There’s a little guy who always stands outside the bar near my flat when he wants a smoke, which is quite a frequent occurrence. He has one of those wee white Scottish Terriers, and it sits obediently under the shelf where he places his drink and ashtray, with the newspaper always open at the football page. He knows his stuff (the guy, not the dog), and I always like to talk to him for five minutes, sort of en passant. Approaching him Saturday lunchtime with a bag over my shoulder containing the weekend’s few possessions that I needed, I announced in Spanish the following phrase ‘Tengo buenas sensaciones’ (I have a good feeling) to which he instantly replied, ‘Sí. Estarán pensando en el PSG’ (Yes – they’ll be too busy thinking about PSG). Between football nutters, implied meaning is always clear. He knew, therefore, to what I was obliquely referring, but was surprised to hear me then announce that I was dashing off to catch the bus to the airport, heading to Madrid for the game that same evening. ‘Buenas sensaciones’? Never have them – especially about football matches.
Feelings notwithstanding, I always like going to the Bernabéu, although Saturday evening’s visit was the first for some time. All football fans necessarily feel that the fortnightly pilgrimage that they make is taking them to the centre of the universe, to their particular theatre of dreams – whether it’s Old Trafford or the Middlefart Stadium in the Danish 2nd Division, but the folks who scurry to their numbered gates outside Real Madrid’s imposing edifice do genuinely look as though they are attending a significant event, and they usually are. It’s kind of contagious, and always much better when someone else has already paid for the seats, in this case my Madridista host and Ultras Sur hooligan, Eduardo Alvarez. See on the left the lights of the Bernabéu, foregrounded by an excellent pre-match Rioja.
Once inside, up and up we climbed, almost to the point where you expected someone to hand you an oxygen mask, until the night-match splendour of the white-green glare of the stadium punches your senses onto alert. Eduardo has a spot way up in the gods above the south goal, and as ever, it’s the sheer giddy verticality of the Bernabéu that excites. As you step down to your seat you genuinely feel that if you were to lose your footing, you would fly helplessly down to the pitch, 45 metres below. There are higher stadia (the Camp Nou for instance), but none that feels quite so steep. You can’t quite capture it with a crappy mobile, but the pic below gives you some idea.
Again, I wondered if we might have to strap ourselves in, but it does make for a fantastic spectacle. Add to that the messianic musical cacophony that greets the players when they trundle onto the pitch and you’d be forgiven for thinking that you were attending a holy event, gilded by angels blowing golden trumpets in the dark sky above. And hey, even at 2 degrees it ain’t cold anymore, because of the heaters above (see pic below). Southern softies eh?
Whatever, the holy event for this Real Sociedad-supporting visitor, lasted a mere 51 seconds, precisely the time it required for CR7 to jink back and forth as in the old days and put over a tasty cross with his left peg that invited Lucas Vasquez to beat the snoozing defence and loop a header over keeper Rulli, way down below us. Real Sociedad had not actually touched the ball, if you discount the bounce from the back of Elustondo’s heel as Ronaldo starts his jinking, and Rulli’s first touch (as has often been the case this season) is to pick the ball out of the net. Folks around me explode in fist-pumping delight, and my host jumps gleefully to his feet, in merciless jubilation. After diarrhoea, the worst sensation in life is to be surrounded by ecstatic supporters of the opposing team. In some ways, I’d almost prefer to be assaulted by them.
It got worse, as you probably know. By the 37th minute, Cristiano had been twice invited by the Real Sociedad ‘defence’ (if such a phenomenon exists) to end his goal drought, an invitation he accepted with gratitude, and Kroos had scored a cracker, hit instantly with the inside of his foot, as all his goals are, but this time soaring gloriously into the top corner.
Real Sociedad were in meltdown, and it could have been worse, with the on-fire hosts hitting the post twice (yes – one post was by Benzema) and having a couple scrambled away from the line. What analysis is required of this inhumane slaughter?
Well I’ll try to offer one, since Eduardo is tapping the keys down in Madrid to keep up his side of the bargain, deciding as we did to post up our tinted/non-tinted analyses (see the article’s title) as simultaneously as possible. Of course, I was personally hoping for a more complex affair, maybe a close defeat for Sociedad or even a draw which might have resulted in differing readings of the game. But the 5-2 scoreline offers up nothing in that department.
The basic fact of the matter is that Zidane got it right and Eusebio, the visitor’s coach, got it badly wrong. This may seem like the wisdom of hindsight, and Sociedad did have an adjustment problem due to the sudden injury to leading scorer Willian José in training on Friday – a player whose ability to hold the ball up with his back to defenders necessarily determines the team’s pattern of play – but to play David Zurutuza after almost a month of inactivity in a midfield with the ageing Xabi Prieto and the overworked Illarramendi was never going to work. You could see that Zidane was serially unbothered, leaving out Casemiro as if he suspected he wouldn’t be needed. And indeed, instead of lying deeper with a pivot, Real Madrid pressured Sociedad up high, exposing the lack of calmness on the ball of some of their less gifted players and isolating their two most forward players, Juanmi and Oyarzabal. Modric and Kroos ran the show, aided and abetted by the excellent Asensio and a re-booted Marcelo, the two of whom ran riot down the left, further obliging Sociedad’s best player of the moment, the young full-back Odriozola, to stay in his shell. He may be bought in the summer by Madrid, but Carvajal, despite the occasional wobble, looks fine to me. And anyway, Madrid have more serious issues in other more ageing departments.
Sociedad committed a mere three fouls in the first half, a willing testament to their blandness off the ball. On the ball they are a top-six side. Deprive them of it and they’re relegation fodder, a fact which is bizarre given the quality of their overall squad. It is to Madrid’s credit that they knew this, and played the game accordingly. If the idea was to get a comfy lead by half time so that they could rest a bit before Wednesday’s big match against PSG, then the plan couldn’t have worked better. Eusebio, as a consequence, might not survive the week, despite the 5-0 win against Depor the previous weekend. He seems lost, and is not making the right decisions. Indeed, once the young Zubeldia came on to shore up the middle zone (he should have been on from the start), they improved and released Prieto and Illarramendi to do their stuff. They scored two and Juanmi hit the post – three facts that Real Madrid would do well to recall, amidst the euphoria of their first-half display.
Of course the Madrid press, which I read on the plane home, was soaked with the post-coital pleasure of it all, as if the stroll against Sociedad were somehow hard evidence that the same could happen to PSG on Wednesday. I rather doubt it, and far from wishing ill fate on the merengues, they will not be handed the same favours as Sociedad liberally afforded them during Saturday evening’s capitulation.
If you watch the visitors’ first goal, scored by the promising young Jon Bautista, both Carvajal and Varane get things very wrong, and Keylor Navas actually moves to his left in order to present Bautista with an open goal. It doesn’t augur well with the likes of Neymar, Cavani and company in town. Illarra’s goal too (which he was unfortunately unable to celebrate, given the 5-2 circumstances) was a case of poor marking. At the other end, Karim Benzema spectacularly blew the chance for 6-2 by hitting the ball into the backyards of Vallecas from a yard in front of a gaping goal. Bale started as sub, but you wonder if the failing Frenchman might finally be rested against the visiting Frenchmen (well, some of them are French). Don’t bet on it. What I’m trying to say is that this easy win may have boosted morale, but could easily lead to the spectacularly poor conclusion that Wednesday night has been well prepared, and that PSG are quaking in their expensive boots. I doubt that they are.
Elsewhere, Getafe ruined the quiniela by drawing 0-0 at Barcelona, and opening up the tiniest of possibilities for Atlético, now only seven points behind after their narrow win at struggling Málaga. Atlético have still only conceded 9 in the league, a record for this stage of the season and evidence that they still have their main virtues intact. Next week Barcelona visit in-form Eibar. Is this season about to witness its first real twist? Tune in next week to find out.