Monday, May 4, 2009

El Classico at the Bernabeau, 2 May, La Liga

There will be a tendency to go into hyperbole about the class of Barcelona and the entertainment value of this game and a lot of it will be justified. But it is fair to say that throughout the season Barcelona have provided enough evidence to make the eventual outcome of this El Classico encounter, a thoroughly expected proposition. In other words, this result should not elicit any element of surprise. Let’s limit the elements to ‘Wows’.

The Santiago Bernabeau has not so long ago stood up to a man to cheer the genius of Ronaldinho, an act of appreciation so out of character, that even while seeing it live, I was tempted to interpret it as a fans’ way of showing their disgust towards their own team, rather than with the sole objective of praising a phenomenal adversary. On this occasion, they were provided ample opportunity to repeat their act, but they just looked on in amazement. For this time, there was little to berate their own team for and hence little motivation to rile them by praising the enemy. And yet, their appreciation of the beauty of Barcelona’s play would have not been in any measure lesser than that night when the grinning Brazilian had floored them all.

Madrid did not adopt the Chelsea approach to taming Barca. For one they were playing at home, as Chelsea will be this week. Second, they needed the three points to bring the gap down to a single point and give themselves a very real shot at retaining the League and pulling off a stunning comeback. Third, they had already tried the Chelsea approach at the Nou Camp and had failed to shout Barca out for more than eighty minutes or so. Last but not the least, they were on the back of seventeen or so unbeaten games, most of which were wins and had every reason to feel confident.

Barca on the other hand had seen a thirteen point advantage significantly reduced, had drawn two straight games and the world press was murmuring about the true extent of their greatness.
This is how it turned out. Higuain scored from a free header to give Real the lead. Barca responded with Messi finding Henry with the defense left behind and it was one all. Then a free kick was met with a Puyol free header into goal. Then it was Messi’s turn to score and it went into the break at 3-1. Barca came out strong again but it was Ramos who got the next goal and at 2-3, Real could have had a chance. But then Henry scored another and then Messi added another after being set up by Xavi and at 2-5 up, guess who it was that met Eto’s cross to score the sixth? Piquet from central defense, that’s who. That’s how crazy Barcelona are.

But to say so-and-so scored and this is how the game flowed is absurdly limiting. This was more cosmic. Like planetary motions or something pre-ordained by mysterious undiscovered scientific laws or the will of the Supreme, Barca moved in perfect harmony, they thought as a system, an entity and they executed with a beauty that can only be associated with things that are natural.
Real were poor or not, is something that was difficult to register. They did score twice and could have scored some more but it was difficult to notice. What is apparent is that in spite of all the money that they spend, Real has a first eleven that is distinctly inferior to teams that would be in its frame of competitor reference – Chelsea for example.

The same Chelsea who will be Barcelona’s next opponent for a different trophy which is not yet sealed and settled like the Liga is. Man-for-man Chelsea are a stronger team than Real (Casillas, Ramos and maybe Robben excluded) but will that be enough to tempt them to look to take the game to Barcelona at the Bridge? I doubt it. The first leg performance showed that Hiddink is not too bothered about footballing ideals and keeping the purists happy and I expect the script to be the same as the first leg. With a suspect central defensive pairing to be expected for Barcelona, Chelsea’s only ploy to score will be through route one flights to Drogba, and Barcelona will do well to conjure up the goal that they never did at the Nou Camp.

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