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In England, they are known as the Invincibles. And more than a decade later, they are still revered. In Germany, they are non-existent. And in Spain?
They could be mere weeks away from etching their name in La Liga record books. No Spanish team has ever completed an entire 38-game top-flight season without a loss. Barcelona, after a 2-2 draw at Celta Vigo on Tuesday, is five matches away.
Yet the story of Barca’s historic chase doesn’t quite seem to be as monumental as it should be. It certainly isn’t as big as Arsenal’s was 14 years ago.
And the relative insignificance is reflected by the club itself. For what was one of its toughest remaining tests, at Celta, Ernesto Valverde dropped eight or nine regular starters. He rested the likes of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, Gerard Pique and Sergio Busquets ahead of the Copa Del Rey final this upcoming weekend. And he very nearly paid the price.
Without its big guns, Barca barely, just barely, held onto its shot at an undefeated campaign. Marc-Andre Ter Stegen, one of only a few regular starters in the 11, came up with several massive saves. He spread himself to deny Maxi Gomez with just minutes remaining after Sergi Roberto’s red card had reduced the visitors to 10 men.
It was a thrilling match, and by many estimations one that Celta deserved to win. The underdogs attempted more shots, and put more on target. Possession was roughly shared. Iago Aspas was the best player on the field. After his equalizer, even with Messi in off the bench for the final half-hour, the hosts looked like the more likely winners.
Perhaps the underwhelming nature of Barca’s performance speaks to why its to-date invincibility hasn’t been treated like 2003-04 Arsenal’s, or like 1991-92 AC Milan’s. That Gunners team is widely regarded as one of the best in the history of English football. Fabio Capello’s Milan side holds a similar place in Serie A lore. Both managers, Capello and Arsene Wenger, bought themselves years of fame and goodwill.
So why won’t this Barcelona side, if it does indeed see off Deportivo La Coruna, Real Madrid, Villarreal, Levante and Real Sociedad, be worshipped like its historical equivalents? Why are there still occasional calls from crazed fans for Valverde’s sacking?
Purely based on results, Barcelona has not been any less dominant than previous Invincibles. They drew 12 games each; Barca has drawn just eight. The Catalans suffered Champions League quarterfinal disappointment, but then again, so did 03-04 Arsenal; and Milan hadn’t even qualified for the 1991-92 European Cup.
The comparisons that explain the differences in coverage and popular opinion, though, aren’t the comparisons to historical equivalents; they’re the internal ones. Not only is 2017-18 Barcelona not the greatest Spanish team of all time; it might not even be a top-five Barcelona team of the 21st century.
That’s why the overwhelming sentiment surrounding Barca’s charge for history hasn’t been glorification; it’s more so been amazement.
And it’s not amazement at how good the league-leaders are; it’s amazement that they remain unbeaten given how good they are. It’s amazement that this Barcelona team, of all the great Barcelona teams of the past 10-plus years, is the one to make a run at history.
That perception might be unfair. It might be unduly influenced by the Champions League collapse in Rome, and by the European dominance of the club’s closest rival. In the minds of many, Barca isn’t even the best team in Spain at the moment; so how could it go down as one of the best ever?
There is also the aesthetic factor. Valverde’s Barcelona has strayed from the Barca way. Wenger’s Arsenal, on the other hand, helped change the way the Premier League saw the beautiful game.
But there is something special about an unbeaten season in principle, regardless of how it is achieved. It doesn’t require perfection – and Barcelona has been far from perfect. But that’s part of the beauty of it. It requires resilience. It requires character. It requires clutch performances and a significant helping of luck.
Barcelona has benefitted from all of that this season. It benefitted from all of it once again on Tuesday. And yet it came out unscathed. Unscathed, and five results away from immortality, even if the entire soccer world doesn’t realize it yet.
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