It’s normally a safe bet that the two Clásicos of any given season will both be among the biggest and best matches of the year. Clásicos pit the two giants of Spain against one another, with teams as rich in talent as in history, in arguably the most intense and passionate rivalry in Europe, and which almost always have enormous ramifications for a league title decided by the smallest of margins. Saturday’s game was not that.
This wasn’t entirely unforeseeable. At stake here was something more psychological than tangible, thanks to Barcelona’s 10-point La Liga lead on third-placed Real Madrid coming into the day. This was a match merely for pride and confidence, on both sides.
For Barcelona, a win could’ve stamped out the embers of Real’s tumultuous season by officially ending any remote hope for a league comeback, as well as dealing a near-death blow to their opponents’ European Cup chances. A loss, though, wouldn’t have affected much besides maybe their own momentum and positive feelings for the important Champions League matches ahead.
For Real, a win over Barça meant a win for their psyche more than anything. A seven-point gap in the league with six games remaining is likely still too tall a mountain to scale, bar a massive collapse by the team that’s proven itself the best outfit in Europe two years running. However, the possibility of Barcelona falling on their faces would at the very least keep Real’s concentration levels up every weekend, which, as we’ve seen before with Bayern Munich, can be a critical factor in maintaining sharpness in the Champions League. Even more importantly, though, avoiding the loss that just about everyone had predicted could quite possibly spur them on for the European glory for which they still hold out hope.
And so with Barcelona wanting a win but in not needing it, and Real Madrid most needing not to lose, plus with the physical expenditure of the international break weighing heavy on their legs, this was largely a drab affair. Barça played well for about 30 minutes, and should’ve both been one goal (had Luis Suárez not missed the absolute sitter seen above) and one man (Sergio Ramos, after picking up a yellow card in the 10th minute, spent the rest of the match doing his damnedest to get a second but somehow avoided it until the 83rd minute) up by halftime, but it was not to be. After that opening stretch, Barcelona were content playing out the string, hoping to either hold on for a draw or snatch a winner if the opportunity presented itself.
For about an hour, Real were pretty bad, curiously foregoing the strategy best proven to give Barça trouble—namely, pressing Barça very high up the pitch to obstruct their build-up play—and allowing the Blaugrana time on the ball to do whatever they wanted; which, luckily for the Blancos, wasn’t much of anything. For the last half hour, though, realizing they’d avoided the beatdown they’d feared, and with Barcelona leading by only one goal and looking tired and unmotivated, the Madridistas charged on.
Benzema responded to Gerard Piqué’s second-half opener with a pretty equalizer in the 62nd minute, Gareth Bale had a go-ahead goal disallowed for no good reason, and even after Ramos finally earned his hard-fought red card, Cristiano Ronaldo won 10-man Real the game with this blast in the 85th minute:
With fatigue and apathy marring the spectacle itself, there was only one moment during the match befitting the status of El Clásico. It was predictably crafted by the famed MSN during one of the few times Barça’s three superstars got loose on the break and looked fit and invested in doing something special.
With the game still scoreless, Neymar hit off down the right wing with little support, fending off the challenges of two defenders. He managed to dance his way out of danger in time for Messi to present himself as a passing option, and found room to flip the ball between three Madrid players just before getting clattered into by Pepe.
Messi scooped up the ball and sprinted into space. By that time Suárez had made his way into the left edge of the penalty box, and Messi passed it his way. After a single touch dragged the scrambling Real players towards the striker, Suárez popped the ball back into Messi’s feet. Standing flat footed at the top of the box with a bit of space but seemingly not enough momentum to generate a strong enough effort to beat the goalkeeper, Messi drilled the toes on his left foot straight through the ball, sending it upward and outward towards the upper right corner of the goal. This would be it, the moment of magic to break open the scoring. Then Keylor Navas, probably Real Madrid’s best player all season, did this:
The combined image of Messi’s surprisingly strong and perfectly directed shot arcing towards the net, then Navas drifting to his left, lunging out with his gloved hand and appearing to either slow down time or elongate his body as he jumped, continuing to stretch toward the ball right as it appeared to have beaten him, then slapping it away, was the finest exchange of play the match produced. It was one act of greatness calling forth an equal and opposite one to combat it, and it was the only time the reality of this Clásico met our expectations.
Everyone at Real Madrid—well, maybe not James Rodríguez, who didn’t make it off the bench—can and should feel elated with the win, and will hope to turn these ultimately meaningless three points into a meaningful, newfound confidence that quite possibly could make the difference between a disastrous and trophy-less year and the undécima. Barcelona should be disappointed with how they played, in the second half especially, but can ensure that this is but a minor setback that refocuses them on what might be a second treble-winning season. For us spectators, though, neither Real nor Barça can say they lived up to the Clásico’s name, save for that single, brief battle of skills between Messi and Navas.
Photo via AP