Giving referee Hernández Hernández the clásico was a bit like expecting Neville Chamberlain to sort out the mess in Europe, circa 1938, but at least it guaranteed some extra entertainment. It makes you wonder what criteria the refereeing committee consult for this kind of occasion, but at least we were spared Mateu Lahoz, busy flexing his cheek-whistling muscles for Russia.
To cut to the chase, it was a decent game, with plenty of handbags, a sending-off, a penalty on Marcelo that could have been spotted from the Alpha Centauri star system, and a ‘pasillo’ (guard of honour) by the Barcelona staff members (allegedly the work of Piqué) instead of from Real Madrid.
The two sides played as if the title depended on it, which supports the theory that the public dislike the two teams reserve for each other was the main motivating factor. In private, they’re all buddies, at least according to Gerard Piqué – but he did appear to have a laugh with Sergio Ramos at the end, the Madrid defender apparently enquiring as to when Shakira’s next album is out. Other theories suggest that he was asking for Neymar’s phone number.
In the first clásico since 2008 to be played in the shadow of a title already won, it was actually quality stuff, spoiled by the sending-off of Sergi Roberto, at that point Barça’s best player. Raise your hand in anger and you’re off, but kick lumps out of your foes (even Bale was doing it) and nothing happens. Barcelona not only hung on, but took the lead with ten men – although Messi’s goal appeared to be preceded by a foul from Luis Suárez, but Hernández x 2 was unlikely to get that one right either. He’s a consistent chappy. He gets everything wrong.
Madrid fluffed a rather good chance to break up Barcelona’s unbeaten run, and salvage something from the league scene this campaign. If they were over-focused on the final against Liverpool, it didn’t show. They were also playing with 10 men, so bad was Gareth Bale, but the thing about expensive players is that you can never quite dismiss the possibility that they might do something decent at any point, and his second-half equaliser was a lesson in minimalist expression, running into Asensio’s angled ball with perfect timing and curling a shot around Ter Stegen to silence the Camp Nou – the microphones behind the goal picking up the crackling sound of the net as the ball flew in. You could also argue, with some justification, that Bale struggles on the right side of the pitch. Once Lucas Vazquez took up that position, the Welshman made a contribution.
So you have to praise the two sides, one for resisting adversity and the other for turning up and performing after a tiring and emotional week. Praise is also due to the perennial pantomime villains, Piqué piquing Nacho in the tunnel, Jordi Alba provoking Luka Modric into a featherweight stand-off, Ramos and Suárez having their usual existentialist dialogue and Cristiano and Messi just being Cristiano and Messi, scoring a goal apiece.
All the goals were good, befitting the occasion. Barcelona’s opener was a lesson in counter-attack, wonderfully finished by Suárez, and Madrid’s equaliser is terrific stuff from Ronaldo, whose back-heel to Kroos precedes his instinctive run into the area to beat Piqué to Benzema’s head-down. It doesn’t come much better, and was a pleasant surprise after so many journalists had written the game off as ‘decaffeinated’.
There’s probably no such thing as a neutered clásico. The testosterone levels were high, and the press will have plenty to keep them going throughout the week. Perhaps the only unfortunate incident was the lack of a guard of honour for Barcelona, on Zidane’s insistence. The Frenchman was adamant that it was his decision, and not one from ‘upstairs’, but it could well have been the case that once the coach had expressed this in public, ‘him upstairs’ (Pérez) preferred not to intervene. Doing so would have compromised Zidane’s authority, but the incident leaves a bad taste in a sport that increasingly advertises its own insistence on sporting values, with ‘fair play’ now a lingua-franca slogan, and an ethical approach the new commercial plus. Hence it’s hard to see what exactly Real Madrid were hoping to achieve with such infantile behaviour. Zidane’s complaint that Barcelona had snubbed Madrid after the ‘Mundialito’ (Club World Cup) is valid only if we think that every trophy merits the ‘pasillo’.
Maybe there should be some sort of consensus on this one, and the custom be restricted to the league title and the cup. After all, that is the origin of the practice. Zidane’s tit-for-tat behaviour minimises him, and makes him look foolish. Surely, if your aim is to shame your opponents, then you set the standard – you yourself model the behaviour that you wish to see carried out? If Real Madrid are the ‘club señor’ they claim to be, then they should act accordingly. Thus endeth the lesson.
Atlético Madrid, who by joining their neighbours in a European final could make it the first city ‘double’ since the Milan clubs won both European trophies in 1994, seemed to lose focus on Sunday and lost surprisingly (0-2) at home to Espanyol, of all teams. At least their women’s team won against Levante and will lift the league trophy for a second consecutive season if they win away at Zaragoza on the final day next weekend. Barcelona are a point behind them after pummelling Rayo 7-0 at home, but Atlético’s destiny is in their own hands. With Zaragoza next to bottom and already down, it’s looking good for Madrid.
Back with the men, Eibar hammered Girona 1-4 away, in the battle of the minnows, but Getafe’s win at Las Palmas would seem to have made it tricky for anyone save themselves and Sevilla to squeeze into that final Europa League place. Further down the ladder, I was at Zubieta on Sunday afternoon to watch a 2B clash between Real Sociedad ‘B’ and Racing Santander, in a sort of ‘how the mighty have fallen’ game (I refer to Racing), which was nevertheless deciding the play-off positions for this campaign. Sociedad’s youngsters, many of them from my son’s generation of players, won 3-0 and are now in the play-offs whilst Racing will probably not make it now, a possible problem for the future of the club. The two faces of football, Sociedad’s kids punching the air and celebrating a bright-looking future, Racing’s older players standing hands on hips, unfathomably booed by their own supporters who’d made the2-hour trip over on a bright afternoon.
It was not as if Racing had been poor all season, arriving at this game with possibilities intact, but being outplayed hardly warranted the torrent of abuse they received from their some of their followers. You watched the scene unfold and it reminded you of how it’s often far from roses in football’s garden. The last place you’d want to have been was on that pitch, at the end, in a Racing shirt. Are teams no longer allowed to lose? The club has been reduced to a shell of its former self by a series of financial miscalculations and internal warfare, but the current crop of players is hardly to blame. Something is rotten in the State of Football for this sort of incident to occur. Oh – and the same goes for the designation of Hernández Hernández.