Real Madrid’s decision to wear black for the clásico at home – unprecedented if you ignore the time they once wore pink – gave the headline writers some cheap and instant metaphors for their weekend round-ups. The obvious one being that they’d dressed up for their 120 year anniversary with a kit designed for the occasion, but ended the game in funeral colours. Madrid remain nine points clear of Sevilla who could only draw at home to Real Sociedad, but the 0-4 result says a lot about this season’s rather curious dynamic.
Curious because Madrid have not really been imperious, but find themselves in the quarter-finals of the Champions League and comfortably top of La Liga because of circumstances that hobbled Barcelona from the beginning and the predictable fact that Sevilla would run out of the steam and resources required to maintain a meaningful challenge. Which is not to say that they haven’t been half-decent.
But the other point is that without Benzema, things fall apart and the centre cannot hold, as Yeats would have written. The falcon no longer sees the falconer, or something along those lines. You have to wonder at this phenomenon. How can a team be top of the league on the basis of the presence of one player? And yet it would seem to be the case. When CR7 was around, Madrid could cover up for his occasional absences more effectively because of his lack of presence in the build-up, but you could see on Sunday – once Madrid’s initial flurry had subsided – that the lines of communication were all down. The wi-fi wasn’t working. Vinicius, up to Sunday night the most feared footballer in Spain, with opponents setting up their entire defensive strategies to try to stop him, suddenly looked lost again, like the enthusiastic but less effective version of last season. He tried to connect with Alaba, but without the intelligent presence of Benzema to hold and to give, he kept running out of ideas in the final third. And Barça’s counters were lethal – as one had kind of expected they might be.
There may be some serious repercussions from this game, because it will cast a shadow on the almost inevitable league title celebrations, when they come. But if you wanted to be madridista-optimista, then you’ll take the obvious message from this game and work on it. And the message is? Well….it’s not a deep analysis because it’s so obvious, but Madrid can no longer delay their rebuilding, since there are no obvious candidates coming through the system as at Barcelona.
It’s hardly rocket science, but Modric, Benzema and Kroos will lose their shine, because it is the way of all flesh. They have been wonderful this season, but there are no obvious replacements. Meanwhile, Madrid dream of marquee signings as their version of strategy. If they manage to sign Mbappé, then Haaland will go elsewhere, one suspects. Or vice-versa. Either one would represent a considerable acquisition, but Modric and Kroos are harder to replace. Besides, as could be seen from the clásico, Madrid’s current system depends on a player of Benzema’s characteristics – and although this was not actually part of the planning (Benzema was always second fiddle to Ronaldo in terms of the overall plan) it has become by default the essence of the team, at least this season. But it’s not a strategy, and it’s not going to last much longer. Barça, on the other hand, suddenly look frightening. As Piqué tweeted on Sunday night, ‘We are back’. It was an inclusive ‘we’, but although Piqué himself may not be around to enjoy the new revolution, it’s clear that he can hand over to the kids with the feeling of a decent job done. The gloomy drama of Barça’s recent travails would seem to be over, as long as they can keep the bank manager at arm’s length.
They’re playing with a freedom that their present no-pressure position allows, but the clásico was decided by the sheer breadth of possibilities that the new players give them, plus the fact that Dembélé has been recovered for the cause. Casemiro, Carvajal and Nacho looked a little confused by it all. Modric was forced to play too high, and once they went three at the back in the second half, Barça’s pace killed them. The truth is it should have been six. It’ll be interesting to see how Ansu fits into this brave new world.
Ancelotti won’t escape lightly from this little mauling – which is the other point to make, of course, whilst Xavi floats slowly up to cloud nine. What Xavi must do now is to ensure that the extra-curricular habits of Dembélé and Aubameyang (without which the latter would still be at Arsenal) do not resurface. What Carlo must do is win the league without any more stumbles. Sevilla and Atlético away look problematic, but apart from that it should be plain sailing. To blow the current lead would be unthinkable. Florentino will nevertheless be sharpening his axe, just in case. Florentino is like that.
There was life elsewhere, of course. Real Sociedad, perhaps predictably given Sevilla’s fatigue, really should have won their game in the Pizjuan, but the bar, post and the usual lack of finishing stopped them from doing so. And talking of missing men, they missed Oyarzabal much less than Madrid missed Benzema, perhaps because they’d planned for it. And I don’t want to give Madrid ideas, but you look at Zubimendi and you see an interesting mix of Kroos and Casemiro, with a little bit of Modric thrown in perhaps. He might never be as good as any one of them, but he’s a potent composite, and a player who’ll only get better. I hope he stays, because I know his dad – but you see what I mean? That’s strategy, and I ain’t paid to come up with it. Hello?
Villarreal blew it at Cádiz, a performance predicted by yours truly in Friday’s quiniela (if you’ll excuse the trumpet-blowing) because for all the pomp of their win in Italy, they’re still slightly rudderless, depending on how the wind blows as opposed to using the richness of the resources at their disposal. Or does Emery just talk too much? Could be. Meanwhile, Cádiz can dream. Despite some of their bus-parking this season, they’re difficult to dislike. It would be cool if they could stick around.
Atlético beat Rayo in Vallecas and continued their decent run and Betis drew a rather tedious affair at Celta, proving the point that their season may be moving into the stumble phase. They’ll welcome the week off for the internationals. When the league resumes, it’s the Barcelona v Sevilla fixture that stands out, and Real Madrid’s trip to Celta. Could be interesting, as they say, as Barça still have a game in hand. To dream the impossible dream? Well, probably not – but it’s added just a little spice to what was becoming a potentially bland ending to the season.