The hype, the pomp, the circumstance. All of these rose to a higher level for this episode of El Clásico at the Camp Nou on Sunday evening. Coming into this match, FC Barcelona turned their fortunes around in the UEFA Champions League with a 2-0 victory over Inter Milan. The scoreline hardly gave any justice to both teams as Barcelona played as well as Inter played poorly. The impotency in attack as well as the nonchalance in defense for Inter contrasted with the elegant passing football and the defensive pressure presented by Barça. What resulted were two goals in twenty-six minutes and a willingness to keep possession, as Inter Milan did not use their ability to close Barça down.
Real Madrid was more workmanlike in their 1-0 win over FC Zürich. Reading the stat sheet would convince all those who did not witness the match that Real dominated their lowly Swiss opponents, but the desire and spirit within the Zürich squad contributed to a tighter than expected match. Real toiled through a physical encounter to rise to the top of their Champions League group with one match to go, and they were able to give Cristiano Ronaldo his first action in several weeks. His twenty-minute stint was not anything special, but the most important reason that manager Manuel Pellegrini sent him out against FC Zürich was to get him used to live football before their match against Barcelona.
The biggest pieces of news before the Real – Barça clash were the absences of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Raúl from their respective teams’ starting eleven. Raúl’s omission did not come as too much of a surprise because Gonzalo Higuaín has been the in form striker in the last few games, but for Pellegrini to exclude Raúl in such a monumental occasion shows that he is in full control of this team and will do what he feels is best for the team, even if that means passing over Real legends like Raúl and Guti. As for Ibrahimovic, he struggled with a hamstring injury that occurred in a league match against Mallorca three weeks ago and forced him to miss two friendlies for the Swedish national team and a Champions League encounter against Inter Milan. Both Raúl and Ibrahimovic were available on their sides’ benches if necessary.
Many expected this match to be a goal fest, similar to their last meeting in early May, when Real Madrid fought their way back into the title race with a torrid fifty-two points out of a possible fifty-four heading into El Clásico. Barcelona would dominate the proceedings with a 2-6 thrashing at the Santiago Bernabéu to seal La Liga for the Blaugrana. What transpired this Sunday was more akin to the first Barcelona – Real Madrid meeting last season, where goals were at a premium, and the physical nature of both teams was a major part in influencing the run of play.
Even though it was 0-0 at halftime, Real won the opening forty-five minutes by creating the better chances and snuffing out the influences of Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta, and Lionel Messi. Manuel Pellegrini’s tactics forced the ball away from Xavi, the conductor of the Catalunyan orchestra, and Barcelona bypassed the midfield altogether on more occasions than they prefer. Xabi Alonso and Lassana Diarra worked in synergy in the midfield, as their two dominated the midfield three of Barcelona.
Real had the best opportunity to score in the first half in the 20th minute, when Kaká’s run from the left flank into the penalty area set up a pass across the box to an unmarked Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo took the shot first-time to the left far post and had Barça keeper Victor Valdés going the wrong way. Valdés somehow deflected the shot with his trailing legs and went wide of the post for a corner. Ronaldo might be criticized for not finishing a golden opportunity, but most of the credit should belong to Valdés, as he continues to become one of Spain’s top goalkeepers without ever being noticed. Those gaffes that have plagued his career are at a bare minimum, and Barcelona rewarded this consistency with a contract extension through 2014 in the offseason.
The start of the second half was more of the same as each team received yellow cards for professional fouls. Both teams tended to halt any semblance of a counter-attack or breakaway with a professional foul or significant contact. Barcelona continued to possess the ball at a high percentage but failed to substantiate it with any noteworthy chances. Barça manager Pep Guardiola made the first move in the tactical game between Pellegrini and him when he sent in Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the 51st minute for an ineffective Thierry Henry. Henry started the match in the center of the three forward line with Messi on his right and Iniesta on his left but found little success. He drifted to his more comfortable left flank as the game wore on but still could not engineer a legitimate scoring opportunity.
The blasé Barcelona attack suddenly became much more potent with Ibrahimovic leading the line. They had their best spell of possession two minutes into Ibrahimovic’s shift, when a series of patented Barça short, incisive passes ultimately led to a shot blocked by Xabi Alonso. Although they did not convert, Barcelona brought different ideas into the fold and concerned an already worried Real Madrid, as they felt the momentum shift toward their Catalunyan rivals.
Real Madrid stubbornly succumbed to this momentum when Barcelona broke the deadlock in the 56th minute. Ibrahimovic volleyed in a left-footed shot to give Barça the 1-0 lead. Dani Alves gets equal credit for the goal because of a wonderful early cross, and Ibrahimovic still had plenty to do, as his left-footed volley was technically difficult. Many players with this particular opportunity would either blaze it high over the crossbar or completely mistime the cross and whiff on the shot. This moment was why Barcelona was so aggressive in bringing Zlatan Ibrahimovic from Inter Milan. As technically gifted and football-intelligent as he is, he built a reputation for coming up small in the most important moments. Whether this assertion was fair or not became irrelevant at this instant as Ibrahimovic etched his name into the fabric of this historic rivalry.
The euphoria would be short-lived as Sergio Busquets received his second yellow card for an unnecessary and deliberate handball in midfield in the 62nd minute. Touré Yaya came in for Seydou Keita to beef up the midfield and fill the absence of Busquets, and Andrés Iniesta dropped back into the midfield to produce a 4-3-2 formation. As well as Barcelona’s offensive flair drives their overall philosophy, it often overlooks their defensive tenacity and discipline. Carles Puyol is the captain of the team for a reason, and he wears the Catalunyan armband with abounding pride and grit. Barcelona held on to the clean sheet and the win thanks to Puyol’s defensive positioning and sheer will.
He fully committed to sliding challenges that prevented potential goals in the 26th, 53rd, and 70th minutes, and as Real pushed forward with a one-man advantage and a one-goal deficit, Puyol led the defensive line, always insisting to be compact with his words and his hand gestures. While Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored the goal that made the difference on the scoreboard, Carles Puyol clearly was the man of the match as he personified the fortitude and determination of FC Barcelona. Those rumors of Puyol leaving for Manchester City seem laughable now.
Despite the hyperbole surrounding the match, Barcelona’s three-point win over their blood rivals only gives the Blaugrana a tenuous two point lead over Los Merengues, with a myriad of challengers just behind them with twenty-six rounds of matches left. Real Madrid will take solace in the fact that Cristiano Ronaldo is on his way back to full fitness, and their team will continue to gel as the campaign continues. Sevilla and Valencia have the talent to break the duopoly at the top of La Liga. Today, however, belongs to the tenants of Camp Nou.
This past week was a litmus test in their efforts to recapture the once inconceivable treble. Barcelona was in grave danger of not qualifying for the knockout stages of the Champions League and falling four points behind Real Madrid at the end of November. The mark of a champion is when they win when not playing at their best. Hardly anyone will say that Barcelona was at their scintillating best against Inter Milan and Real Madrid, but they achieved their desired results without compromising their beliefs and philosophies. The 155th edition of El Clásico ends with a 1-0 victory for FC Barcelona. A tension-filled thriller, it was neither the prettiest nor the best played match in the history of this rivalry, but the effort and intent displayed by all involved in the match were unsurpassed.