. But, like Brody and Hooper, they made it. They had survived, stronger now, forever bound by that. And that matters, confirming and cementing something already in construction, an emerging relationship reinforced. Fraternity forged in the fight, brothers in arms.

OK, that may be too strong. But there’s something in it, something to buy into and hold onto, even if it is only a storyline as a lifeline. As the former Barcelona striker Bojan Krkic put it: “Winning like this is an injection of morale and optimism, basic sustenance for a dressing room that today is more united than ever because in a moment of great adversity they came together, recovered and confirmed the growth you could already sense, and at this key stage of the season.”

Pieces had been falling into place, but maybe this was the one that still had to fall and they badly needed. Emotional emulsion. Maybe it could only drop like this, maybe it could only come as they stood on the edge together. It might be a leap, sure, wishful thinking maybe, overplayed perhaps, but this felt like the start of something, a shift.

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On Wednesday night, Barcelona turned around a 2-0 deficit to win 5-3, living to fight another day. They found a path into the semifinal of the Copa del Rey (where they’ll meet Sevilla on Wednesday at 2:55 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+), the shortest route to a trophy shortening, but what matters more is that they might just have found something even more significant: a team.

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