Real Madrid's win at Barcelona changes things … even if the title isn't one of them
Sergio Ramos went through the back of Luis Suárez, across the pitch, up the stairs, past the chapel, to the left, through the door and into the press room at the Camp Nou where he watched his Real Madrid team-mates beat Barcelona on television. There were 99,264 people outside; inside it was quiet and virtually empty. There Ramos sat, “not crapping myself exactly but very nervous”. It was 1-1 when he was sent off, leaving Madrid with 10 minutes left to play and 10 men left on the pitch, but just as he took up position in front of the screen Cristiano Ronaldo scored a goal that no one had scored against Barcelona in six months: the winner.
There were still five tense minutes remaining, then three more, but Madrid got there. Relieved, Ramos went looking for the others. Men like Marcelo, to whom he’d given his armband as he walked for the 21st time, and who insisted: “Sergio doesn’t need a clip round the ear; everything he does he does to help.” Even this. “If I’d known we’d win with 10 men, I’d have got sent off in the fifth minute,” Ramos smiled. Well, they can’t say he didn’t try. Eventually, in the 83rd, he did; so, more importantly, did they. Gareth Bale had one winner ruled out for being tall, before Ronaldo got another on 85 minutes. Thirty-nine games later, Barça were beaten.
Before the game, Barcelona’s manager, Luis Enrique, had admitted that if his side defeated Madrid, if would end Madrid’s chances of winning the title. But it didn’t work that way and so after it Zinedine Zidane was asked, a little apologetically: “Hay Liga?” Is there a league title race? “Well,” he replied, “we’re seven points away and before that we have to catch Atlético. We have to think about the next game … which isn’t a league game; it’s a Champions League game.” Gareth Bale said Madrid had to believe that they could still win the league. Just as importantly, maybe Barcelona might believe that they could still not win it. “You never know, football does funny things to teams when you lose,” he said. “All they need is a few bad results and we need a few good ones.” In Marca, Tomás Guasch gleefully wheeled out his crappingyourselfometer, hoping that Barcelona might yet bottle it.
But realistically, there probably isn’t a league title race, no. With seven games to go Barcelona have a six-point (plus head-to-head goal difference) lead over Atlético, a seven-point lead (ditto) over Madrid. They would have to drop points three times and although Madrid have clawed back five points on them in two weeks, few anticipate that: Bale and Zidane’s responses, looking beyond Saturday night to Wednesday, suggested as much. Yet that did not matter, not when they were caught in the moment; and not after it, either. In the dressing room Madrid marked the victory with a team photo, clenching their fists and “celebrating” like actors in an advert for a bookie’s, while Ronaldo posed in a pair of pristine white pants.
“Celebrating as if they had won a title,” sneered Sport – the same Sport whose cover before the game, back when they expected Barcelona to win it, had declared the clásico: “Another title.”
The importance of this game was never likely to be about the league, Madrid knew. But it mattered, and they were entitled to celebrate it. Not just because theclásico is always the clásico, not just because they had ended their rivals’ long, long run, but because of the score, because of the way it happened, and because it was unexpected. Because, its impact may be felt in Europe. Because, above all,they felt it. Something shifted on Saturday night; perhaps only fleetingly, but it did. Zidane agreed that it could be a turning point, describing it as “very, very important psychologically.”
“Nobody scored four or five against us, like people said,” Pepe remarked. Zidane’s position was reinforced, so too the players’. Marca’s front page ran with “ReALMAdrid.” Alma is soul. “Madrid always come back,” AS said. There’s an optimism now; the last fortnight has gone rather well for Madrid: the Champions League draw, a thumping win over Sevilla, and now this. Their season is not over yet.
“What did you like about the way your team played?” Zidane was asked. “Everything,” he said. If it was an exaggeration, it was understandable. This was a strange kind of clásico, not always easy to analyse, not given to simple conclusions, where there were as many mitigating factors as there was football. It was not a particularly good clásico either, in truth. (The Rayo manager, commentating on the game, was asked who deserved to win it. “Neither of them,” he said.) It didn’t always seem to be going anywhere. Nor did Madrid and nor did Barcelona. At one stage it even felt like the unthinkable might happen; that it might be a 0-0 draw.
For an hour it was Luis Enrique’s side who had the ball but rarely did they pass it with the pace and precision that defines them. They looked like a team that had crossed the Atlantic, sluggish and seemingly tired. At the risk of reading too much into it, they also looked like a team that at some subconscious level knew that the result probably did not matter. The front three were unusually clumsy, the ball escaping them with unusual regularity.
Mostly, Madrid watched them from deep – at times, seemingly satisfied to do so; at others, frustrated. There was a moment when Toni Kroos looked at his team-mates, shrugging his shoulders in exasperation as he chased alone. But the win, even if it arrived when they abandoned some of that caution and went for their opponents, Marcelo leading them forward, reinforces the idea and illustrates that it can work. And right now, an idea matters: this victory gives Madrid an identity to hold on to, legitimising it; there is a path to follow. Victory brings vindication. Zidane played the side that Rafa Benítez regretted not playing – no James Rodríguez, no Isco, Casemiro in the middle, Dani Carvajal at right back, deep, waiting, looking for the counter-attack, particularly with the ball behind Jordi Alba for Bale – and did not regret it.
If the idea appeared to be to cede possession, they had largely contained Barcelona, who created chances but far fewer than normal. Casemiro helped control Lionel Messi and Andrés Iniesta, Neymar never really went beyond Carvajal and Sergio Busquets found his range of passes limited. Besides, when Barcelona scored, Madrid reacted. That was the way it went for an hour, but for the final half an hour Madrid were the better, more adventurous team and for the final 15 minutes they were a stampede. Chances came and quickly. Bale admitted that even after his goal had been ruled out, he was confident that there would be more: Madrid looked fit, strong. Barcelona looked gone.
Suddenly, Madrid were hammering forward, right through the middle and flanked on either side. Busquets overrun and unable to stop them. When the ball was given away – both goals came from misplaced passes by Alba – they headed forward quickly and in numbers. The first goal starts superbly, the ball exchanged swiftly to unlock the space in front of them, Luka Modric turning the key. Protected by Casemiro, Kroos was Kroos again, heading into the space. Carvajal went with him, Marcelo too. The finish for the first was brilliant from Karim Benzema, the finish for the second from Ronaldo too, calmly controlled on the chest and thumped through Claudio Bravo’s legs. The finish for the disallowed goal from Bale wasn’t bad, either. There didn’t seem much wrong with it, that’s for sure.
And so it went, over and over. Barcelona were breached, exposed. Writing in Marca, Santi Segurola described their performance as “a monument to fatigue and confusion, ending up disfigured and with everyone out of place”. “We weren’t able to control the game,” Dani Alves admitted. The question might be whether it was a one-off. “This game is forgotten already,” Luis Enrique insisted. Perhaps as significant, he kept returning to the same theme: “Now, we must rest.” Gerard Piqué seemed to reveal a concern in saying: “Let’s hope we don’t have a dip now.”
“It wasn’t physical, it was positional,” Iniesta said, while Luis Enrique described his team as “disoriented”. The physical question appears significant, though. Barcelona have played a dozen games more than Madrid – afterwards Bale admitted that in terms of their current condition it may have done Madrid good to have not played the Copa del Rey in January – and rotations have been more limited than last season. Nor do they have the depth of squad. They can change games from the bench, sure; it’s just a pity that it tends to be for the worse. Here, the introduction of Arda Turan for Ivan Rakitic was no solution, but was in fact a problem. It left them even more exposed.
Madrid saw that weakness and went for it. “They deserved to win,” Piqué admitted. Madrid scored one, had another disallowed, and hit the bar all in the last 10 minutes. The game ended with Pepe, their centre-back, bombing forward in Barcelona’s box. It ended with Madrid embracing, too, with Ramos rushing to the dressing room to join them, celebrating a win that changes things – even if the destination of the league title may not be one of them. Above all, this was a win that changes the way things feel; they way they feel. At El Prat airport, fans gathered to cheer them to their plane and when they arrived back at Valdebebas late on Saturday night a handful of supporters applauded them through the gates. “We owed our fans that,” Marcelo said.
“It’s going to be like this until the end of the season: a game every three days, but …” Zidane said, pausing before getting up. “Happy,” he smiled, clapping his hands together. Then he got up and left the room where Sergio Ramos had watched Real Madrid beat Barcelona.
• Valencia arrived in Las Palmas on Friday night without assistant coach Phil Neville, who has been told that he will no longer travel with the team or sit on the bench during games. From two Nevilles to no Nevilles in three days, but no change in the result. Phil had to watch on television as Valencia’s first game under new coach Pako Ayestaran ended in the same way as their last three games under Gary: in defeat. You would be hard-pressed to see a match with three goals … and all three as bad as these. A terrible error from Javi Varas – for which coach Quique Setien took full responsibility, as he’s the one that demands they play out of trouble, even if it sometimes puts them in trouble – started it. A comical own goal ended it. It finished 2-1 to the home side. If Valencia were reasonably good in the first half, Las Palmas were superb in the second, a team made very much in their manager’s image. Las Palmas are safe; that’s five wins in six now. As for Valencia, they really could be in trouble. “Valencia are depressed,” Setien said.
• “Atlético are a big team that competes like a small one; they always give 150%. El Cholo should be immensely proud. You have to say chapeau, in every sense. He deserves everything.” So said Betis’s manager, Juan Merino, after his side were hammered 5-1 at the Calderón. The afternoon started with Fernando Torres scoring a lovely opener and ended with the fans refusing to leave until the players had come back out to the pitch so that they could hand them another ovation. Next up: Barcelona.
• “Our derby” ended up being “nobody’s derby”, as Deportivo and Celta drew 1-1, after Nolito’s lovely curler cancelled out Borges’s opener. That goal was a relief for the mayor of Vigo but he still looked more than a little silly after his puffed-up prediction. “We’re going to give them a beating: I’d bet on a 4-0,” he’d said.
• At last, someone challenges the “final” epidemic. “It was not a final,” Rayo Vallecano’s manager, Paco Jémez, said: “a final is a game where there is nothing left after it.” And there was something left after this. But still, it was pretty bloody big. And in a packed Vallecas, his side defeated Getafe 2-0 to take a huge step towards safety and leave Fran Escriba’s side in the relegation zone having picked up just two points from thirty. Rayo’s run-in isn’t going to be easy but Jémez insisted: “We’re at our best moment of the season. I feel so much confidence in my team that I’m not scared of anyone.”
• Blimey. Real Sociedad won at the Pizjuán … where Sevilla had won 17 (yes, 17 consecutive matches).
• “All these decisions based on the referee’s interpretation … I’ll never understand them in my life,” said Eibar’s manager, José Luis Mendilíbar.
• Villarreal: heading for the Champions League.
Results: Rayo 2-0 Getafe, Atlético 5-1 Betis, Las Palmas 2-1 Valencia, Barcelona 1-2 Real Madrid, Celta 1-1 Deportivo, Athletic 1-1 Granada, Málaga 1-1 Espanyol, Eibar 1-2 Villarreal, Sevilla 1-2 Real Sociedad. Levante-Sporting: Monday night.