On the day the prestigious French sports daily L'Equipe hailed FC Barcelona as one of the greatest soccer teams in history, and its internet readers voted Barça as the greatest club team ever, and only three days after winning 3-1 in Malaga to cap the best ever half-campaign in the history of La Liga, 55 points out of 57 possible with 18 wins and one draw--2-2 against Real Madrid, which is an insurmountable 18 points behind at intermission-- the Blaugrana came back to Earth unexpectedly, spoiling Messi's presentation of the four Ballons d'Or at the Camp Now. A 2-2 tie against Malaga in the Copa del Rey quarterfinals means that Barça must win the rematch at the Rosaleda on January 24 to advance to the semifinals (probably against Real Madrid).
Blame this accident on ground control. As much as everybody likes to criticize Real Madrid's Jose Mourinho, everyone hates to say something bad about Tito Vilanova. He's 18-1-0, he's a good guy and a sympathetic figure, whose fight against the relapse of the cancer in the parotid gland has undoubtedly rallied and focused the troops toward the end of 2012. But this faux pas is Tito's mistake, probably an expression of a superiority complex, understandable after all. In the league game at Malaga, with so much at stake, Vilanova lined up the strongest Barça 11 this season: Valdez - Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Alba - Xavi, Busquets, Fabregas - Pedro, Messi, Iniesta. Against the league's fourth best squad, on its pitch, that Barça team performed spectacular football, probably never seen before, with flurries of passing virtuosity applauded instantly and universally. It was not a soccer game, it was a recital. Some hailed it as Barça's best game of the season.
The King's Cup is not as important as the league title, probably already in the bag, or a triumph in the UEFA Champions League, but it is hard to believe that Vilanova regards it as a second rate trophy. The only reason he replaced nine (nine!) of the starters from Malaga, keeping only Messi and Iniesta for Wednesday's game, must have been the belief that Barcelona can win any game, anytime, in any makeup. While any player on Barcelona's roster is a bona fide star (OK, with a couple of question marks…), a lineup that includes Pinto, Montoya, Puyol, Mascherano, Adriano, Thiago, Song, Alexis and Tello will not scare many teams. Moreover, it will make a team like Malaga believe in its chances.
And it's not just that Song does not compare with Busquets (what a season!), or Tello with Fabregas. The main problem is that the massive change of personnel is upsetting the balance of the team. After all, resident geniuses Messi and Iniesta are used to play with Xavi and Cesc, not with substitutes who may not be up to par in the combination game.
Clinging to a 2-1 lead late in the game, Vilanova sent in Pedro, Fabregas and Xavi, hoping to add at least one goal and repeat the score in Malaga, but it was too late as Messi and Iniesta had lost interest. Instead, the visitors, playing in 10 after Monreal was sent off, tied the game in the 89th minute, making their coach Manuel Pellegrini look like a genius. The Chilean had said before the first game, "To have a chance, you must make Barça believe they can lose."
Can Barça win in Malaga for the second time in 10 days? Of course. Probably. Most likely. If Tito plays the big guns, not the JV.
As a kid, Vladimir Moraru dreamed to watch Kubala and Evaristo, but never had a chance. Wearing Messi's Barcelona shirt at 66 makes up for everything.