In praise of Sergio Busquets, Barcelona's unique orchestrator of time and space
On a night when Lionel Messi scored twice, including one of the goals of the tournament, it was Barcelona's languid enforcer Sergio Busquets that took centre stage
Barcelona and Liverpool played out an astonishingly frenetic first leg of their Champions League semi-final with both sides fizzing the ball around in the early stages. The Nou Camp was an air hockey table.
Each team struggled to gain any real foothold as they played out from their centre backs and goalkeeper only to be met by the furious press of the other team. They'd scramble together the passes needed, just about, a quickly scribbled triangle to escape the furious rush of bodies, but then immediately lose the ball as the second wave crashed into them.
It was a familiar pattern punctuated by few chances of real quality in the first half. There was one for Suarez, scored, from a homing missile cross from Jordi Alba (who was otherwise all over the place trying to keep tabs on Mo Salah). There was another for Sadio Mane, missed, from Jordan Henderson's best impression of the Spanish fullback's devastating crossing.
It was the footballing equivalent of the double Spiderman meme, two of the best sides in Europe flattered into mimicry by the assertive presence of their opponent. Even the six-yard box, last-ditch tackles made by Sergi Roberto and Andy Robertson had a certain kind of reflectional symmetry about them.
It was a good thing, then, that Barcelona had Sergio Busquets, their other totally unique, unmatchable footballer. He started the game with a piece of skill so despicably outrageous you could probably book it in for an interview on LBC tomorrow, dragging the ball just a fraction of an inch to send Fabinho hurtling back towards the French Riviera and grant himself the entire freedom of the pitch.
Later on, he would flick the ball over James Milner, stampeding in from his blindside like the proverbial bull shopping for fine china, so nonchalantly you could almost hear him humming along to 'The Girl from Ipanema' as he did so.
Busquets, you see, doesn't play to anyone else's tempo but his own and during a game in which you had Arturo Vidal and Arturo Vidal's inherent desire to repeatedly slide tackle passes to his teammates, for some reason, and all four fullbacks charging up and down the flanks like malevolent greyhounds, his unique interpretation of time and space becomes something of a revelation.
He doesn't lose the ball and he doesn't feel pressure and he always makes the right decision and sometimes he will effect an entire passage of play by shuttling a couple of steps to the side, or forwards, or backwards, an impenetrable wall of light for Liverpool to play against, and for Barcelona to play through.
In the build-up to Barcelona's second goal, a rather fortunate tap-in for Lionel Messi of all people, Busquets was quietly vital. I suppose he always is. He received a difficult ball lofted into that no man's land between his chest and his feet in the way that he always receives passes, difficult or otherwise, by barely receiving them at all, instantly cushioning it with his instep into the path of Rakitic, only to pick the ball straight back up again on the deck, using his world-class teammate as one would a snooker cushion.
He then played the most obvious pass in the world, the 10-yard, straight ahead nudge into the feet of Lionel Messi, but he did that in the way he always does too, caressing it as though it was a baby being put to bed. Kissing it on the forehead before he left.
The Nou Camp continues to serve as an eternal playground for Sergio Busquets, a blank canvas for all his wildest fantasies. Wild fantasies, of course, that aren't wild at all and consist entirely of giving and receiving the ball in tight spaces without getting caught in movements so fluid, so languid and yet still so distorted and angular it's like imagining a giant sea crab teach a yoga class.
Messi plonked Barcelona's third into the top corner from 35 yards, because that's what Lionel Messi can do at any given moment, and almost set up Ousmane Dembele for a fourth that would have surely killed the tie, if it wasn't dead already.
In reality, though, this was a night to enjoy all that Busquets can do, which is a lot of silent, little things that add to something immeasurably great: being able to wormhole through the charged electricity and chaos of a game and lull it back to sleep again with his own hypnotic, circadian rhythms. He continues to make the hardest things look easy, and the biggest, most important occasions seem small.