Javier Mascherano faced Barcelona's executioners and said: "Don't kill us yet." As the pressure builds and talk of crisis engulfs the Catalan club, the man they call the Little Chief stepped forward once again. The Argentinian carries a gravitas and leadership that has been apparent at key moments before – he spoke before the Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid in 2011, three days after a wounded Barça had lost the cup final to their bitter rivals, and he was called on again as they prepared for the second leg against Manchester City.
Mascherano insisted that Barcelona have a "lovely opportunity" to reach the quarter-finals after their 2-0 victory at the Etihad Stadium. He also noted: "We're not so bad." So far, so standard but if this appears a redundant message, it was not. It needed to be delivered and few do so like him. The mood in Catalonia is far from optimistic. That first-leg victory was three weeks ago but feels like a world away and the criticism has been vicious. The 2-0 lead appears vulnerable.
Barcelona fell to their third defeat in six league games against Valladolid on Saturday, slipping four points behind Real Madrid and releasing months of simmering debate and doubt. Johan Cruyff famously called it the entorno – that deafening swirl of pressure, politics and pessimism. If Barcelona thought unprecedented success had silenced that forever, it has returned.
For much of the last 18 months, the team have sustained the institution amid a catalogue of off-field problems, including the resignation of the president, Sandro Rosell, after state prosecutors opened an investigation for alleged "simulated contracts" and tax avoidance. With poor results and performances, the pressure has built. Against Valladolid, Barcelona were dreadful and the press has been pitiless. Supporters have grown concerned, even if the coach, Tata Martino, did insist that they, unlike the press, would back the team tomorrow night.
Mascherano appeared at Sant Joan Despí and was engulfed by cameras. When they parted, it was as if he faced a firing squad but he did not back down. A similar experience awaited Martino afterwards. Why are you playing so badly? Has the team become satiated by success? Are you weak? Will you continue? Are the team training hard enough? Are the players on the manager's side? One after the other, the questions came. Rat-a-tat-tat-tat. Few asked about City, except to question what happened. How could a team who played so well in Manchester be so different now?
Mascherano talked of "dramatisation" and insisted that this was neither "Disney nor a horror film". His message was a measured and positive one. At one point it was passionate too, leaning forward, voice rising, swift and direct. This was a defence of Barcelona and of the manager. "We're not tocados," he said. Tocados roughly means wounded or damaged, hurt, mentally as well as physically. "It's March. Wait for us to be dying before you kill us off! We're still alive."
"We have a 2-0 lead, in our favour," Mascherano said, stressing "in our favour". "We're not so bad. This is a nice opportunity to reach the quarter-finals. The idea is to win trophies but the obligation is to be competing for them at this stage. If all goes well I think we have 18 games left. Let's weigh things up at the end. Wait until we're dying before you kill us. Don't kill us yet; it's only March!
"We analyse things differently to you, with criteria," he added. "We know we're in the last 16 with a positive first-leg result, we're in the Copa del Rey final and although a gap's opened, there's a long way to go in the league. In pre-season you dream of being in a situation like this. It's time to step on the accelerator."
"There will be time to think about the [mistakes of the] last few weeks but tomorrow's another story. We have to respond the way we have always responded in these situations. You can take everything as a criticism or a challenge: we take it as a challenge, to prove who we are. Our intention is not to shut people's mouths; it is to return to playing the way we have done. We want to get back to our best, to allow us to fight for all competitions."
Mascherano also responded to accusations of lax training and an incapable manager. "I read and listen less and less [to the media]," he said, "but if there is one thing we've always done it is dignify this profession. We can look people in the eyes and tell them we do things the right way.
"Maybe for you [Martino] is not a big name but he's been in this profession for 15 years. He left his country and earned recognition; he went home and earned recognition too. He took a team to the World Cup and almost knocked out the world champions [Chile v Spain in 2010] and he reached the Copa America final, beating Brazil. He's earned it all. When people lack respect, or underestimate him, they should check his CV. He was not gifted any of that.
As for tomorrow night, Mascherano highlights Sergio Agüero as City's greatest threat and admits Barça cannot afford to offer his fellow Argentinian any space. "I think we'll see City really attack. They play that way normally and with the result against them more so. Agüero is one of the five best forwards in the world, a fantastic player, and with space he can ruin your night.
"We'll try to give him as little space as possible and make sure he is not comfortable, that he doesn't feel like he's in his natural habit. We will try to do the same [as in the first leg]: keep possession, not let them counterattack, don't give them space. The way to do that is to have the ball for the majority of the game. We're the ones who have the lead.
"We're conscious that we cannot play like we did against Valladolid. We have to get back to our best version. Tomorrow is a great night for that."