Barcelona all smiles after clásico
In the aftermath of Barcelona's
The good? More like the very good. The really genuinely bloody brilliant. It's hard to pick out an individual Barcelona player as an outstanding performer* because they were all so impressive -- even Eric Abidal, the left back some would prefer was left back in the dressing room, the footballer most people like to assume is just someone's mate or the owner of some extremely compromising pictures of coach Pep Guardiola. Víctor Valdes, though rarely asked to make any actual saves (one from Angel Di María notwithstanding), did his bit. Carles Puyol was decisive in the first, occasionally worrisome 15 minutes, and then Barcelona took over. David Villa's movement was superb, his finishing crisp. Pedro scored again. But maybe the best way to do Barcelona justice is to say that it was true to its own footballing convictions -- its ideology. And at Barcelona, it really is fair to talk of ideologies.
Before the game, Guardiola noted: "Real Madrid are the best team in the world on the counterattack. But for one team to counterattack, the other team has to attack." In other words, he was aware that Barcelona's style could be precisely what Real Madrid wanted -- offering weaknesses that could be isolated, space to exploit, an excuse to draw the opposition onto you before hitting it with a swift transition. The recent experience was a bitter one: Jose Mourinho's Inter Milan had denied Barcelona the dream European Cup final at the Santiago Bernabéu.
And yet, Guardiola still didn't change a thing. Barcelona pushed high, pressured early and defended itself with the ball. After all, you can't run a counterattack if you never have the ball to run it with.
Barcelona's control of possession was masterful. It produced the kind of stats you might expect against someone not very good but never against Real Madrid. Barcelona completed well over 600 successful passes, compared to fewer than 300 for Madrid, and had more than 60 percent of possession. Rarely, if ever, has a midfield controlled a massive game like Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and Lionel Messi (who was often an additional playmaker in the middle) did Monday, circulating the ball with short, sharp touches. The precision and the weighting of the passing was superb. Just watch the goals again: Xavi's and Messi's combination and Iniesta's through ball on the first; Messi's short, angled pass on the third; Messi's longer, brilliantly judged delivery on the fourth, meaning Villa didn't even have to break stride; and, as for the second, well, 58 seconds, 20 passes and a finish from barely a yard.
By the way, for all the prematch whinging, for all the complaining about decisions he hadn't even made yet, referee Iturralde González probably deserves to go in "the good" section, too.
Yes, he is the Special One. Yes, his record is stunning. Yes, he knocked Barcelona out of the Champions League last year and could still do so this year. And yes, he has so much support, both politically and from fans, that he will not be slaughtered for this result as his predecessor, Manuel Pellegrini, would have been. But this time, José Mourinho got it wrong. Measured and calm after the game, he admitted that his team could have "no excuses."
The weird thing is that, while you can never know what might have happened, you wonder if he might have gotten it wrong because he went against his own inclinations. Maybe Madrid's success in previous games swayed him; maybe the desire to prove that he is not defensive did. Some thought he would employ an additional defensive midfielder and lose a creative player to counteract Barcelona's approach. But he didn't, not even when the late injury to Gonzalo Higuaín offered him the perfect excuse to do so.
Early in the match, Madrid waited for Barcelona but without the aggression necessary to make the plan succeed, too easily allowing the home side possession. Sami Khedira and Xabi Alonso were completely outrun. Madrid was split in two. And when Madrid stepped up, it went too high, leaving an avenue beyond its defensive line. The third, fourth and fifth goals were all balls slotted through.
Mourinho has now failed to win any of his matches against Barcelona at the Camp Nou. There was a crumb of comfort with Sergio Ramos' 90th-minute red card: At least Mourinho can still claim he has never lost when playing with 11 men. Some comfort.
Neutrality is impossible in Spain. What's black is white and what's white is black, depending on which side you're on. So when Cristiano Ronaldo and Guardiola had their confrontation, the Catalan media saw it as another demonstration of Ronaldo's petulance, but in Madrid, it was Guardiola who was in the wrong.
It was certainly Guardiola who started it by picking up the ball and refusing to give it back to Ronaldo, throwing it down beyond the player's grasp. Yes, Ronaldo pushed him, but imagine if Mourinho had done that: "Unsporting" and "provocative" would not have been the half of it. It was also pointless. And a little nonsensical. Barcelona was dominating. Suddenly sparked into life, Madrid rallied.
Fortunately for Guardiola, it was a brief reaction. And besides, that was nothing compared to Ramos' latest misdemeanor: a scything challenge on Messi that appeared as deliberate and cowardly as it was dangerous, followed by a grab at Puyol's face. It is not as if it was a one-off, either: Ramos has now been sent off more times than anyone in Real Madrid's history.