As Barca look forward, Luis Enrique hopes to exit with trophy, minimal fuss
In case you hadn't heard, Barcelona have a match on Saturday. And, no, that's not quite as silly as it sounds, because you might not have heard. Well, you might not have heard much, anyway. Over the last week, maybe even beyond, it has sometimes felt like the Copa del Rey final, against Alaves at the Vicente Calderon, isn't really there.
By kickoff, it will be. In the hours before the game, around 20,000 fans will make their way south-west to Madrid. There will be a lot of noise by the stadium and a lot of people building up to the game. There will be press conferences, the usual previa. And when the whistle blows, there will be millions of people sitting in front of screens all over Spain. Afterward, there will be celebrations, people in the streets, horns honking, fans in fountains.
It is a final after all, the chance to win another title. It is also Luis Enrique's last game in charge of Barcelona, an opportunity for him to win a sixth major trophy in just three years. Only somehow, right now, it doesn't feel much like a major trophy; almost like it's not a trophy at all. Or not one to boast about. By the start, it will feel different. And by the end too, if they finish the night parading the cup. But, still, those celebrations may be muted.
By contrast, go to Vitoria and this is all they're talking about, a historic night that marks only the second final in Alaves' entire history, an opportunity to claim the first title of their 96 years. There is blue and white all over the city, excitement, nerves and tension.
It's not the same in Barcelona, where you might have heard more about the celebration from Real Madrid's league title than the potential celebration for Barca's cup. There's been more said about former president Sandro Rosell's arrest, Lionel Messi's conviction being confirmed and Dani Carvajal calling Gerard Pique a rude name, even if Pique himself didn't much care.
There's been more about the new manager, that's for sure; a brief glance at the newspapers underlines that. "Ernesto Valverde is already working for Barcelona" ran the headline on the front of Tuesday's Sport. Forget admitting he was going to the Camp Nou, he hadn't even announced that he was leaving Athletic Bilbao at that point -- he has now -- but they were already talking about him, that's for sure. He was on the front of Sport the next day too, and the day after that. El Mundo Deportivo put him on the cover on Wednesday and Thursday as well.
The future was the thing. More than the final. It is as if what really interests everyone lies beyond Saturday. Remember that the club announced that they would reveal their new manager on Monday.
Holding off on the announcement can be interpreted as a way of making the final the priority -- or trying to -- but, still, it almost feels like the final is an obstacle, a chore to be undergone before getting on with what really matters, like it's not that big. And perhaps it's not, given it's wedged between Real Madrid winning the league and, possibly, the Champions League as well. And when it's "only" the cup; fine for rounding off a great season -- the perfect accompaniment, perhaps -- but not quite so great on its own.
Some are busy reminding us that the days when Barcelona were satisfied with a season in which they beat Madrid and won the cup, rather than winning the league and the European Cup, were the bad old days. Others perhaps assume that, against Alaves, the trophy is already won, so there's not much tension or build-up, not much excitement, perhaps not all that much importance either.
This week, one headline in Sport declared that there would be three Clasicos in July and August. Which there will be -- a friendly in Miami as well as two legs of the Spanish Super Cup -- if Barcelona beat Alaves. And that is still a big "if," despite it not being treated as such. Ibai Gomez of Alaves tweeted that piece of news with a simple status: "Preparing for the final." They're preparing, building up. Their opponents, rather less so.
Make no mistake: This should be big. It is big. Not least because of those basic points: It is a final and it is Luis Enrique's last game. Valverde, the man they are talking about, is coming because he is going. And he, like Pep Guardiola -- the man everyone is trying but ultimately failing to emulate -- won a treble in his first season. He, like Guardiola in 2012, will take charge of his last match at the Calderon in the final of the Copa del Rey, seeking a solitary trophy as he bids farewell.
Yet the odd thing is that this doesn't really feel like Luis Enrique's farewell. In part, it is the surroundings, in part maybe it is because he is not a sentimental man. In part, it is because the league was lost just six days ago and Champions League elimination came weeks before that.
While the announcement of his goodbye came long ago, it has not been a long goodbye; he wouldn't have wanted there to be one. He announced his departure at the end of a standard press conference as if it was nothing and never sought to make much of it, which has always been his way. He's never been maudlin, never been one for open emotion.
Last weekend, which saw his final game at the Camp Nou, Luis Enrique was asked about the homage that had been prepared for him. "The fans paid homage to me every week," he said, flatly. It's happened before. He left before. Been there, done that, moved on. Reports on him have been written. Judgements have been reached, his achievements analysed. It's all been done, there's nothing new to say. What he did, what he represented, what he said, how he was, how he changed things. That debate -- the debate -- has been done to death: Whether he was "Barcelona" enough, whether they lost their religion with him.
It's been said, over and over; it's been looked at endlessly: The things he won, the legacy left. Saturday's game doesn't really feel like it changes anything. Winning the league might have done, but winning the cup will not. Maybe there will be a re-evaluation and a more warmth when he has actually gone -- if things go badly next season, there will certainly be some revisionism -- but it is almost as if he has already gone.
That the final is away from home also plays a part. Luis Enrique's farewells were said on Sunday, insofar as they were said at all. Two huge banners thanked him: One organised by the club; the other, which read "Always one of us" by the grada de animacio. The fans chanted his name but, while he appreciated that, he didn't respond. The attendance was 74,932 there, almost 20,000 below capacity. They were fighting for the league, but not for long. Less than two minutes had gone when Luis Enrique was told that Madrid led.
At the end, he embraced Eibar manager Jose Luis Mendilibar and went straight down the tunnel, without a glance. No applause, no tears, no standing there, centre stage. At one end, fans chanted that they would not leave until he came back out but he didn't come back out so they left.
"I did it my way," he said afterward in a press conference that is obligatory but which he could have done without. "I decided to stop and I left when I wanted."
It was not quite how he wanted, though. "The fans are a thermometer that measures the team," he said. "We would have liked to end it with a party but it wasn't to be."
Maybe on Saturday he can, even if it won't feel the same. Luis Enrique won it all with Barcelona; this will be his last night. Maybe the emotion will show; maybe the realisation will hit him and everyone else. At the end, he will head out of a stadium for the last time as Barcelona manager. Like Guardiola, he will do so via the northwest corner of the Vicente Calderon. Like Guardiola, he hopes to do so holding a cup.
Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.