So often great teams are defined by who leads them. Whether it’s Steven Gerrard dragging Liverpool up by his bare hands against Milan in Istanbul or Franz Beckenbauer calmly and decisively leading West Germany to victory in the 1974 World Cup despite going a goal down inside the first minute to the great Dutch team of that era. All teams who win at the highest level need one man who will do whatever it takes to win and get the best of those around him. For all of Barcelona’s talent in possession and in the attacking third, the image of not just an attractive looking team but also that of a highly successful team that keeps on winning is defined by one man, their captain and leader, Carles Puyol.
Messi is the phenomenon, a footballing freak above all others. Xavi is the king of midfield and the most successful passer of the ball the world has ever seen. But Carles Puyol is something else, he is the warrior in the team, the one who will throw his head, leg, arm, or even a small child in front of the ball if needed. Whatever it takes Puyol will do and he will do it time and again. Of course being a Barcelona player also means he can play a bit too but his identity on the pitch is less about flair and more about heart. His equalising goal on Wednesday night at the Bernabeu summed him up far better than any writer could ever hope to do with mere words. The image of him flying through the air to crash in a diving header past the helpless Casillas was as welcome to the fans and players of Barcelona as it was unwelcome to the home supporters in Madrid. It was a body blow and one that Madrid never recovered from.
Xavi would later describe this is a psychological goal and one that turned the match in Barcelona’s favour. In truth even before Puyol had levelled the score the game was still swinging towards Barcelona but a team no matter how great cannot afford to keep missing chances. With one flying leap Puyol levelled the game but he did more than just that. He had also crushed the dreams of the Madrid supporters, they knew what would follow. You don’t get many chances to hold a lead against Barcelona, if you fail to do so you know you’re unlikely to get another.
Barcelona would go onto to win the match via a rare Abidal goal, beautifully set up by the unusually quiet Lionel Messi. The match would later go on to be defined by the ugly scenes that followed (mainly Pepe’s stamp on Messi’s hand) and by Mourinho’s failed attempts to beat Barcelona once again. But everything that can be written about the ugly side of this match and the beautiful side of Barcelona has already been written. We can add nothing new to this seemingly never ending story of Barcelona dominance and Real Madrid failure.
Not since losing away to Inter in the Champions League at the end of the 09/10 season has Puyol been on the end of a loss while wearing the Barcelona shirt. It seems there is some debate as to whether it was the Betis match at the weekend or the El Classico on Wednesday night that brought up his fifty unbeaten. It matters not a jot either way and what it shows is that when Barcelona have Puyol on the pitch they have more than just another player. They are more than just eleven men when they have him leading them out onto the pitch; they have a sense of completion, a sense of wholeness that is very hard to define. Puyol is a quality defender and has been for many years but he is more than that. He is the very heart of the club and a symbol of its supporters, he is Barcelona. That is not to underplay the importance of Xavi or Messi or Valdes to the team, all these men add something that is sorely missed when they’re absent but with Puyol it seems to be more than just his technical or physical ability. It’s what he inspires in others and that is a rare thing. He may look like Captain Caveman but he is so much more than just a two dimensional cartoon character. Though the hair is very similar it has to be said.
Right now Barcelona are lucky to have both Xavi and Puyol at the same age, there to guide all around them and lead their team in both the spirit and footballing identity that the club demands from its players. In the not too distant future both of these wonderful players will retire and that could coincide with the departure of their manager Pep Guardiola. But while all three men remain at the club expect many other managers to keep on facing the headache that Jose Mourinho is facing on a regular basis. Just how do we beat this lot?