When FC Barcelona players boarded the plane for London, their plane was still in a hangar somewhere in Turkey getting blue and red stripes painted on the side. It was 10 p.m. on Tuesday night but the Spanish champions had already headed off to the Champions League final -- two days ahead of schedule. This time they weren't going to wait. This time they would take no risks.
The night before, a small crowd had gathered on the Camp Nou pitch after Barcelona's training session, trying to decide what to do. Pep Guardiola and his coaching staff, plus Manuel Estiarte and Carlos Naval. Another ash cloud was creeping across European skies from Iceland and flights looked set to be disrupted. Guardiola said that what mattered would be the supporters -- we play for them and it would be awful, he said, for the match to go ahead in front of a half-empty stadium -- but the immediate concern was the team itself.
The team and the result, that is. Weighing heavily on Barcelona's minds was last season's Champions League semifinal. They could have been forgiven for thinking that He had it in for them. Or at least that someone in Iceland did. Last year, Barcelona had been forced to travel to Milan by bus, stopping off on Cannes on route, to play Inter. The picture of the staff sitting on concrete bollards at a roadside service station was a picture of impotence and frustration.
Barcelona had doubted at first, wondering whether to wait for the air space to open. In the end, it had no choice but to go for it. Against the clock. In total, Barcelona spent almost 20 hours on board and while this was not National Express, with a jolly hostess serving crisps and tea, squeezing her way down a narrow aisle, it was hardly ideal preparation. Barcelona lost 3-1 and lost its place in the final. Barcelona was not prepared to run that kind of risk this time.
"This time" is the key phrase. Barcelona has run the risk over the last three years. Normally it is not much of a risk, but on occasion it has been close to causing them problems -- most notably at Osasuna this season. Since he took over as coach, aided by the fact that many Spanish games do not kick off until 8, 9, or 10 p.m.and persuaded by the dressing room heavyweights, Guardiola has allowed his team to travel on the day of the game rather than the night before.
The rationale is logical enough: not to pressure players, not to make the emotional toll of the job greater than it already is. To allow them as much time at home with their families as possible, rather than holed up in a hotel, bored out of their minds. Not that they have always avoided stress: when they played in Pamplona against Osasuna this season, an air traffic controller's strike and a horrific communications breakdown with the Spanish footballing authorities saw Pedro literally running onto a train at Barcelona's Sants station and the team taking a train and a bus to the ground, turning up one minute after kick off.
Barcelona won that game anyway, when it eventually kicked off 45 minutes later. It turned up, played, won and left. It had been in Pamplona less than four hours. But perhaps that should not surprise. It was very much the way Barca like it: no time to get bored, a way of removing the tension and the build up surrounding the game. A way to desdramatizar the game, as the Spanish put it. To de-dramatize it, to take it in their stride -- even if that stride was, in Pedro's case, a long and rather quick one across a train station platform to a sound track of beeps as the doors prepared to close.
And that poses a potentially question.
It now looks like the ash is clearing and that traveling early was not necessary. Yet this game is too important and the trip potentially too awkward not to have brought forward Barcelona's travel plans just in case -- reaching London is further and more difficult, for example, than reaching Milan. They certainly did not want to be stepping off a long bus trip and onto the pitch. Doing that after two hours on the train and two hours on the bus to play Osasuna is one thing; doing it after 20 hours on the bus, as they did in Milan, is another. London would have taken even longer. Leaving it to the last minute would have been suicidal.
But is going early a problem too? Now, Barcelona has to spend three days in London before the final. Three days cooped up in each other's company, training on an unfamiliar pitch -- courtesy of Arsenal (it is not even as if they get the advantage of being allowed to use Wembley) -- that has not been prepared to resemble the match pitch. Living in a hotel, removed from the comforts of home. The sheer normality of home. Those other things that occupy their minds.
Guardiola did not simply bring in the travel-on-the-day policy for the sake of it. He did it because he thinks it helps. This could hardly be more different. Three days, thinking about the game. It is so out of the ordinary that it could have an effect -- a small one, sure, but an effect nonetheless. Add that to the potential risk of the vast majority of Barcelona's players not having played for a two weeks, after wrapping the league title early, or even to a slower and heavier pitch than Barcelona like, and it makes you wonder. If Barcelona's fans don't make it, all the more so. After all, Wembley is likely to be dominated by Manchester United supporters anyway.
Wrapping up the title early and resting would appear an advantage on the face of it, but that is not necessarily true: in the past, Guardiola has intimated that his players get bored and drop their level when they are not on the treadmill, that it is almost better to have games every few days. Not to be sitting abut thinking about it. United perhaps agree: they continued to play some key men after the title was won.
The challenge now will be finding ways of taking Barcelona's players' minds off it; of getting them back into the normal routine. Of not winding them up and motivating them too early. Timing can be everything. And just when everything seemed to be going so well too: for almost the first time this season, Guardiola has all of his players fit and rested. Ready.
Turkish airways have now finished painting Barcelona's plane. With the travel plans brought forward unexpectedly, it was not available for the flight out but it will be available for the flight back. A flight that the players will be desperately hoping is a triumphant one. Otherwise it will prove been a wasted trip, one they need never have made.