“You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become a villain.”
– Aaron Eckhart, The Dark Knight
A football manager was seen on the field on Wednesday night, jumping, running around, celebrating the goal by getting down into a ground huddle with the players and the fans. No, it wasn’t the vibrant Chelsea boss Antonio Conte. It was Barcelona manager Luis Enrique.
Something clicked in the Spaniard- who often remains calm, composed, is not known to be too close to his players and has never cared about politics that comes with being associated with the Catalans. Sergi Roberto had just scored a 95th minute winner against PSG at Nou Camp, ensuring the club’s survival in European Champions League by winning the game 6-1 (6-5 on aggregate). It was in this moment, Enrique let go of all his emotions in one go, and let himself enjoy this unforgettable record. “I was brought to my knees,” he said after the match.
After weeks of ups-and-downs, it was about time Enrique etched another record to his name for the club. The manager was criticised after Barcelona went down 4-0 in the first leg of the Round of 16 fixture against PSG at Parc des Princes. In spite of club booking a final against Deportivo Alaves in Copa del Rey, the side was not finding the right footing in La Liga. The tough La Liga fixture against Leganes, in which Barca won from a last minute penalty by Lionel Messi, was the final straw for the manager who won the treble in his first year in-charge at the club. Two games later, Barcelona reached top of the table in the competition, after which Enrique announced he will be departing from the club. “I need to rest,” he said.
Enrique, who is regarded as a “legend” by club president Josep Maria Bartomeu, realised what his predecessor Pep Guardiola said long time back – “four years is as long a manager can be at Barcelona”. Just like Guardiola, the current Manchester City manager, who took a year-long sabbatical after stepping down as Barcelona manager in 2012, the physical and mental toll that comes along with the job, played down heavily on Enrique and the manager perhaps decided he rather retire as a “hero” than stay at the club and become a “villain”.
The historic comeback victory at the Nou Camp against PSG was perhaps the final battle in Enrique’s path. He knew his legacy will be defined if his club’s Champions League dreams could remain alive. In the first 50 minutes, the Blaugrana put three goals in the back of the net, making fans believe that they can achieve the impossible. 12 minutes later, Barca’s hopes were hurt when Edinson Cavani scored with a half volley, taking the aggregate to 5-3, with an added advantage of an away goal. It meant Barcelona needed three clear goals to win or else they will bid early farewell to European Championship in Enrique’s final year at the club.
The real drama unfolded in the final seven minutes when two quick goals in succession from Neymar, one coming from the penalty, rejuvenated the fans at the stadium. PSG defenders failed to contain the situation in the dying minutes of the game. A 95th minute free kick proved to be the kill shot for PSG, as Roberto scored from a controlled finish to register his first goal in months and gave Barcelona another lifeline in the tournament. Since the Champions League format started in 1992-1993, it was the biggest comeback victory in history by any club. “I don’t think anyone stopped believing. After seeing them sit back despite the goal, the team were incredible,” Enrique said.
The tables meanwhile turned on PSG boss Unai Emery, who now is facing questions regarding his future at the club. Emery admitted after the game that they made some tactical errors in the game against Barcelona. Benching the hero of the first leg Angel Di Maria was perhaps the biggest mistake by the Spaniard. But, in spite of his admission, Emery was unable to prevent himself from being trolled on the internet and from fans asking for his resignation. In one night, Emery saw himself being turned into a “villain”, and some even compared him to the struggling Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger.
“Wenger Out”, demands Arsenal fans at Emirates
Even before the second leg between Arsenal and Bayern Munich got underway, the fans at the stadium started chanting “Wenger out” and there were plenty of placards outside calling for the Frenchman to move on. In 10 years, without a single trophy other than FA Cup, Wenger has alienated majority of his fan base at the stadium, and many wonder why the French manager is continuing to bear the humiliation from fans and not announce his departure.
The Champions League fixture proved to be another nail in Wenger’s coffin (or final?), as Bayern repeated history by bidding farewell to familiar English rivals. The Gunners drew the German club for the third time in last four years, and much like previous years, Bayern found themselves on the winning side of things. The Carlo Ancelotti side beat Wenger’s boys by 5-1 yet again, as they recorded an aggregate of 10-2, the second biggest aggregate defeat in UCL history (only after Bayern Munich 12-1 Sporting CP in 2009).
Wenger saw himself becoming the “villain” as angry fans went into a protest fixture across the streets of London right after the humiliating defeat. After 20 years, perhaps the 67-year old manager has extended his stay at the club. Unlike his Manchester United counterpart, Alex Ferguson, who won the Premiere League trophy in his final year at the club, and left as a “hero”, Wenger’s ouster from the club is becoming a heated affair, with the manager refusing to bow down, even after string of bad results. He was right when he said his future at the club seems not too bright.
Other results: Napoli 1-3 Real Madrid; Borussia Dortmund 4-0 Benfica