The new season started the way the old one ended: with Real Madrid and Barcelona taking center stage, eclipsing everyone else as they fought it out for a trophy. And by the end, "fought" was the word. Those who hoped that passions would have cooled over the summer were disappointed. The fact that the Super Copa is, to use Jose Mourinho's words, "the most important of the preseason games, the least important of the actual season games" made no difference. This was no friendly. How could it be?
It ended with midfielder Cesc Fabregas on the ground while all around him people lost their heads. It was impossible to follow everything that happened as virtually everyone piled in. There was no surprise in seeing José Manuel Pinto in the thick of it, but even Mesut Ozil, normally the most restrained of players, was having to be held back as he tried to get at David Villa. Villa, after all, had pushed or allegedly slapped him. Jose Morais, Mourinho's assistant, was sprinting across to take on Tito Vilanova after he had slapped Mourinho. And he had slapped Mourinho only after Mourinho had stuck his finger in the Barcelona assistant coach's eyes.
Afterward, the recriminations were bitter, Gerard Piqué accusing Mourinho of destroying Spanish soccer. Mourinho accused Barcelona's ball boys of disappearing -- the kind of thing "small teams do".
Worse of all was the fact that suddenly we were all talking about the punch up and the fall out, rather than the games. That was even more of a pity this time round. Last year, there were four clásicos in 18 days. There were some good moments, but largely they had left little real impression. The four games offered up maybe two decent halves of soccer; there were seven goals -- and extra time was needed to get that many. But this time was different. Both games were intense, fast, jaw-droppingly good at times. There were nine goals in two matches. These were proper clásicos:
Barcelona-Real Madrid really is a case of two proper heavyweights slugging it out now. despite the final result, the lasting impression of these two games is of a Real Madrid side that can genuinely challenge Barcelona, that is getting closer to them all the time, even while there is no hint of Barcelona slipping. Winning without dominating is a new experience for Barça: they won the Super Copa having come into off the back of what Guardiola grumbled was a "tour" not a "preseason" and in the first leg, Xavi, Sergio Busquets, Piqué and Carles Puyol were all absent at kick off. These two must now be considered the best sides in the world and Madrid appears to no longer feel inferior. Last season Mourinho hid behind a discourse and a design that hinged on stopping Barcelona -- in itself the greatest compliment anyone could pay it. This season, Madrid did more than just stop Barça. When Barcelona went into halftime 2-1 up in the first leg it was barely plausible. Never in the last three years had it looked so uncomfortable.
Never had it conceded so many chances. Even more strikingly, Real Madrid had enjoyed more than 50% of the possession -- the first time Barcelona had not had more than half of the ball under Guardiola; Madrid had removed the very oxygen that keeps Barcelona alive. The shot count over the two games read: Barcelona 13, Real Madrid 26.
Leo Messi is just unbelievable. Barcelona won 5-4 on aggregate. Messi scored three goals and provided two assists (if you can call the pass to Villa in the first leg an "assist"). His pass for Andres Iniesta was almost implausibly precise -- and very, very similar to the pass to Villa in last season's 5-0. The clipped finish over Casillas was wonderful. Yes, it's been said before but that's precisely why it's so remarkable: he just keeps on doing it.
Piqué says Mourinho is running Spanish soccer. As if there has never been tension in the clásico before. Or pig's heads thrown or anything. What's really ruining it is Madrid and Barcelona. Not so much because of episodes like last night but because of their stranglehold on the game -- their economic and political power and their continued failure to contemplate the consequences of their actions.
Pepe really needs to slow down. The extreme aggression with which he plays is a key part of his game -- but, even without getting into the moral question of his approach, it makes him a red card waiting to happen. Even when he kicks the ball rather than an opponent's legs, he appears to feel the need to smash the leather off it.
Karim Benzema. Lean, fast, and a wonderful player, could this be Benzema's season at last? He had a great run in the 2010-11 season only to find himself sitting out most of the clásico series. Now he looks irreplaceable in the Madrid forward line. Mourinho says Benzema now sees soccer "the way that I do."
José Manuel Pinto. Does Barcelona's reserve goalkeeper Pinto actually have a role to play, except getting into fights?
Dani Alves. The Brazilian fullback can actually defend, despite popular opinion.
Jose Mourinho. The "Special One" insisted after the second leg that soccer is a game for men. "I have been polite and played like a man and not fallen to the ground at the first touch," said Mourinho after the game. Yet he behaved like a child. He has built a fantastically powerful team and has the unqualified support of most fans -- certainly the younger ones.
Much of the criticism surrounding Mourinho has been unfair. Not least because, when it comes to the need to change the structure at Real Madrid, he is quite right. But this time, frankly, he deserves to be admonished.
Mourinho sneaked up behind Tito Vilanova and poked him in the eye, before tiptoeing away again wearing a cheeky smile. He then pretended not to know who Vilanova was after the game, inventing a new name for him -- Pito (which is also Spanish for the male genital area). And when Messi came near his touchline during the match, he did a "pooh, you stink" gesture, waving his hand in front of his facein mock disgust. A game for men?
Do players and coaches really believe the things they say? After the first leg Real's Sergio Ramos accused Alves of diving -- even though Pepe had wiped him out with a horrific "tackle." After the second leg, Iker Casillas noted of the fight at the end: "they dived, as usual." If he meant Cesc Fabregas -- Marcelo had wiped him out too. Both were vicious; only one drew a red card.
Cristiano Ronaldo gets a bad press. He's arrogant, they say. He's flash, they say. He likes a moan. But astonishingly his goal against Barcelona was his one hundredth -- yes, 100th -- in fractionally over two years at Real Madrid and for all the animosity that people feel toward him, when the fights start he's rarely the first in there fists flailing. He just wants to win.
Three days ago monkey chanting didn't matter, now it matters hugely. Three days ago monkey chanting towards players mattered hugely, now it doesn't matter at all (the Barcelona crowd directed it towards Real's Marcelo after the second leg). When even an issue like this one matters only when it fits your agenda, then something is wrong.