It was a strange Sunday more than a “Super” one. Tottenham showed heart. Stoke City looked like Barcelona. And Barcelona themselves defended like Aston Villa. In that context, Barca’s thrill/laugh-a-minute 4-3 victory at Real Madrid was almost to be expected. The Bernabeu clasico had everything Premier League fans apparently desire. Goals, pace, schoolboy errors, dodgy refereeing, dodgy diving and a punch-up. Looking back, even from this short distance, there wasn’t as much sublime football in the game as it felt like there had been at the time, especially in a breathlessly-exciting first half. But that has never mattered to those who market England’s Premier League as “the best in the world.” And I was caught up enough in the Bernabeu bedlam to shed my usual killjoy cynicism towards that attitude.
The true genius of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona was for it not to matter that they were relatively hopeless at the back. With Gerard Pique still due his best years, Carlos Puyol just past them and Dani Alves no more a full-back than me, Barca were a defensive disaster waiting for a team to get enough possession from them. Joyously for fans and neutrals, that was often a long wait. With Pique still due his best years, Alves still no more a full-back than me and Javier Mascherano… I suspect I needn’t go on. If Mascherano is the answer, the question must be “Sorry…WHO??” And Barcelona aren’t, quite, that fabulous any more, as Bayern Munich emphatically demonstrated during last year’s Champions League semi-final. The middle bit of the first-half of El Clasico had a similar feel to it. And Real Madrid’s second goal was an A-to-Z of all Barca’s defensive woes.
Whatever clauses were in Neymar’s seemingly complex Barca contract, there clearly wasn’t a “tracking back” clause. Then there was Angel Di Maria’s contemptuous breeze past Alves, Mascherano’s “Superman” pose as he went to head a ball that was already at the next bus stop. And Gerard Pique bringing his famous pop star wife Shakira to mind – as in “Shakira would have marked Karim Benzema tighter than that.” Fortunately, Real Madrid were periodically just as hopeless – and possibly should have been out of touch by the time Benzema got going. They defended narrower than Chile on a mini-globe for Barca’s opening goal and gifted Lionel Messi a golden opportunity to make it 2-0 with an L-shaped offside trap. And Neymar…
For someone who doesn’t score as many goals as his midfield genius suggests he should, Andres Iniesta is suddenly developing a nice portfolio of thunderous strikes into top corners with his wrong foot. Sunday’s goal made it two in eight days. And such was his body shape in Madrid that there’s probably a camera angle which makes him look like Geoff Hurst scoring that extra-time goal in the 1966 World Cup Final. You know, the one that did cross the line. Messi made the goal with a centimetre-perfect pass worthy of the highest praise, however “tucked in” Real right-back Daniel Carvajal was. But while Messi may have dragged one-on-one opportunities such as the one he got moments later that horribly wide in his pre-injury Guardiola-coached pomp, I can’t recall one at the moment. And Neymar…
It was little wonder Di Maria collapsed in a disturbing-looking heap after crossing for Benzema’s equaliser. He had probably never stayed on his feet that long during an opening 20 minutes in his footballing career, inspired by the realisation that, for all his early faults, Carvajal was still the best defender called Danny on the pitch. Meanwhile, Barca keeper Victor Valdes joined us in two minds about his effort to save Benzema’s first goal. Had his parry gone outside the post, it would surely have been lauded as a great save and sparked multiple observations about how Barca will miss him after he leaves in the summer (the thought that they will replace him with Mascherano is nowhere near as outlandish as it should be). Valdes was, instead, “at fault,” even though the power of Benzema’s header – and a six-foot-two striker being marked by a five-foot-nine holding midfielder – were equally contributory factors. Having thought (honest) pre-match that Real would win partly because Benzema was finding his true form in their colours “at long bloody last”, I ought to have felt vindicated by the 24th minute. But it was not to be, as Benzema should have had four by then. Thus reprieved, Barcelona began to stem the tide a little. And Neymar…
If truth be told, neither Messi nor Cristiano Ronaldo had shone in the first half. But, in the nick of time, Messi delivered, playing a fantastic one-two with a plank of wood (guess who) which mysteriously appeared in front of Real’s goal three minutes before the break and sweeping the ball home. This sparked an off-the-ball contretemps between two prime starters of arguments in empty rooms – Real’s thuggish Pepe and Barca’s nasty piece of work Cesc Fabregas – which gave SKY’s commentators Rob Palmer & Gerry Armstrong the chance to prove that they were actually in the ground for once rather than in a West London studio watching the game on telly like the rest of us (“there’s an off-the-ball incident here” – Armstrong). This also meant that they didn’t have to commentate on the ridiculous pictures from the camera moving along the touchline, a perspective which was as unwelcome and disorientating as it is physically impossible. Spanish TV is a few visual innovations ahead of Sky just now. When Sky catch up, they can overlook that little gem.
Barca were fortunate to be level at half-time, although studio pundit Santi Solari’s suggestion that Real dominated the first half made the on-screen caption under his name, “Real Madrid, 2000-2005,” less than a surprise. But they were unfortunate to go 3-2 down, in perhaps the prime example of what SKY’s Guillem Balague noted as almost every goal being against the run of play – in a perceptive post-match analysis which made you wince at the thought of Robbie Savage being technically in the same job. And anyone wanting to rebut Ronaldo’s less-perceptive post-match analysis – that Barca got “a little help from outside” – could point at the 55th-minute penalty he “won” …although no-one was happy at first.
Real players were furious that the referee didn’t book Alves for his cynical foul. Alves was furious because he cynically fouled Ronaldo two paces OUTSIDE the penalty area. And neutral observers would have been furious that such a fine match was to be decided by Ronaldo’s dishonest belly-flop two paces INSIDE the area. And the match did look decided. Real were ahead. They were the better side. Ronaldo was in confident “preening prick” mode. Benzema had missed another fine chance at 2-2 but would surely get another, which he wouldn’t miss. And Neymar…
For the first 65 minutes, three dots overstated Neymar’s contribution to proceedings. Much of the pre-match talk had centred on Neymar’s selection ahead of Pedro and/or Alexis Sanchez. Once the match began, Pedro had looked a better bet when Neymar was on the left and Alexis Sanchez a better bet when Neymar was on the right…hell, Alexei SAYLE might have been a better bet. So when Messi played him through with a millimetre-perfect pass, there was never any sense that Neymar was about to make a contribution to proceedings. Then he fell over. And everything changed. It took several replays for all “the lads back in the studio” to discern that Neymar had somehow both tripped himself up AND dragged his foot back to make contact with Real centre-half Sergio Ramos’s sock (though Solari, naturally, spotted Neymar’s subterfuge in an instant).
But referee Undiano Mallenco saw a multi-million Euro player in front of goal and a 19-times dismissed centre-back trailing in his wake. Ronaldo could blame him for awarding a penalty. But no-one else could. And if Ronaldo had converted his penalty magnificently – and he had – then Messi wasn’t about to do anything less. The desperately unfortunate Benzema was “sacrificed” to the cause of ten-man Real’s re-organisation, leaving Ronaldo to try and dominate Mascherano at any setpieces they could get in the final third for the previously nondescript Gareth Bale to whip into the box. But Ronaldo was now in petulant “preening prick” mode and was neither use nor ornament – except to get booked for straying a forearm into Mascherano’s jaw, which might have endeared him to more neutrals than purists would care to admit. While Pedro and Alexis were now on the park and, more importantly, Neymar was off it.
So it seemed only a matter of time before Barca broke through. Alves’ drive against the post suggested that they might eventually have done so, even without the help of another penalty, which Messi struck even better than both his and Ronaldo’s previous efforts. If, as Ronaldo claimed post-match, there were “a lot of people” who “did not want us to win,” he might want to discover why Xabi Alonso was one of them, as Real’s midfield engine-room combined with Carvajal to trip, knee and drag down Iniesta to concede the decisive kick. Solari wondered why penalties could be given for “so little,” which left viewers fearful of what he thought was “enough” for an award… until he added that Bale should have got a penalty when Pique kicked the sole of his boot in a penalty box challenge at the other end with the score at 3-2.
On this, if almost nothing else, Solari had a point. And it would be unfair to single out the current Real youth team coach for his club bias, as ex-Barca player Gaizka Mendieta ended the evening tipping Barca for the title every bit as enthusiastically as Solari tipped Real. The La Liga leaders at the end of the evening were Atletico Madrid. By the way. Yet when the various dusts have settled, Real Madrid will still be warm-ish favourites for the title, although the wisdom or otherwise of that prediction may already be apparent if you are reading this after Real’s trip to Sevilla. Goal difference, which heavily favours Barca at the moment, will make no difference. And while Real will have to win the title on points – as their head-to-head record against Barca and Atleti is supremely dismal – they now have the other two off their Christmas card AND fixture list.
Also, quite famously, Barca and Atleti meet at the Nou Camp on the season’s final day, while the resolutely mid-table Espanyol will be Real’s opposition and will not need to play out of their skins for a result, either for Europa League qualification, avoiding relegation or to do any favours to their city rivals…FC Barcelona. But whatever happens from now, the latest Clasico will live in the memory for all sorts of reasons, however well Stoke City played.
You can follow Mark on Twitter by clicking here.