MONDAY'S BIG STORIES

Barca are back

El Clasico is many things, not least a quite important game of football, but what it is above all else is a narrative machine. Two teams go in, and stories come out: power consolidates or shifts; the future pales or turns blue and dark red. Well, last night Madrid were wearing black and Barcelona a very fetching Catalonia-meets-Thunderbirds option. That's another thing this fixture is good for. Selling special edition, anniversary collection shirts.
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We're guessing that Madrid won't be getting too many takers, for last night black was the colour of total surrender. Barcelona were four goals up inside the hour and probably could have had seven or eight over the course of the evening. Perhaps it was even mildly disappointing that they didn't get that significant fifth, and so we didn't get another Gerard Pique five-fingered salute. Yet somehow Madrid giving it a bit of a go for the last half hour felt, in context, even more insulting. As if Barca were a tired parent letting a toddler clout them in the legs for a bit. It's the only way they'll nap, bless them.
Madrid, playing at home and holding a 15-point lead at kick-off, got shredded by a Barcelona side that were quicker with the ball and smarter without it. In the first half Barcelona scored twice could have had more; Madrid managed a dive. Just the one dive, mind, and it wasn't a very good one. Then, as the second half began, the world waited to see just how Madrid, proud Madrid, league-leading Madrid would respond to this insult. And respond they didn't. Barcelona made a chance, missed it, made another chance and scored it. 3-0 in 47 minutes, and done.
You can point to the absence of Karim Benzema as mitigation and even explanation, although it's fascinating to wonder how the absence of one forward can disrupt not just the attack but the whole entire team. Fascinating, too, to wonder about all that money spent to ensure Benzema would have some competition, company or support. Neither Luka Jovic nor Eden Hazard made it off the bench. Gareth Bale didn't make it onto the bench. Our striker is injured? We play without one! Oh dear.
Contrast Madrid's passel of expensive exiles with the reborn Ousmane Dembele, who stayed under a cloud and is now dancing in the shade. There is much to admire about Xavi's early work at Barcelona, but it's the uptick in form of Dembele, along with Frenkie De Jong and the refreshed Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, that are perhaps the most heartening. For some time, Barcelona has been a place where great and potentially great players go to have their greatness or potential greatness absorbed into an ongoing argument about identity and celebrity. Some have thrived; some have shrunk away. This has been greatly vexing for Barca's fans, and intermittently hilarious for everybody else, but it's also been dispiriting from a neutral point of view: watching Dembele play football shouldn't be frustrating. It should be fun.
And now it is! Nice one, Ousmane; nice one, Xavi. Now, obviously, caution is important here. One win does not make a renaissance. One good performance does not reverse seasons of mismanagement. And no points return can cancel the debt. It is crucial that we don't just start throwing around statements like "Barcelona are back" without considering all the— hang on, what's this from Pique?
Ah. Right then. There goes that narrative machine, whirring away. If only we could turn it into energy.
But we should probably have a look at the question anyway. Are Barcelona back? Let's all agree that it definitely felt like it. This was a team with a plan and a purpose; this was a team committed to that plan and purpose; this was a plan that generated constant threat and chances that were turned into goals, a couple of them very pleasant to look at indeed. That is what Barcelona are, in theory, in the collective imagination, in the marketing campaigns. That's what Spotify wants to be associated with.
All of which needs to be weighted against the fact that this game was of little bearing to much beyond Barcelona's project of renewal and bid for the Champions League. Madrid are still 12 points ahead in the table, with a Champions League campaign to worry about. At the end of the season, as the champagne sprays around, this result will still sting. It may even cost Carlo Ancelotti his job. But unless it comes with severe aftershocks, it will be a La Liga game with minimal effect on the destination of La Liga. You can understand, perhaps, how the presumptive champions got caught a little cold.
The hope for Barcelona, then, will be that one story's footnote is another's opening chapter. This was a statement of intent: we have done this to Madrid, in Madrid, and now we intend to do this to everybody, all over Europe. Starting next season. If the history of Xavi-as-coach works out as gloriously as planned, then this will be the night it all came together. That it started to feel not just possible but probable. The first thing any great side needs to do is convince itself that it can be great. Sticking four past the presumptive champions seems a good way to do it.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang of Barcelona celebrates

Image credit: Getty Images

Talking Frankly

Oh, Everton. Just days after they made their own statement of intent, against Newcastle at home, they went to Crystal Palace and made… well, what can we call it? A statement of inadequacy? A mess? A show of themselves? All of the above, and more. They lost 4-0, is what they did. And they looked good value for it.
After the game, Frank Lampard was in a combative mood. Him against his players; him against his players' mentalities.
"There is only so much you can keep trying to butter someone up to get confidence," he said. "You’re playing at the cut-throat end of football; this is the FA Cup quarter-finals. If you haven’t got the confidence to play, you can flip it and say: ‘Have you got the b******* to play?’ Apologies, but that’s the football term."
"Football term" is a beautiful euphemism for "rude word", and we salute Lampard for bringing it to the world. Lampard went on to say, correctly, that Everton were the better side for 20 minutes. But after Andros Townsend's injury, Everton crumbled quietly away. The third goal had an element of farce, as Sunday Oliseh's mishit shot came back off the post and Wilfried Zaha poked it home. But it also had an element of everybody in an Everton shirt just standing around, letting football happen in their disengaged absence.
The failure was a collective failure, a full-team failure. Lampard has, therefore, placed himself outside that collective: instead of shouldering the blame alongside his team, he is firing it at them. He may be right, of course, about what the problem is. More importantly, he may be right about this being a good way to solve it.
"It’s a challenge because it’s been there quite a long time before I got here," he said. "I don’t have a magic wand to get inside people’s heads and change the resilience across a whole squad. That’s a work in progress. So we just have to work on that, as frustrating as it is for me and for the 4,000 fans who travelled down."
But he's playing a dangerous game here. Start throwing football terms at your squad and it's possible that they might start throwing them back. Or, worse, think them privately to themselves, mutter them quietly to one another, and then all go and have a word with their agents. One solid answer to the question "Do you have the football terms?" is "Are you talking complete football terms?", and then everything goes downhill. And Everton don't have an awful lot of downhill to play with.

IN OTHER NEWS

There is, in the Warm-Up's ever so humble opinion, no better sound than that of a football ground singing.

RETRO CORNER

If you're into the game of birthday five-a-sides, then today, March 21st, is absolutely stacked. Brian Clough, Lothar Matthaus, Ronald Koeman, Ronaldinho, Antoine Griezmann, and one massive argument about whose turn it is in goal. However, this presents a problem for Retro Corner. Whose highlights to go with? We thought long and hard, but in the end, the solution was obvious. Here's every goal scored for Swansea City by birthday boy Michu.

HAT TIP

Meet the new 4-3-3. Not an awful lot like the old 4-3-3. Here's the Athletic's John Muller looking at how Xavi has Barcelona playing a familiar formation in an unfamiliar way. Quite amusing to think that Xavi the player might not have been a great fit for Xavi the coach. Reluctantly having to drop himself. Having a blazing row with himself. Putting himself on the transfer list.
The most surprising thing about Xavi’s new-style 4-3-3 is that he’s coaching his young midfielders to operate in very un-Xavi-like ways. As a player, Xavi’s position was dictated by the ball, which seemed to get lonely if it left his feet for more than a few seconds at a time. When Barcelona built from the back, Xavi dropped deep to keep the ball company. When the ball arrived in the final third, so did Xavi. His job was to receive in small patches of grass and play team-mates into bigger ones. He didn’t create space — he discovered it. Barca’s current crop of midfield wonderkids could play like him, or something close to it anyway, but they don’t.

COMING UP

Powered by crusading vegan zeal and soy, Forest Green Rovers will be looking to extend their lead at the top of League Two. They travel to Colchester United, who are bobbing around near the relegation zone.
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