Few league matches in recent football history have jolted a global audience with such high levels of passion, excitement and anxiety as the string of unprecedented El Clasicos that invaded our lives over the past few Liga seasons has. As expected, Saturday’s duel between Football Club Barcelona and Real Madrid football Club varied no less, provoking tremors at Barnabeu that reverberated through all extremities of the globe. Soon after the referee signaled the start of the game, Benzema ignited the Casa Blanca, hitting the ceiling of Valdes’ net to affirm, at least temporarily, pregame speculations or expectations; the tides were finally turning for the meringues.
For weeks, the media buzzed continually, mixing and matching all kinds of stats, even exhuming ancient football greats to provide contexts and color its analysis. Then for two hours on Saturday, the earth stopped orbiting the sun, bringing the world to a stand still, as the old rivals crashed into each other.
Now that the dust settled and Pep Guadiola’s boys claimed another huge chunk of the Barnabeu with a 3-1 victory, many people realized the media sold them an illusion ahead of the big game. If not a farce, at the very least, they were eempathic prayers for Real Madrid, which created a wave of optimism for a team that, until Saturday, had not truly been tested. Analysts said little about Barcelona constant difficult encounters this season that perhaps kept Guardiola’s squad in shape and even with something more to prove week after week. In fact, Barca’s less than stellar stats were the basis of many critics’ biases. “The core concept of Barcelona’s excellence under Guardiola is much more prosaic than many people imagine,” wrote ESPN’s Graham Hunter in an article that left little doubts in readers’ minds about which Spanish giant was more deserving of the Clasico.
Commentators called the meringues’ “red-hot form intimidating to the Catalans,” or asked if Barcelona could ever stop rampant Real. According to some, the “special one” found the Barça antidote through his high-power, high-flying offense. Still, other reporters spoke like true fanatics; it was Jose Mourinho’s turn to outshine Pep Guardiola, since the gifted one had the upper hand heading in the volcanic eruption. But as the Casa Blanca dusts itself off the ashes only Alfredo Di Stefano’s words still stand in the Spaniards’ capital city. Madrid’s greatest iconic figure called his contemporaries a team “without personality” and “mice to Barcelona’s lion.”
As the Catalans looked ahead to their next conquest, many experts– still struggling to pick up their jaws off the floor— threw stones and assigned blames for the Madrid meltdown. Naturally, they lapidated referees, Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi among many others that deprived them of their unquestionably deserving Clasico. If only the referee showed the red card to Messi, or if Ronaldo netted his golden opportunities, Madrid would be celebrating. Better yet, if Xavi were not so lucky to score off Marcelo’s deflection or perhaps, if Valdes’s posts were just a little wider, it would be a different game. Given Barcelona’s tactical, media and professional approaches to Saturday’s game, those justifications only amounted to prayers and wishful thinking of fanatics masked as sports reporters.
If good fortune was Barca’s sword in the Clasico, Madrid had its own samurai sword to slain its most formidable adversary. The luckiest break of the game resulted into Benzema scoring the fastest goal in El Clasico’s history. People are still wondering how Valdes could have passed the ball so precisely to Angel DiMaria at such an early phase of the momentous game. Beyond the unfortunate pass however, DiMaria’s quick pass to Benzema was blocked by Busket, which sent the ball to Ozil’s lethal left foot for a shot on goal that Busket blocked again. Nevertheless, the ball insisted on finding Benzema’s right foot that did not hesitate to punish Valdes for his unforgivable sin, some 20 seconds into the game. Many commentators rightfully credited Madrid’s early pressure on a nervous Barca defense for the goal, but one could also argue it was Xavi’s shot-on-goal following intense Barca pressure that ricocheted into Cassilla’s net. Many would even argue that Xavi’s goal was more probable than Valdes gift to Real, though luck is no substitute for excellence.
Beyond luck, players missing goals is also part of the uncertainty that makes the game thrilling and nerve-wracking. If every player scored on every opportunity handed to him or her during a game, talent would be irrelevant as would be $80 million contracts. And if statistics won games, why bother playing them?
Granted, great players bear the herculean burden of rising to the occasion and deliver, which, to some extent, justified some stones thrown at self-proclaimed king of the universe, his Excellency CR7 Ronaldo. However, strong leadership rarely entails putting the spotlight on one’s self at critical moments of the game while carrying the entire team on one’s back. When the situation demands it, real leaders delegate duties like Messi pinpointing Alexis Sanchez for the equalizer, or his baiting a third Real defender by holding the ball a few seconds longer before releasing freed Dany Alves whose surgical pass found Cesc Fabregas head for the third score. Those who crucified sir CR7 for his unfortunate near misses should also – in the name of fairness – blame Messi for not getting the ball passed Casillas on the far corner. Inesta, Xavi and Alexis should be equally held accountable for squandering golden opportunities to trash Madrid.
During an interview with FIFA.com, Guardiola admitted, “Midfielders are intelligent players who have to think about the team as a whole,” statements that summarized his philosophy when taken over the team. The team is more important than individual players’ geniuses and automation as well as tactical creativity would provide a winning formula. “They’re selfless players who understand the game better than anyone,” he said. “And the more midfielders you have, the easier it is to slot them into other positions. That’s how they become versatile.” As Pep lead the technical department, he ensured his squad was fittest, sharpest and most of all, believed in his vision.
Contrary to popular belief, luck did not hand Barcelona its fiercest opponent’s territory on Saturday, nor was it the game in itself. Instead, a confluent of well-orchestrated events contributed to the victory and the game’s execution was the finished product. Looking retroactively, while Mourinho’s overconfident boys scrambled around to restrain themselves in a cheerleading, distracting media, very few comments came out in the media from Guadiola’s team. There were the 10 commandments talk, superiority in tactical commands, lethal form and fitness, all of which boosted the egos of a collectivity that could use less. A maestro should control the tempo, the environment and his players because distractions come in all shapes, sizes and from all directions.
The surprising early goal coupled with overconfidence became a lethal dose for a Real Madrid team that appeared distracted by their good fortune and abandoned the game plan afterwards. Moreover, Kaka not starting seemed problematic for Real since he exploited the left side so masterfully and nearly tricked Valdes for a score when he came on.
Barcelona maintained the course trying to find its automation, though harassed by the energetic merengue boys. Guardiola threw different formations at his homologous counterpart every 20 minutes, masking players as false numbers to foil Mourinho’s plans. Once on autopilot, sharp passes started flowing, spaces were effectively exploited, persistence and coherence left Madrid players once again chasing shadows and singing the familiar tune “Here we go Again.” Meanwhile, fans will salivate over the next El Clasico, which has recently turned out to be El Clasico Facilo, a Catalan recital by Barcelona.