Athletic Bilbao 0, Barca 3, aka “Going out in grand style”

Ultimately, there are no words. For the first time ever, I am sitting down to write with no notes, fresh off watching this amazing team play an amazing match for its amazing coach, for the last time. I work with words for a living — write them, edit them, make them sing in the voice of others, in my own voice.

But this club, this remarkable, beautiful club, leaves me utterly speechless.

I reckon that’s the danger of sitting down without notes, but more than any of the matches that I have on my DVR, or that I have recorded to DVD, I will watch this one over and over again, because it perfectly encapsulates the ethos, the quality, the style of this club, a way of being rooted in bravery and intramural challenge. Never, ever has this club and its players, in the four years under Pep Guardiola, stopped asking each other, “Can you?”

– Guardiola asks Mascherano to man-mark Llorente, solo, freeing up Pique for the attack.
– Iniesta positively spanks a pass to Messi, that he controls and roofs for the second goal.
– The close-quarter passing made it seem more like they had been practicing in a phone booth, rather than on a pitch
– Guardiola, on the sidelines, always demanding more

Poor Bilbao didn’t have a chance. For all of their amazing, amazing fans and remarkable effort that made the first half-hour of this match more track meet than football match, they didn’t have a chance. Because the best football club in the world was rested. All of those niggling injuries were dealt with, there was no fatigue, no next match, no nothing — and its players had something to prove, something to play for. On this night, no opponent would have had a chance.

Because for all of those extra reasons, the meaning with which this match was imbued for FCB, the Copa was a major, as major as they come for a club that wanted it for the man who, in asking them always, “Can you,” made them better than they ever knew that they could be. “Run, you bastards, run,” exhorted Guardiola from the first practices. Now as then, they did. Incessantly.

And this match was as much about the celebration as it was the football. Witness our players doing laps with the Catalan and Basque flags; running over to salute the Bilbao fans, who didn’t leave the stadium; celebrating this trophy for the beautiful thing that it was, their 14th of 19 possible under Pep Guardiola; putting the No. 22 shirt on the trophy, to make it clear that Abidal wasn’t there in person, but he was there in the hearts of every player, every member of the coaching staff. It was a family affair, that expanded to allow the world in. Bilbao fans responded to our players’ salute, in what became a mass love-in. If you got through it dry-eyed, you’re far stronger than I am, even as it should also be noted that for me, the tears weren’t of sadness, but rather the only possible reaction to something so beautiful, so heartfelt. Rather than giving something material to their beloved coach, the players gave something priceless: everything.

And my other favorite:

It has been a couple of weeks since we have seen this club kick a ball in anger, almost enough time to make you forget how remarkable, how good this club is with and without the ball, with no fatigue or pressure, nothing except an opponent that demanded its best. That, like its coach and like their teammates, asked “Can you?” The answer, as usual for all except a few occasions this season, was “Yes. Of course. Watch this.”

There were many, many finales: last trophy under Guardiola, last Guardiola presser for FCB (for now), last match of the Guardiola era, lots and lots of lasts. Guardiola left the pitch to let the players celebrate, rather than becoming a media distraction. He congratulated each one, each member of the coaching staff, each and every one of them, before he left the pitch to the players.

Were they feeling uncertainty? Sadness? Nostalgia? Impossible to know, but we can doubt they were feeling anything other than joy, as they had outdone themselves in a footballing display, like so many over these four wondrous seasons, a display for the ages. Bilbao was fast, physical and aggressive. And we were faster. It didn’t even take 3 minutes for the first goal to come, as our turbomidgets scurried around as if they had little jets in their shoes. And perfectly, it came from one of Guardiola’s projects, Pedro, a player who struggled this season but finally, as it ended, found his form.

Sure enough, for the goal, Pedro was Pedro. He found space, and smacked an unerring shot. No dribbling, no fancy stuff, no trying to beat a defender. Space. Ball. Goal. And his second goal was just as opportunistic, both goals rooted in movement — constant, high-speed, incessant movement. At times in this match, Pedro almost seemed to outrun his own feet, such was the alacrity of his movement.

And Messi, playing as a 10 instead of a false 9, defending and attacking, losing a ball and utilizing the fastest first 20 steps in the game to win it back. No conservation mode for this match, no thinking about tomorrow or mid-week, and he was remarkable.

Guardiola asked Montoya “Can you,” and our RB of the future responded with an excellent match.

Busquets was indomitable in the midfield, but you had to watch him closely to realize the havoc he was wreaking, in the box, in midfield, sliding simple passes along to keep the attack moving, another Guardiola project like the team that reached its flower under the tutelage of a man who is so much more than a coach, a man whose beauty and sensitivity, even as it made his time at the helm almost indescribably beautiful, also limited that time at the helm as sure as if he’d flipped over an egg timer when he first picked up his whistle.

The most beautiful flowers bloom fast, smell exquisite, delight the eyes and then wither, leaving you to smile at the ever so faint, residual whiff of the lustrous fragrance. Though Tito Vilanova will be at the helm next season, he will be coaching Pep Guardiola’s team. Like that wonderful flower, his presence will linger in hearts and minds.

So at the end of this match, a match, celebration and performance that felt like the first season Guardiola took over, all that we are left to do is marvel at the spectacle, celebrate its beauty and mourn the interminable weeks before it reunites, to start next season as it did this one, with a pair of Clasics against the newly crowned La Liga champions.

That time will be then. For now, even as we note that history is the past, cules will remember this match. The outcome, the way it was played, the comportment of the players before, during and after makes a perfect bookend to the conclusion of a glorious era.