La Liga El Clásico Review: Barcelona Brilliance Buries Blancos
Josep Guardiola, known for his cool demeanor inside and outside of the technical area, channeled his feelings for all things Madrid when he refused to give Cristiano Ronaldo the ball for a throw-in on the half-hour mark. Unlike his outspoken and demonstrative counterpart José Mourinho, Guardiola usually keeps to himself, shouting and dictating to his players on the pitch on rare occasions. Monday night’s match was El Clásico, however, and normal circumstances and situations have little bearing. The ball had gone out of play, and Ronaldo wanted to take a throw-in quickly to continue what little momentum Real Madrid had going forward. The ball fortuitously came to Guardiola, and in one of his less sporting moments, he held the ball away from Ronaldo and then eventually rolled it away from him. Ronaldo took exception to such behavior and shoved him in the chest, starting a little fracas as the Barça players came to defend Guardiola while the Real players took Ronaldo’s side.
Mentioning how normal circumstances fly out of the window during El Clásico, Víctor Valdés, Gerard Piqué, and Carles Puyol would be the ones who would immediately soar into the affray because of their combative personalities, and on cue, Valdés received a yellow card for coming out of his penalty area to confront Ronaldo. Who was the first one, however, to challenge Ronaldo for his behavior? The mild-mannered and unassuming Andrés Iniesta. Iniesta was the nearest Barça player to the situation, but Dani Alves, Lionel Messi, and Sergio Busquets were also around, saw exactly what Ronaldo did to Guardiola, and did not immediately react as Iniesta did.
By the time the Guardiola – Ronaldo showdown occurred, it was already 2-0 in favor of the Catalans, and that situation was the only fight that Real Madrid could muster throughout the whole of the match.
Before the match, Mourinho had to make one forced change to his settled starting eleven, as Gonzalo Higuaín failed to pass a late fitness test due to a back muscle injury, and the much-maligned Karim Benzema deputized for Higuaín as the lone center-forward. Benzema had become 75th – 80th minute replacement for Higuaín in most of the matches this season, and he had provided some decent performances in those short stints. He needed to fill Higuaín’s boots from the start of the match against their toughest and most important opponent, however, and Benzema’s few starts for Real Madrid this season were nothing about which to write.
Guardiola sent out his optimum eleven, which meant that the slightly more defensive Éric Abidal started at left back over the Brazilian Maxwell. With Ángel di María and Cristiano Ronaldo on the flanks and willing to switch at any moment, Guardiola wanted the defensive assurances of Abidal to cover the Barça left wing.
From the opening minutes, this version of El Clásico did not resemble the tight, cagey matches from the previous season where both teams found it hard to penetrate the opposition’s defensive lines. At least for FC Barcelona.
Lionel Messi, who had never scored against a José Mourinho-trained club, provided the ominous, early salvo in the sixth minute. From the right edge of the penalty area, Messi audaciously chipped a ball to the left far post over Iker Casillas and pinged off the post for a momentary let-off for Real Madrid. Gerard Piqué was making a late run to that left back post, but Messi’s universal skills could only mean that he intentionally went for the shot over Casillas rather than crossing for Piqué that happened to beat Casillas and clang the post.
Four minutes later, Barcelona would breakthrough with the opening goal by a combination between the two best midfielders in football, Andrés Iniesta and Xavi Hernández. After another twenty to thirty pass move, Iniesta cut in from the left and drove a pass through the Real defense, and Marcelo, desperately sliding to intercept the pass, could only deflect it to Xavi, who had made a relatively rare darting run into the box, and with his feathery touch, volleyed it over Casillas with the side of his right boot to open the floodgates.
Barcelona would score again eight minutes later when Xavi returned to his maestro role in the midfield and gave David Villa a perfectly flighted forty-yard diagonal ball to the left wing. Villa was the only debutant in Barcelona’s starting eleven to El Clásico, and he showed no signs of nerves as he cut into the box against Sergio Ramos and got the best of both Ramos and Casillas as his squared ball across the six-yard box avoided Ramos’ lunging tackle and crept under Casillas’ gloves to an open Pedro “Don’t call me Pedrito anymore” Rodríguez, and with an empty net in front of him, Pedro knocked it in from two yards out to extend the lead to two goal before twenty minutes had ticked off the clock.
The only legitimate shout for a potential goal for Real Madrid came in the 39th minute when Ronaldo and Valdés came together in the penalty area, and referee Eduardo Iturralde González ruled that Valdés just got a finger on the ball before Ronaldo got to it and thus it was a fair challenge. The replay proved inconclusive as it looked as though both arrived at the ball at the exact same time.
MARCA, of course, disputed Iturralde González’s decision, and for MARCA‘s more “detailed” analysis of Iturralde González’s performance, click here. If you cannot read Spanish or do not have a website translator, MARCA did do a decent job of somewhat maintaining neutrality, but they did mark the penalty shout as a “clear penalty” as well as emphasizing Messi’s yellow card just before the break for simulation following Ricardo Carvalho’s supposedly accidental shoulder to Messi’s face.
José Mourinho did make a halftime change in the hope of turning the match around, but curiously, he took off an admittedly ineffective Mesut Özil for the midfield destroyer Lassana Diarra. Real’s defense did not improve, and within the first fifteen minutes of the second half, Barcelona doubled their lead to an astonishing 4-0.
Lionel Messi took the role from Xavi as the midfield general as he provided two assists for David Villa that both Iniesta and Xavi would gush over. Villa’s first goal, Barcelona’s third goal, came about through a “simple” through ball in between two Real defenders, but the foresight Messi needed to visualize the pass was impeccable, and although Villa looked to be a quarter of a body length offside, the linesman did not raise his flag, and the rout ensued.
Villa’s second goal, Barcelona’s fourth goal, was all about Messi, as he delivered the best pass of the 600/700 that Barcelona executed in the match. Xavi started the move by causing the turnover on Lassana Diarra in midfield, and Diarra cynically pulled Xavi back to prevent the counter-attack, but Barça maintained possession, and Iturralde González correctly played the advantage when most referees would have blown the whistle. Messi then dribbled for a few yards when he saw Villa make a run down the left wing. He executed a pinpoint thirty to forty yard diagonal pass on the ground through four Real players for Villa in stride, and Villa took the shot first-time with his right foot, in between the legs of an onrushing Casillas, into the back of the net for an improbably 4-0 lead.
Jeffrén Suárez would add a fifth at the end of the match to complete the humiliation, but the action did not end there.
Sergio Ramos decided upon himself to avenge his fallen teammates by scything through Lionel Messi’s left leg, then pushing Carles Puyol down by his face once referee Eduardo Iturralde González had flashed the red card at him, then tweaking Xavi’s chin as he left the pitch and into the tunnel. In a match sprinkled with bouts of unsportsmanlike conduct, Ramos took that conduct to the highest (or lowest, depending on perspective) level with his one-man Rambo-like rampage in an act of petulance that should land him at least a three-match ban if not more.
Despite this 5-0 romp and the added satisfaction of embarrassing their eternal rivals, this match only counts for three points, and in the cold light of statistics, Barcelona only has a two-point lead over Real Madrid and a seven-point lead over Villarreal. Guardiola and his players all spoke about how this result did not mean anything if they end up losing the championship, and they somewhat quelled the euphoria of the win with their levelheaded statements in the post-match press conferences.
A humbled José Mourinho gave all the credit to Barcelona and stated that it would be easy to move on from this match because they were outplayed in all aspects of the match, and no outside influences (refereeing decisions, close calls, etc.) would have made the difference in this edition of El Clásico. He also mentioned that because they were blown out, the loss was easier to swallow rather than a close loss. Of course, Mourinho would try to add a positive spin to an otherwise dire performance, but the gulf in class on this particular night should alarm Mourinho. Even if a one-goal loss would have been harder to take, at least they would know that a small adjustment here or there could have made the difference among a loss, draw, or even a win, but a five-goal blowout only indicates that Mourinho still has plenty of work to compete with FC Barcelona if they are to capture La Liga for the first time since the 2007-08 season, a barren spell for los blancos.
Josep Guardiola and FC Barcelona vividly showed how the game of football could be so simple yet equally spectacular at the same time. While it only meant three more points in their coffer, the confidence they can take from this stellar performance can carry them into the dregs of midseason and the long, winter months.
Xavi, Jorge Valdano, and others felt that this match should not have been played on Monday because it would lose its soul, but it gave everyone in Spain as well as around the world the chance to focus solely on these two teams, and the only conclusion that the viewers of the match can make is that FC Barcelona is truly the best team in world football.