These Heady Times

The train picked up speed as we left the suburbs and went into the undulating hills. I remember the countryside was steeped in fog, the sunshine slipping through every now and then between clouds to create a peaceful wonderland. I alternately stared out the window at the passing scenery and read a book. We were heading east, into what was forecast to be a hot and sunny day, but for now things were calm and happy. I was relaxed. My Twitter timeline, which I checked in on once my phone was back within steady reach of a cell tower, was awash in anxiety and trouble sleeping. I mean, I was excited. Don’t get me wrong, but I was also relaxed. The day before, I’d written, “I gave up fear and a little over 24 hours before kickoff as I write this, I’m somewhat surprised to find that it hasn’t crept back in.”

That kickoff was, of course, the Champions League final in Berlin on June 6, 2015. I was on a train to the German capital and I was excited. We were in a major final and I was going to be nearby when we lifted the Big Ears trophy. It worked out, of course, but the thing that has stuck with me is a sense of happiness, of completeness, even when we get dumped out of that same competition less than a year later. It’s hard not to be happy given the recent run of success. Just since I began blogging in 2007 (has it been that long!?), the team has racked up 6 out of 9 league titles, 4 out of 9 Copa titles, and 3 Champions League trophies. That’s a hefty haul, regardless of how many times Barça Twitter has panicked over a transfer fee (color me as guilty as the next person) and it should give us all a measure of tranquility when approaching the coming season. The question these days is no longer whether or not the team will win any trophies, but how many? And that’s just absurd.

Last year’s squad seemed thin, its depth questioned at every turn. The quality of bench players wasn’t high enough for Lucho to rotate effectively and there was the impression that the team was dragging itself over the finish line, burdened by heavy legs and the weight of expectations. And yet, a league title and a domestic cup is the stuff of legend for almost every other team on earth. Bayern Munich, the standard bearer for “top heavy league” in most people’s eyes, has also won 6 of the last 9 Bundesliga titles. They’ve also won just 1 more domestic cup and 2 fewer Champions Leagues in that same time. Ours, this Barcelona team, is the stuff of dreams. And the squad got a hell of a lot stronger over the summer with significant investment in its depth. There are no new, undisputed starters, but there are a host of 22 and 23 year olds lining up to produce a continuity generation. It may smack of financial largess or institutional rot (a post for another day) while putting us squarely in the realm of fan bases that others loathe, but it undeniably feels good.

Maybe if you’re Kxevin, staring down off this mountain of success, you see naught but the terrors of the abyss below thanks to a lifetime of living at the base of the mountain. Or maybe you see your neighbors scaling behind you, the determination to knock you down etched on their faces. Or, perhaps, you’re aware that empires never last forever. These are all logical reactions to the coming of a new season and I am hardly immune to such pessimism. I have lived the shared pain of the early 2000s and studied the history before that, after all. You can’t say “Joan Gaspart” without me pulling a face, but I also know that since 2005-06, we’ve been a barn-burning rocketship of awesome. Rainbows (and league titles) burst out of our backsides regularly enough for some to question the validity of the league itself.

The squad is phenomenal at this point, but there are always going to be fitness concerns, opponents with deep pockets, Mono Burgos growling from what I imagine are purpose-built dark alleyways in the bowels of the Calderon, and, of course, the annual frustration of Anoeta. However much I’d love to discount both Zidane’s slightly improved squad (Morata in for Jese; perhaps they’ll miss their traffic cone named Alvaro), they’re actually rather serious title contenders. We’ll have to see if Zidane has any long-term impact on the team or if they’ll sink to the Benitez doldrums of last December. Atleti too have improved, adding Gameiro and Nico Gaitan (though also losing Borja Baston)

It may all come down to the mini league played between the 3 teams because each of the teams is likely to put on a season-long thwomping of minor opponents. And yes, I know that Alaves went into the Calderon on day 1 and Manu Garcia’ed them, but until they do it 5 more times, Atleti are still firmly in the running. They had something like infinity shots on target to 1 and are more flexible this year than they were last year without Gameiro, so they’ll put up a string of wins at some point that will have them breathing down everyone’s necks.

Below the Big 3, though, there’s a precipitous drop off in quality. Sevilla may have added Sampaoli to guide them, but he seems to have just stuffed all the matches with dynamite and lit a short burning fuse. A 6-4 win to start the season off at home is definitely something, but what that something is may not really be decipherable for a few more weeks. Athletic Bilbao ran into a buzzsaw named Sporting Gijon (in a match that had to be stopped for racist chanting because some things never change—here’s hoping for a hefty punishment), Villarreal and Atleti drew their matches against Grenada and Alaves, respectively, and Valencia got walloped by Las Palmas. It could be a really crazy year outside of the Champions League spots.

And so:

20. Alaves
19. Eibar
18. Real Betis
17. Leganes
16. Deportivo la Coruna
15. Osasuna
14. Espanyol
13. Real Sociedad
12. Granada
11. Las Palmas
10. Sporting Gijon
9. Athletic Bilbao
8. Celta Vigo
7. Malaga
6. Valencia
5. Sevilla
4. Villarreal
3. Atletico Madrid
2. Real Madrid
1. Barcelona

This should be an excellent season in terms of quality of play, but the top 3 are simply so much better than everyone else, that it will matter more when particular matches are played between the 3 teams (in terms of weather, injuries, and other competitions) than any significant talent or coaching difference. Still, Barcelona are the best team in the league and the one everyone else has to prove they can take on. With added depth in every part of the outfield squad (assuming a striker comes in) and if Ter Stegen can maintain his health throughout the year, this is a truly fearsome outfit to face.

And I am calm. I am relaxed. This season will bring goals and joy, regardless of the outcome. These are truly heady times and I fully intend to enjoy them to the fullest. This train is picking up speed and there’s no fear here. Just remember:

I si tots animen, i si tots animen, i si tots animen, guanyarem, lo, lo-lo, lo, lo, loooo.

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