"We can't stay at home crying because we lost one game," Ernesto Valverde said. "If we look back, we won't see what's ahead of us."
What's ahead of them is a lot, the Barcelona manager noted. "We need [just] 10 points to win the league," he said and there is more. On Saturday, if they avoid defeat against Valencia -- not win, just avoid defeat -- they will set a new Spanish football record by reaching a 39th consecutive game without losing; the Saturday after that they face Sevilla in the final of the Copa del Rey. With the league virtually done with weeks to spare, that would mean winning the double.
And yet looking back is inevitable. Wednesday was, the headlines agreed, historic ... and not in a good way. Leading 4-1 after the first leg against AS Roma, Barcelona were defeated 3-0 and knocked out. If there was a word that was repeated it was "ridiculo." Sergio Busquets described it as the most painful moment of his career. Iniesta, his eyes glazed, a lost look on his face, said it hurt. Asked if this might be his last-ever European game for Barcelona, he admitted: "It's a possibility ... and that's why it hurts more." It's not how he wanted to go out.
Time heals, if never completely, and three days on it is certainly still there. Other experiences, other games, need to be layered over the top of it. Valverde insisted that there was much that could be learnt from the defeat, describing losses as a "rich seam" to draw from, but while he would watch it back, he didn't want his players to dwell on it. He gave them a day off to clear their minds. On Friday, they were back: there are other things to look forward to. "It is a difficult moment for us, perhaps the worst of the season," the coach said. "What we want now is to get back onto the pitch."
Football: There is no other way of forgetting. But this will not be forgotten so easily; there is a debate that was always there, even before the match. After it, that debate takes on extra meaning. What is success? What counts as a great season? Does it matter what happens elsewhere? The answer, of course, is: yes.
"Failure" was another word used often. Tuesday night was a failure, for sure, but what about the rest of the season? On the face of it, it is an absurd question. Let's go back to the top again: in the next two weeks, Barcelona could virtually wrap up the league, one in which there is still a chance that they finish an entire season unbeaten. They could also win a fourth Copa del Rey in a row to complete the double.
Some failure, huh?
But Wednesday hurt. It also revealed a vulnerability that they had kept so well-hidden, whether by luck or design or both, and there may be a fear now that defeat in Rome could be the start of something, an unravelling perhaps. Busquets admitted that it might "affect" them. The league should not escape them now but an unbeaten league campaign might -- Valencia, Celta, and Madrid are all to come in the next four weeks -- and the Copa del Rey could too. The first aim -- look forward, not back -- has to be to prevent that, to convince them that what stands before them is still special. Special enough that ultimately nothing else matters.
And it is, of course. Win the double and they will rightly celebrate. It seems ridiculous to talk about disappointment for a team that is unbeaten in 38 games, a league record, and in the final of the Copa del Rey. Seems? Is. And the fact that the question is even posed says something about this super-club era, an era of immediacy and pressure, in which nothing is ever enough and the demands at a place like Barcelona, where even special doesn't always satisfy.
It's daft and hard to stomach at times, but it is there. "This isn't the worst moment of my career, for sure," Valverde said. But his career hasn't been spent at the Camp Nou before, and it's different there.
So, the question is asked.
Could this season still be classed as a disappointment or even a failure? If they were to blow it now, for sure. But even if Barcelona do win the league -- maybe even if they win it unbeaten -- and the cup, that question will be asked. People will say "No, don't be silly," but they will wonder. Was defeat in Rome so bad, so damaging and so painful as to eclipse all else? Or at least to diminish it, leaving that nagging feeling there was something a little false about all the rest of it? Does it leave the sensation that Barcelona didn't just lose but were somehow exposed?
The Emperor's New Clothes was a story told on Spanish radio Tuesday night. The analysis this week did not just focus on what went wrong but on what is wrong. Not least because this is the third year in a row in which they have failed to go beyond the quarterfinals and their last four away games in the knockout rounds of the competition read: 3-0, 1-1, 3-0, 4-0 and 2-0. Five games, no victories. There is an analysis to be had, a debate, structural issues to attend to. Problems to solve. Suggesting that Rome was a one-off, a bad night, does not convince.
And yet, here they are: close to a double and the best team in Spain, closing in on a seventh league title in 10 years, a dominance that is indisputable.
Only it sort of is. Because, rightly or wrongly, the Champions League does tend to eclipse all else. Cup competitions create excitement, moments and games that last longer in the memory. However meritorious, there can be something mundane about a league that never happens with a cup. Knockout football captures the imagination. European football, even more so. Everyone sees it, everywhere; the images last longer, moments are made and shared round the world.
And even if you can argue over which competition is harder to win, which competition really defines who is the best, the Champions league stands at the top -- at least in theory. The best teams, the biggest prize. A simple hierarchy: Europe is bigger than Spain, continent over country. The European Cup is the biggest trophy there is.
And it is Real Madrid's.
Yes, that's a bold statement and yes, it's a slight exaggeration, but there's something in it. It is, or it might be. It has been. Not least over the past few years.
Part of the problem is not just that Barcelona are out of Europe but that Madrid are still in it. That while Barcelona are closing on a seventh league title in 10 years, Real Madrid may be closing in on a third European Cup in a row, a fourth in five years. And that matters. Maybe more than it should, but it does. There are no two teams in the world so connected and so dependent upon each other, whose relationship is so symbiotic, whose eyes are so trained on each other, so determined to outdo each other, whose success is judged by the other. And in that, Europe tends to play the role of ultimate arbiter.
Barcelona will have won just one European Cup in seven. And when they haven't won it, they have.
When Madrid won the league and European Cup double last year, it was the first time in 59 years. The previous eight times they had won the competition, they'd done so without winning the league; the best team in Europe were not the best team in Spain. That mattered -- the significance they gave to last year's title showed that just days ago, when Zidane said he prefers to win the league -- and yet it sort of didn't. Because ... well, because European Cup.
Even Alfredo Di Stefano's team, forging its legend through five successive European Cups, weren't actually the best team in Spain every year. Here's a simple fact that many won't know: For most of the time during the five years Real Madrid won the European Cup, they weren't the best team around. They won the league only twice. In 1956, the Champions were Athletic Club. In 1959, it was Barcelona. In 1960, it was Barcelona again. Puskas recalled how the Hungarians at Barcelona used to wind him up because they "always seemed to beat us."
Europe, though, was different. When Madrid were finally knocked out, six years in, Barcelona did it but they then went on to lose the final.
Evaristo, who scored the goal that night, remembers it well.
"Madrid were playing for their sixth European Cup and we were obliged to beat them," he says. "They had a great team but people forget that we did too. We were overlooked; the second best team in the world, maybe even the best by then. But few people talked about us. The thing is, Madrid always won the European Cup. I remember our fans pleading with us -- literally pleading, eh -- not to let them win again, coming up to us and saying, 'Please, please stop them.' "
Or ask Louis Van Gaal.
"Real Madrid was never the champion when I was coach; the year before they had been. We were always 10 or 15 points ahead of them," he says of his time in charge at Barcelona. In his first two seasons, Barcelona's record against their rivals read played four, won three, drew one, scored 11. In his first season, Barcelona won the double. In his second season, he won the league. In his third, Barcelona finished runners-up (Madrid were fifth) and reached a Champions League semifinal. In total, between 1997 and 2000 Van Gaal won three trophies, two of them league titles: a quarter of all those the club had won in 25 years.
But few will tell you he was a huge success.
"People maybe have not valued what I did for Barcelona but I know," he says. His is a case study in internal politics, player power, image and reality. They didn't like his personality, his style or the country written in his passport. But there is another, simpler reason why 1997-2000 are years that some Barcelona fans would rather wipe from their memory and are largely forgotten: because it was during Van Gaal's era that Madrid won the European Cup at last. Not once, but twice. And that never goes away, however good you are.
Barcelona have to look ahead where a huge impressively achievement stands before them still. It is one that should be valued, appreciated and celebrated, but whether or not it is and how far will probably depend not just on what they do, but on what they didn't do. It will depend on what their rivals do too.