So you’re looking for deep analysis and insights regarding the clásico? Look no further. The most significant aspect to emerge from Saturday’s clásico, in case it wasn’t obvious, is that Real Madrid have clearly made a mistake signing Kepa from Athletic Bilbao. Dani Carvajal should have told Zidane before about his hidden skills, since the information would have saved the club the 20 million euros they’ve already invested in the Basque keeper. Pics by courtesy of TF.
Is there anything else to conclude from Barça’s 0-3 win in the Burn-a-bayou on Saturday lunchtime, apart from the fact that it was kinda weird watching the game played in the mid-day sunlight? So many of the iconic moments of this fixture in the past few years are captured under the glare of the floodlights that when the game is played under the pale winter light, with its lower angle colouring the pitch in an unusual way, you can’t quite focus on its reality. Something wasn’t quite right about the first half, although maybe that was due to Isco’s absence from the battlefield.
Whatever – the game requires little analysis from me, as I cast furtive glances towards my mince pies on Christmas Eve. Here’s a quick summary: Real Madrid were better in the first half, but failed to score. Barcelona were better in the second half, and scored three times. At this sort of level, that’s basically what counts.
That said, the visitors scored their second and third goals whilst the hosts had 10 men on the pitch, but we shouldn’t read too much into that. Once Suarez had scored, Real Madrid never really looked as though they were up for the fightback, and perhaps that is the most significant thing to take from this game – Barça’s 3rd consecutive league win in the Burn-a-bayou. When the goal went in, there was that look on the home side’s faces, as if to say ‘Oh no…here we go again’. Incidentally, Luis Suarez’ strike was the 70,000th goal scored in La Liga since the beginning of the Iberian Period in 1928, before which time Homo sapiens roamed the Earth as a hunter-gatherer, unaware of the delights to come. Someone would have eventually scored it, says he philosophically, but the manner of its fabrication will be talked about for some months to come and, if we’re prepared to go along with Zidane-speak, we have to concede that if the hunting-cat’s header had not hit the post in the first half and had stroked the net instead, we might have woken up to a different-looking scenario. As it stands, Christmas came early for Barcelona.
It came early because Atlético Madrid’s unbeaten start came to an end at Espanyol and Villarreal won at Valencia, leaving the Catalans nine points clear of Simeone’s men, eleven clear of Valencia and a whopping fourteen beyond Real Madrid, who have a game in hand of course. But as light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel goes, it’s as dim as that energy-saving bulb you bought at last year’s flea-market. It also came early because, as countless Spanish football writers have subsequently pointed out, Mateo Kovacic gave his compatriot Ivan Rakitic the freedom of the Bernabow in a Yuletide gesture of kindness, to help set up the opening goal. Maybe it’s a Croatian thing. Only they will know, and there were three of them on the pitch at the time, four fewer than the total amount of Spaniards, if the four Catalans Gerard, Jordi, Sergi and Sergio will excuse my careless use of the noun.
I think that as a pre-Christmas message of peace and goodwill to all Madrid fans out there, the result was a little harsh and the criticism of Zidane too buttressed by the ease of hindsight. Those who would have preferred Isco on from the start forget that Kovacic played well in the first half, clearly under orders to annul first Busquets, then Messi. This he did to decent effect, enabling his team-mates to carve out several chances and play some good stuff. There was little inkling of what was to come. In the half-time dressing-room, Zidane clearly thought that a change of strategy was required, despite the good showing, and pulled the line back – presumably hoping to catch Barcelona on the break – but the idea backfired and Barça took over possession, at which point surely Isco should have come on. That was probably the main error, not the initial line-up. Isco keeps the ball, and panics people by his unpredictability. Paradoxically, Zidane is beginning to bug people with his predictability, particularly where the CR7-Benzema strike force is concerned. It’s been creaking all season, so the assumption that it wouldn’t creak against Barça was perhaps a little optimistic. Benzema tried, but he’s cursed at the moment. Ronaldo had one of his ‘leave it to me boys’ days, shooting when he should have passed, and passing when he should have shot. Sometimes you look at him and seriously scratch your head, because there are instances when his lack of general footballing intelligence is breath-taking, for one so lauded and laden with medals. He’s a great striker, possibly the best of all time. But he’s not a great footballer. There’s a difference.
The other points to make are that Busquets played better than Casemiro, and Ter Stegen is phenomenal. There you have it. The league is over. Ernesto Valverde, a quiet and generous little chap, has brought calm where there was fractiousness, and efficiency where there was brilliance mixed with occasional dog-days. Now there are no significant low points for his team, a circumstance that will become a little more terrifying should Philippe Coutinho sign during the winter break, never mind Antione Griezmann. Barça are flying, and nobody’s going to catch ‘em. Who would’ve thought, back in summer when Madrid were cock-a-hoop and the Catalans were twisting in their Neymar-made agony? PSG did them a favour, although it wasn’t apparent at the time. Now they might do Barcelona another favour, by eliminating Madrid from the Champions League. If that happens, you would have to wonder about Zidane’s future at the White House, beyond the summer. Such are the demands on the super-coaches these days. They are judged against a different set of criteria, concomitant with their astral salaries. We should not weep for them, but rather for the game itself, and its new tendency to produce league champions before Santa has oiled the sledge rails.
Meanwhile, on some other earthly plain, Valencia were blowing their own chances of keeping up by losing to sort-of-neighbours Villarreal, in an entertaining and controversial game, whilst Celta closed the pre-Xmas programme with a sturdy 1-3 win at Galician rivals Deportivo, with two more goals from the excellent Iago Aspas. Poor Las Palmas lost 2-0 to Getafe on Paco Jemez’ return (itself good news for La Liga) and slunk off to their Christmas break rock-bottom of La Liga, although just across the way, behind some coral, lie Malaga on the same points (eleven). All is not lost, but it could be soon.
Have a good Christmas, and if it ain’t your cultural thing, then just try to keep yourself busy until the football resumes on January 6th. You’ll be fine. And let’s not worry too much about Barcelona’s lead, because there are still plenty of twists, turns and great football to come. From the keyboards of Liga Fever, we pledge to keep it interesting, right to the last.