Of everything that happened in this Clásico—a half-strength Barcelona waltzing into the Bernabéu and not only beating a full-strength Real Madrid team that desperately needed a win, but pummeling them in gloriously humiliating fashion; the notoriously careful Rafa Benítez basically being pressured by his president and/or fans into throwing caution to the wind and putting out an uncharacteristically attack-minded team, which promptly blew up in his face; watching two players (Neymar and Suárez) whom Madrid missed out on come into town and destroy them—my mind keeps coming back to Sergi Roberto.
Sergi Roberto had no business being in this game. If the situation had been just a little different—if Barcelona hadn’t been banned from making transfers this past summer, or if FIFA would’ve allowed Denis Suárez to return from his two year pseudo-loan at Sevilla, or if Radja Nainggolan hadn’t snapped Rafinha’s knee ligaments and prematurely ended his season—it’s very likely the La Masia product wouldn’t have been on the pitch, and maybe not even at the club. Roberto is a natural box-to-box midfielder, all lungs and gumption, who seemed a likable enough kid who deserved a shot to fight for minutes in a team closer to his level—one far, far below Barça’s lofty standards. This is a player many didn’t even think had the talent to be a Blaugrana squad player.
And yet there he was, a starter in the biggest league match in the entire sport, a nominal forward assuming Lionel Messi’s spot in the lineup alongside Luis Suárez and Neymar, competing against the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and James Rodríguez, with the agony or ecstasy of hundreds of millions of people around the globe on the line. He has really taken off this season, first flourishing as a makeshift right back after a series of injuries, then proving so versatile and useful in lieu of injuries everywhere else that no one took his inclusion in the starting lineup as an automatic sign of concession on Saturday. Barcelona went into the richest, most famous club in the world’s territory armed with Sergi goddamned Roberto, and dominated 4-0.
Roberto wasn’t the best player on the pitch—though he was very good, dropping deep and pushing wide and pinching inside in perfect synchronicity with Ivan Rakitić and Dani Alves, baffling Real’s midfield and defense, and assisting on Suárez’s opener. That distinction should probably go to Andrés Iniesta, whose work in attack, possession, and pressing at times made him look like an amalgam of his best self with a little bit of Xavi’s and Messi’s games kludged together for good measure. But Roberto’s presence and performance seemed indicative of just how special this Barcelona team was on Saturday and has been all season.
Recall the state of affairs during this time a year ago: Luis Enrique had failed to earn the faith of the fans and reportedly the players as well, an inevitable punishment for the crime of being anyone other than Pep Guardiola, The Fulfiller Of Dreams And Protector Of The Barça Way. The first Clásico of last season was the first time we saw the new attacking trident in its full glory. The knock on the team around that time was that it was solely beholden to the individual genius of one of its three forwards to make everything happen, with the other eight players serving as little more than pawns facilitating the action up top. Stymie the forwards and the whole process ground to a halt.
This time was much different. This Barcelona played as a complete team, with every movement and pass and run and shot intertwined with the actions of every other player. Neymar and Suárez were typically sensational, and played a direct role in each goal. But whereas last season it often felt like those two and Messi thrived in spite of or at least in separation from what was going on around them, this time everything good they did came as part of a whole; a team aiding the production of its best players rather than one dependent on it.
Nothing exemplified this quite like Sergi Roberto. Returning from a two-month layoff, Messi was almost totally absent, only coming on in the final half hour of what was already a 3-0 match. (That might’ve been the most insulting part of all; rather than coming on to rescue the game, Messi used the Clásico as a rehab spot to tuneup for matches he’ll actually be needed for.) In Messi’s place was Roberto, a player nobody would’ve thought good enough to tie Messi’s boots coming into this season, let alone fill them. But this Barcelona team isn’t dependent on any one player, not even the best one on the planet. This team has so honed its system that both fits and amplifies the talent of its cogs (consider this: it wouldn’t have been at all strange to hear a Barça fan complaining about the presence of Claudio Bravo, Javier Mascherano, Dani Alves, Rakitić, and Roberto—just about half of the starting XI that just smashed one of the best teams in Europe—as not being Barça quality) that even without their maestro, they can slot in a player like Roberto and hardly miss a beat.
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