Before the biggest match in Andrés Iniesta’s career and in the history of Spanish football, Iniesta had a trillion thoughts running through his head. One of those thoughts that came to fruition was writing a message to his close friend, Daniel Jarque, on his undershirt. That message said, “Dani Jarque, siempre con nosotros,” (Dani Jarque, always with us).
Jarque, who was born and bred through the Espanyol system, had succeeded club legend Raúl Tamudo as club captain in the summer of 2009, a lifelong dream for the hometown boy from Barcelona. During a preseason trip with Espanyol to Italy that summer, Jarque suffered a heart attack and lost his life at the tender age of 26. The only comfort that anyone could take from Jarque’s death was that he achieved the pinnacle of club captain while still alive.
Even if Spain lost that World Cup final to the Netherlands, Iniesta would have displayed his undershirt to the 84,490 people in Soccer City and to the cameras beaming the match throughout the world, but it would have not had the same impact. Sergio Ramos and Jesús Navas had a similar sentiment and message for their fallen teammate, Antonio Puerta, but it did not have the same impact. Whether you believe in fate and destiny or not, who scored the 116th minute goal, the only goal in the match, to earn Spain its first World Cup? Andrés Iniesta. Instead of the relative anonymity that Iniesta usually enjoys, that strike put him front and center, and he had no hesitation to rip off his jersey and reveal his communiqué to the hundreds of millions of people watching Spain’s triumph in South Africa.
Fast forward five months later to the 152nd edition of El Derbi Barceloní, and both Catalan clubs are flying high in the table, one expectedly and the other unexpectedly. Barcelona’s recent form had been nothing short of stellar, completing a combined 26-0 thrashing of their last six opponents in all competitions, including the signature performance of the season with their “La Manita” 5-0 dismissal of Real Madrid in the Camp Nou. Espanyol, through the strength of their 100% home record, has consistently stayed in the European zone and had camped out in fourth position for the past four weeks.
Usually, Espanyol plays the role of spoiler in this derby, trying with all their might to derail FC Barcelona from winning championships because los periquitos normally have nothing for which to play in the derby except for pride; however, Saturday’s match meant more for Espanyol in terms of a potential Champions League berth for the blanc i blaus, and they came in with expectations for the first time in a while, the first time in a while that both teams are playing on a somewhat level playing field when it comes to league placement.
The Espanyol supporters released all of their pent-up venom for their more glamorous neighbors before the match, displaying “Anti-Culé” scarves, carrying props, including tombstones with the Barça badge on them and a strange and disturbing yet hilarious blonde blowup doll with Gerard Piqué’s cut-out face glued on in reference to the Piqué – Shakira rumored affair, and jeering every Barça player as the public address announcer read each name, save for one person: Andrés Iniesta. Signs throughout the Cornellà – El Prat gave thanks to Iniesta for thinking about their former captain during the World Cup, and some even had Espanyol jerseys with Iniesta’s name emblazoned on the back with the number 21, Dani Jarque’s number.
When Pep Guardiola made the decision to substitute Iniesta in the 86th minute for Seydou Keita, Iniesta received a standing ovation from the Espanyol crowd that few, if any, Barcelona players ever received. Even both sets of players, who still had jobs to do on the pitch even though Barça was routing Espanyol 1-5 at that point, also joined in the love fest for Iniesta, clapping him off the field in respect for his dignity and his human spirit. True to a rivalry, however, once Iniesta came off and Keita entered, the cheers turned to whistles, and order was restored after a moment of solidarity between the two Catalan clubs.
Iniesta felt the emotion of the crowd and the transcendent nature of that moment in time:
“I felt something when I was on the pitch, and that is the greatest thing. More important than the rivalry are the people involved. They have sent me many messages, and that is much more important to me.”
With most of the attention on the unassuming and humble Andrés Iniesta, there actually was a game played at 20:00 CET on Saturday night, and Espanyol, with their unbounded confidence at home, tried to play football with Barcelona. In the past few derbies, Espanyol’s tactics involved an overt physicality to knock the Barça players off the ball and away from their concerto rhythm. Sometimes, Espanyol would partake in more than questionable challenges to prove their athletic prowess. Not this time.
Pablo Osvaldo announced his team’s intentions with the first minute with a decent shot to the right near post, where Víctor Valdés made a comfortable save. Espanyol would try to play out of the back and keep possession, but the still-underrated Barcelona defense pressured every Espanyol player on the ball and pinned them in their own half as Barça created chance after chance, including an inexplicable miss from Lionel Messi with an open goal in front of him.
Messi would not score in the match, a rare event these days, but that did not mean that Espanyol shut down his game because Messi provided two assists to raise his total to an astonishing ten, four ahead of Juan Mata, Mesut Özil, Xabi Prieto, and teammate Pedro Rodríguez at the top of the assists table, as well as creating the second goal for Pedro when he pinged his shot off the post. Pedro and David Villa each had a brace, and Xavi Hernández scored from an acute angle to contribute to Barcelona’s five goals.
Only when Espanyol fell two goals behind within the opening half-hour did they revert to their old tactics, and in a span of five minutes, referee Alberto Undiano Mallenco showed three yellow cards to three different Espanyol players. It slowed Barcelona’s attack to an extent, but it did not put a blockade on Carlos Kameni’s goal.
When Pablo Osvaldo scored in the 63rd minute, it gave Espanyol a tiny flicker of hope at 1-3. José Callejón sent in a cutting ball through the always-high Barcelona defensive line for Osvaldo, and Carles Puyol was never going to catch the Argentinean. Víctor Valdés, however, backed up and decided to stay on his line rather than come off his line and close the angle down on Osvaldo’s shot. Osvaldo blasted it past Valdés to the left far post for the goal, and Puyol dressed down Valdés for being passive rather than being assertive on Osvaldo.
The next two scoring chances after Osvaldo’s goal went to Espanyol, and with a little luck, it could have easily been 2-3. Callejón’s cross to Osvaldo was a few inches too high, as Osvaldo could not snap the header down and looped it over the crossbar. Xavi then gave away a cheap turnover that on which Osvaldo pounced with a potential one-on-one with Valdés in sight, but Piqué and Puyol came in on either side of Osvaldo, and that forced Osvaldo to rush his shot to the right far post, and Valdés smothered it with relative ease.
Barcelona always gives their opposition a couple of moments to capitalize because they play a suicidally high defensive line, but Espanyol did not convert, and Barça scored twice in the final fifteen minutes to add a gloss that was not indicative of the match played at the Cornellà – El Prat.
1-5 fulltime, but Barcelona was not four goals better than Espanyol.
Espanyol had given up only two goals in seven matches at home prior to the derby, and while they conceded five, they did not play poorly at all. Such is the current brilliance of Barcelona. With Valencia’s win at Real Sociedad later that night, Espanyol fell to fifth even though Valencia tied them on points because of goal difference. Valencia and Espanyol will meet at the beginning of the new year to break the deadlock, and even if Espanyol does not win against Valencia at the Mestalla, the blanc i blau should maintain their place in the European places throughout the season because of their tremendous home form and the ebullient attacking trio of Luís García, José Callejón, and Pablo Osvaldo with Joan Verdú acting as the orchestrator of the bunch.
For Barcelona, their level of play has been so high that the pundits and the scribes have almost described a 1-5 romp against their derby rivals as “routine”, and they should not make that mistake. The blaugrana cannot possibly keep up this form for the rest of the season (or can they?), so these types of performances should not be dismissed so easily as a typical Barça blowout.
Despite the destruction caused by this historic Barcelona team, they have not won any trophies yet this campaign, and the players would be the first ones to point out this fact. A La Liga/Champions League double has become the minimum expectation for this season’s Barcelona squad, and while the bookies have them as heavy favorites to win both competitions, silverware is not won in December.
Inter Milan might have won the FIFA Club World Cup on Saturday to lay claim to the official title of the world’s best club team, but hardly anyone can argue who is currently the best club team based on the eye test.
Fueras de Juego
- Referee Carlos Clos Gómez made himself the center of attention as he handed out eleven yellow cards and two red cards in Real Madrid’s scrappy 1-0 over Sevilla on Sunday night. Holding up the match report in the post-match press conference, José Mourinho claimed that Clos Gómez made thirteen “very serious mistakes” but would not go into detail in fear of another suspension. Despite the horrendous refereeing performance, many of the bad calls going against Real Madrid, los blancos squeaked out a tight victory over a desperate Sevilla side that needed three points in the worst way possible. In any championship-winning season, a team plays a few matches in which they were outplayed or did not deserve to win, yet somehow sneak away with the full three points. This match against Sevilla was exactly that type of match, and Real Madrid kept themselves from falling five points behind Barcelona, which at this point could be impossible to overcome. Karim Benzema provided another tepid performance, and the need for another striker in January could not be more blatantly seen than in Madrid’s match against Sevilla.
- The most entertaining match of the weekend took place at the Estadio de los Juegos Mediterráneos, where Almería went up two goals on Getafe within the first half-hour, but Getafe scored three unanswered goals to nick the victory 2-3. This match was one of the fastest-paced in La Liga this season, and there were few occasions where either team could take a breath, as the other would immediately break toward the opposition goal. Almería’s loss to Getafe was a backbreaker because, even at this early stage, they could look at those three dropped points as one of the reasons why they could eventually suffer relegation. José Luís Oltra has given Almería an extra boost, and if he keeps Kalu Uche ahead of Henok Goitom as the center forward, Almería should avoid relegation by the slimmest of margins.
- At the opposite side of the spectrum, Osasuna and Real Zaragoza played one of the dourest matches of the season, as Osasuna created virtually all of the scoring chances in the match against an absent Real Zaragoza team yet could not score. Both teams have already been eliminated from the Copa del Rey, so they will not play in the midweek, and both teams looked as though they started their winter break when Antonio Mateu Lahoz blew his whistle for the opening kickoff. Unless Zaragoza can reloan Humberto “Chupete” Suazo from Monterrey, Zaragoza will go down for the second time in four years.