Given how both sides had started the season, there had been a fear that this would be the most underwhelming Clasico in years, a clash of two sides short of cohesion, short of panache, and short of confidence. But not a bit of it. The quality may not have been exceptional, and it would take an extremely bold observer to make any firm conclusions about the structure of either side, but it was undeniably fun.
After a miserable few days in which it lost to Cadiz and then a coronavirus-hit Shakhtar, Madrid ended the week with a 3-1 victory over Barcelona that returned the club to the top of the table in La Liga. It would be a mistake to think that all is now well in the Spanish capital or that Zinedine Zidane’s position is secure, but at the very least Madrid can console itself with the thought that whatever its problems are, Barcelona’s are worse.
There were moments of excellence in the game, but it came in flashes. The time when this fixture represented a battle of the two best sides in the world seems like a long time ago now. The overwhelming sense was of openness in the midfield, a weird raggedness from both sides, with the ball and without. Sergio Busquets, once a player who seemed never to give the ball away, was targeted by Madrid in a way that once would have been unthinkable, while Philippe Coutinho, having had a decent start to the season, again looked lost.
But most concerning, perhaps, was how tired Barcelona looked. It was Luka Modric who added the third, having calmly worked his way past Neto, but the goal came after a string of Madrid chances. By that stage, Madrid was simply passing around almost static opponents.
The fascination now is in watching the rebuild of two sides whose attempts to restructure and rejuvenate have stalled. In that, Ronald Koeman has taken the more radical approach. One of the reasons Koeman was appointed was his willingness to promote youth, and he was true to those traditions here, selecting both Ansu Fati and Pedri, only the second time Barcelona had ever fielded two 17-year-olds in a Clasico and the first since 1947. There was also 19-year-old USA international Sergiño Dest at right back. As it turned out, Fati was excellent, Dest looked at home and Pedri struggled a little.
Just as significant, though, was the fact that there was no place in the starting lineup for Antoine Griezmann. That seemed a stark statement of how Koeman views him, and the fact he wasn’t brought off the bench until the 81st minute makes it very hard to see any future for him at the club. His impact on the game was minimal.
The opening goal, after five minutes, was startlingly simple, with Barcelona’s defense opening up for Karim Benzema to play in Federico Valverde. The pass was perfect, the finish brilliant as Busquets and Clement Lenglet failed to react, but Barcelona made it extremely easy for Madrid.
Within three minutes, though, Barcelona was level, with Fati tucking in Jordi Alba’s low cross as Madrid’s offside trap was breached all too easily.
That first 20 minutes was extraordinary, infinitely watchable and presumably almost as worrying for the respective managers. It was end-to-end, thrill-a-minute stuff, in which both goalkeeper made fine saves and neither side seemed able to hold possession. It had the energy of the final 20 minutes of a game rather than the first, a sign of the structural problems of both sides. If it calmed down after that, it was perhaps more to do with declining energy than a rediscovery of shape.
The game was turned by a 63rd-minute Sergio Ramos penalty, awarded after a VAR review for a tug of the Madrid captain’s shirt by Lenglet. It was the sort of offense that once happened at every set play, and there was perhaps an argument that Ramos had initiated the tussle, but the pull was clear enough, yet another example of Barcelona’s lack of discipline and smartness at the back.
After that, the hosts simply fell apart. There was no energy, no fight, no apparent plan. Lionel Messi’s late booking for dissent was in keeping with a weary, petulant display. Koeman’s thick skin is one of his strengths, and one of the attributes that equips him for the job. He’s going to need it in the coming days.