Every sport is based on a set of established truths – the running game eats up the clock, getting men on base opens the door to a big inning, spells of pressure lead to goals – but when the talent pool is as deep as it was at the Nou Camp tonight, the sporting world’s axis tilts a little. Barcelona and Real Madrid do things differently. Barcelona survived with a tight 2-1 win over its bitter rivals to push them four points ahead in the La Liga standings. Here are three thoughts on the match.
1) El Clásico redefining the rhythms of soccer.
In October’s El Clásico in Madrid, Barça were quickest out of the blocks, dominating the early going and opening the scoring through Neymar after only four minutes. According to traditional sporting logic, a team as gifted as Barcelona, with its big stars on their game, should surely romp to victory.
Not a bit of it. Madrid flexed its muscles, the power and speed of Ronaldo, Benzema, James Rodriguez and the rest proved too much for the visitors, and Carlo Ancelotti’s side romped to a 3-1 win.
There was a similar story of the old teachings being turned upside down tonight. Barcelona’s front three of Messi, Neymar and Suarez came into this game on fire after a sparkling run of recent form, notably the midweek demolition of Man City, perhaps the most dominant 1-0 victory in history. Meanwhile Madrid’s BBC (Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo) strike-force had been struggling. Yet amid the hostile environs of the Camp Nou, Madrid settled more quickly, with Ronaldo smacking a shot against the bar from a Benzema cross, then Isco sliding a drive low past Bravo’s left post.
That was until Messi, against the run of play, floated a free-kick onto Jeremy Mathieu’s shiny forehead and the French Don Draper, sneaking ahead of Sergio Ramos, headed Barça in front. Real’s profligacy had been punished, and the power balance of soccer’s Athens v Sparta had shifted once more.
It would soon shift again. For the second time this season Barcelona were ahead, and on top, against the old enemy. Until Neymar spurned a chance to land the knockout blow, gently lobbing the ball towards Iker Casillas with the goal gaping. It was a fatal miss, as once again one team’s dominance helped spur its opponents on to even greater feats. Madrid scampered down the other end, Luka Modric, Benzema and Ronaldo combined with balletic grace, and Ronaldo’s toe-prod made it 1-1.
That was the signal for the visitors to dominate the rest of the first half and the beginning of the second – which in turn was the signal for another reversal of fortune. Barcelona had hardly had a touch before Dani Alves swung a long pass downfield, and Luis Suarez, who had previously spent most of his time kicking and/or being kicked by Pepe, controlled the ball sublimely and rolled it past Casillas for the winning goal.
All three goals had come against the run of play, and with Neymar and Messi performing fitfully throughout, it could even be argued that Barcelona had not really played that well at any stage of the evening. But El Clásico, with its endless galaxies of galáticos, often pays scant regard to the drudgeries of possession or the tedious toil of building up pressure.
2) Defending and dark arts as important as skill
On the other hand, while it is easy to be blinded by all the attacking luster on display, some of the less glamorous aspects of the game often play as key a role in defining the winners of this fixture.
While it is hard to think of players such as Gerard Piqué and Sergio Ramos as makeweights, the spotlight in Barcelona v Real Madrid games is usually trained firmly on the attacking players. Yet amid the hysteria, it may be that whichever team has defended the best (or the least badly) over the course of the season will win the league this year. While it is hard to separate the two teams in terms of attacking production (Barcelona has scored 80 goals in this La Liga season compared to Madrid’s 78) the Catalan side has now conceded nine goals fewer than the visitors. In an arms race of this intensity, such a slim difference can be crucial.
Here, the game was marked by some initially generous, if not entirely chaotic, defending by both sides. A few minutes in the life of Jeremy Mathieu provided a useful snapshot of proceedings—after scoring Barcelona’s opener, he superbly dispossessed Benzema in a dangerous position, before sending a header alarmingly close to his own goal without a Madrid attacker in sight. It was that sort of game for the defenders, with adrenaline, rather than composure, the dominant characteristic.
Indeed of the defensive players it was perhaps Barcelona goalkeeper Claudio Bravo who made the most significant contribution. The Chilean made at least two decisive saves – tipping over a Ronaldo rocket with the game locked at 1-1 just before halftime, and then stopping Benzema’s low 78th minute shot. While it is hard to make predictions in a fixture where goals often seem to come at will, had Madrid scored either chance then the final result here may have been different.
Finally, it’s important to mention the card count, which totaled 11. In games as tight as these the slightest advantage can be crucial, and no one should be fooled by the lyrical waxing that surrounds them. El Clásico features as much gamesmanship and as many niggling fouls as any snapping, snarling English league match up from the 1970s, even if things aren’t quite as violent these days.
3) The La Liga race isn't over yet
With Madrid wobbling and Barcelona in the middle of a spectacular run of form, four points may seem like an insurmountable lead. Barça has won seven games in a row since losing to Malaga at the end of last month, while Carlo Ancelotti’s team has won just one of its last five. The Champions League draw has hardly helped matters – while Barcelona will need to be in top form against PSG, the two ties against the French side are unlikely to be anywhere near as physically and emotionally draining as Madrid’s double header against neighbors Atlético. And with Los Merengues fans appearing to have lost faith in Ancelotti, and rumors circulating that all is not well in the Madrid camp, it may seem that the title is Barcelona’s to lose.
Not necessarily. Barcelona still has to play Sevilla and Atlético away, with Valencia also visiting Camp Nou. And just as during these matches themselves, the balance of power in this Game of a Spanish Throne can switch with bewildering speed. Just a few short months ago, after all, Real Madrid were in the middle of a mammoth unbeaten run, led Barcelona in the standings, and had just lifted the Club World Cup. Ronaldo, not Messi, was the toast of Europe, and Luis Enrique, not Ancelotti, was rumored to be close to the exit door. When the stakes are this high, the climate this hyperbolic, things can change very quickly. Madrid and Ancelotti will be hoping they will.