Back in 1982, Ajax forward and future Barcelona legend Johan Cruyff laid off a penalty kick to teammate Jesper Olsen. Olsen returned the ball immediately to Cruyff and he finished with poise. At the time, Ajax was up by five goals over Helmond. Helmond fans may have felt like they were being shown up, but the fans in Amsterdam loved the creativity and inspiration of their team.
While the pass itself may have seemed simple, the timing must be perfect for the teammate to reach the ball before the opponent, without encroaching into the penalty box too soon. Years later, Arsenal’s Thierry Henry and Robert Pires attempted the same feat, but were miserably unsuccessful.
This past weekend the penalty spot trick was resurrected by another Barcelona legend and this time the trick worked. After his side won a penalty kick, Lionel Messi stepped to the spot. Unlike decades before when Cruyff received a return ball, Messi’s pass was coolly slotted into the net by Luis Suárez. The goal completed the hat-trick for Suárez and took him one goal closer to capturing the Pichichi trophy and helped him keep pace with Napoli’s Gonzalo Higuaín for the European Golden Boot.
The pass and finish was met with exuberance by Barcelona fans and utter disgust by Madridistas, but most importantly, it was relished by Cruyff as an act of brilliance and sheer entertainment. Messi backed up Cruyff’s claim that it was meant in fun, but spiteful haters of Barcelona condemn it as a charade to disrespect Celta Vigo in the midst of a 6-1 shellacking.
While the controversy of Messi’s lay-off will soon be forgotten, Luis Suárez’s routine miss against Sporting Gijon midweek is evidence of a Barcelona trend that may not be so quickly dismissed. So far this season, Barcelona has missed six of the 12 penalties that have been awarded to them in La Liga, with Neymar missing four out of eight. Combining the mismanagement of Suárez and Neymar at the penalty spot with Messi’s poor reputation for converting penalties could be a recipe for disaster if the situation arises in a match with the result still in question. Messi’s reputation for missing from twelve yards may be overblown however, as he has only missed 16 of his 79 career penalties.
So far this season in all competitions, Neymar has hit four of eight, Messi has connected on two of five, including the pass to Suárez, and the Uruguayan has scored two of three from the spot. Media and fans are divided on the importance of such statistics, and there are even two different schools of thought in Barcelona. Luis Enrique has urged the attacking trio to improve in those situations while the versatile Aleix Vidal believes it isn’t a matter to worry about. “I don’t think it should be looked upon too badly,” Vidal said, “If we score a lot of goals, it’s for a reason.”
It should be expected that the manager and coaching staff would like to iron out the only apparent weakness in the Barcelona attack, but Vidal might be onto something. The Catalans' attack has been dominant this season, led once again by all-time great Lionel Messi. Barcelona is currently on an unbeaten streak (31) that has surpassed Pep Guardiola’s record of straight 28 games and shows no signs of ending soon.
Instead of dwelling on the controversy of the Celta de Vigo penalty or the Suárez miss from Sporting Gijón, maybe it would be better for fans to relish the most recent achievements of Messi and company. Against Sporting, the Argentine scored his 300th and 301st goals, making him only the fifth player in the history of the sport to score 300 goals in a single top-5 European league. He joins Jimmy Greaves, Gerd Muller, Steve Bloomer and Dixie Dean as the only players to accomplish this feat and the first to do it in Spain.
When those legends achieved their records, it was met with fanfare and awe. Messi’s latest accomplishment has already faded down millions of Twitter timelines; a bi-product of the current age of technology and the lack of surprise from fans worldwide when Messi breaks another record.
Most importantly for Barcelona, they moved six points clear atop the La Liga table. Atlético Madrid and Real Madrid will be chasing them until the final week, but the more distance they can put between themselves and their rivals will help ease some of the pressure of trying to be the first team to capture back-to-back Champions League trophies in its current format.
A penalty kick miss against Real Madrid or any opponent in the Champions League would be devastating, but as Vidal said, it won’t be an issue if Barcelona’s attack continues to outscore and dominate opponents in open play.