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Barcelona still in charge, but they’re driving Madrid in the right direction

Positives from defeat in El Clásico outweigh the negatives for Real Madrid.


There remained only a few brave souls, hardcore Real Madrid fanatics who stayed not out of choice, but because they know no other way. Twisting the knife they may have been, but the wound was so familiar it barely stung anymore. As the last minutes of the Clásico wound down and Señor Borbalán blew the final whistle, the cheers of the Catalans sounded once more in the sanctum sanctorum of their sworn enemy. The dejection of the Madridistas was palpable; they had thought this would be their time, the catharsis of three years of humiliation.

A 3-1 defeat it may have been, but in the grand scheme of things for Real Madrid it still represents progress, and the gap between the two sides continues to narrow. The reaction to the result is a product of the perceived quality of Madrid going into the game. In combination with Barça’s relatively poor form it was enough to convince many that Madrid had indeed established their superiority and were on the way to a convincing victory. Take all the build-up away, and the result is not nearly so damaging. For the most part, Madrid gave a creditable account of themselves. They appeared to be getting over the fear factor and on the way to believing themselves to be as good as Barcelona.

The grandiosity of the incessantly parroted paeans to Barcelona’s greatness should not diminish the essential truth they convey – this Barcelona side is indeed an extraordinary football team. Their success is an organic by-product of their approach to the game. Madrid have suffered years of disastrous mismanagement, their identity and ethos subsumed by a culture of short-termism introduced by a succession of charlatan administrators. Barcelona have in the meantime been reaping possibly the richest crop of youngsters ever to emerge at any football club, the result of a firm commitment to blooding footballers to play in a certain way. Teams of their ilk do not fall apart overnight.

The freedom granted to José Mourinho and the backing of his project signifies the first coherent attempt in many years to claw back a sense of identity at the Bernabéu. But to suggest that all of the past ills could be overcome to the extent of administering a thrashing to their eternal rivals within a season is laughable. Progress has been made, and it continues. Madrid may well win the league title, but Madridistas will have to wait a while before the retribution they so desperately crave is delivered.

It is nearly impossible to legislate for the genius of Lionel Messi, as was proved yet again. What was also on show again is how extraordinarily dependent Barcelona are on him to run the game. He had a hand in all three goals. For the first, he started so deep he picked the ball up from Gérard Piqué, the first time he had dropped that close to this own goal. Until then, Madrid had looked largely comfortable and Lassana Diarra had Xavi Hernández comfortably ensconced in his pocket.

Indeed there are signs that Xavi is perhaps no longer quite the player he once was. He has had a number of poor games this season, and did very little for most of the game last Saturday. Barcelona increasingly appear to need Messi to drop very deep to initiate moves, an aspect of the game that was bread and butter to Xavi. The rest of the crew put in a shift but were largely just basking in the glow emanating from Messi’s genius.

The magnitude of Carles Puyol’s performance in defence cannot be overstated. Any joy that Madrid had came exclusively when he was dragged away from the ball. This was especially true of Cristiano Ronaldo, who was able to win the odd freekick by running at Piqué or Sergio Busquets, but extracted very little change out of the Barcelona skipper, who was solidity personified. It was only his sixth start of the season and Barcelona have suffered in his absence.

While the combination of Messi, Puyol, tactical astuteness and a smattering of luck resulted in the victory, it is unlikely to be a serious body blow for Madrid. Mourinho learnt more about his team from this one game than he would from a year of playing against some of the lesser sides in the league. Of the two sides, Madrid are the developing unit. There is plenty of potential and enough reason to believe that much of it is still to be unlocked.

If, ultimately, it does come about that Barcelona find themselves unable to dispatch teams on a weekly basis with the efficiency of Real Madrid, then the latter would be fully deserving of a title won over the course of 38 games, irrespective of their results against Barcelona. In their quest for a convincing head-to-head victory however, Mourinho’s men are further along than they were before last Saturday and will in every likelihood get a few more opportunities to put their nerve to the test against their nemesis before the season is up. Madridistas, meanwhile, must bear their cross with good humour, for the outlook remains bright for them.

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Published: Dec 15 2011
Category: Iberoblog
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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