Neil Humphreys: Barcelona must never get boring
Beautiful Catalans should never play an ugly game
In these troubled times, certain facts of sporting life must be sacrosanct.
Roger Federer's racket should always be a paintbrush, Joseph Schooling has to swim like he's escaping Jaws and Barcelona must be breathtaking.
As long as the Catalans are dancing to an otherworldly beat, there's a sense of continuity in our lives.
Barcelona are a striped security blanket, warm and reassuring. But they were boring against Juventus yesterday morning (Singapore time) and deliberately so.
The Spaniards are many things to many people, but they are never dull. They can lose games. They can sell restless superstars to Champions League rivals and fail to land targets in transfer windows.
Nobody's perfect. But style and substance are seldom compromised in Barcelona.
As night follows day, Lionel Messi starts and the Spaniards play a fluid version of 4-3-3, safe in the knowledge that they'll rarely concede more than they score.
But Ernesto Valverde thinks differently. An incorrigible pragmatist, the coach dropped Messi against Juventus, insisting the magician needed a rest and Barcelona needed only a point to top Group D.
But Messi was born for bruising nights in Turin. He's superhuman, an inexplicable cross between a Playstation footballer and a Duracell Bunny.
He'll rest when he retires.
Besides, he hadn't scored away from home in the Champions League for a year and had never triumphed in Turin.
Messi lives to break records, but was largely denied the opportunity, not entering the fray until the 56th minute of a drab contest that ended goalless.
Valverde insisted afterwards that Messi required rest. In reality, Valverde fears Valencia, which must delight a certain Singaporean billionaire.
Messi's "loss" is Peter Lim's gain.
He owns Valencia and they're riding high in second place in La Liga and may fancy their chances when they host Barcelona on Monday morning.
Valverde had one eye on Valencia, the other on Messi and little interest in Juventus, which could be construed as one-off pragmatism, if it didn't conform to a larger pattern.
VALVERDE A TINKERER TOO
Barcelona achieved qualification after recording back-to-back 0-0 draws in the Champions League for the first time.
Jose Mourinho pioneered this cynical stuff in modern, continental football, but it's a bit of a novelty around the Nou Camp and not a particularly popular one.
Louis van Gaal eventually discovered that cautious football isn't tolerated forever at Barcelona, even if it does bring in the odd trophy.
But Valverde isn't prepared to pander to the whims of Nou Camp idealists when he has to manage an ageing squad with no Ousmane Dembele, even if that means veering away from an established template.
Dropping Messi and promoting Paulinho to a false No. 9 role enabled Valverde to pick a defensive 4-2-3-1 and advocate a stifling style of play that was tough to watch.
He's a tinkerer, too. The formations have varied, from 4-4-2 to 3-5-2, with the odd 4-2-3-1 thrown in, and he's getting results.
But an attacking quartet that included Paulinho and Gerard Deulofeu - and no Messi - in a clash of European titans not only contributed to an anti-climactic affair, it also underlined Valverde's mission statement.
It's his club, his rules.
In the past, there was always a tacit understanding that Messi essentially picked himself. If he was fit, he played.
Valverde thinks otherwise, which is an admirable gamble - as long as it comes off.
Messi's teammate, Luis Suarez, hasn't looked this miserable since he engineered a move from Liverpool. He touched the ball 14 times in the first half.
The game passed him by. Barca's attacking threat was negligible. They set up not to lose at a stadium where they'd never won in the Champions League, a laudable initiative, if the Catalans hadn't been so colourless.
Valverde's approach is undoubtedly effective. Barcelona have conceded just once in Europe and only four times in 12 La Liga games, but who reveres the Blaugrana for keeping clean sheets?
It'd be like admiring Federer because he hits fewer double faults than his rivals.
Besides, Valverde's tactics have largely paid off thanks to the remarkable consistency of Messi - with 12 La Liga and three Champions League goals - and Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
His stupendous save in injury time earned Valverde a point that his cynicism barely deserved.
If Messi delivers at the Mestalla, then Valverde may feel vindicated. On the other hand, a Valencia victory could be a timely shot in the arm for both Spanish football and Barcelona.
Only a point will separate the two La Liga sides.
Valverde might then reject the "winning ugly" routine in favour of the kind of Catalan football that usually defines Barcelona's beautiful game.