The latest installment of Spain’s Clasico provided a mixed bag of the beautiful, the messy, and the unbelievable.
There’s no substitute for the pursuit of excellence. Even when the result is not entirely excellent. Even when it’s bullish and chaotic. Even then, nothing can deputize for it. When top-flight entertainment is the subject, the pursuit of excellence is all that really matters. Watching a collection of athletes do something that they’re uniquely better than everybody else in the world at is a privilege in itself. The hope is that the finished product is one that’s unforgettable and life-changing. But life teaches us that hope can either be a diamond or an illusion; or every so often both at the same time.
Sunday’s edition of El Clasico provided excellence in varying and sometimes contradictory degrees. Both sides controlled various parts of the 90 minutes resulting in an innocuous 2-1 scoreline in favor of the home side at Camp Nou. Cristiano Ronaldo provided another Clasico goal, his 31st in the league — now just one behind Lionel Messi in the race for the picicci — born from a fantastic Real Madrid counterattack and assisted by a sublime Karim Benzema backheel. However, the Portuguese’s strike was outdone in the end by Jeremy Mathieu and Luis Suarez, giving the Catalans the crucial three points and control of La Liga’s summit.
As the match kicked off, it was evident that Sunday’s surprise standout wasn’t going to be dressed in blanco or blaugrana, but bright yellow, or, traditionally speaking, zebra.
Referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz was given the task of officiating what’s often a slapdash affair. His plan to remedy that fact was to presume that almost every “foul” was at least partially embellished. This resulted in Lahoz doling out eleven yellow cards (some for diving, some for fouling, some for being outside on a weekend) in a game that could’ve had twice as many. His reformist methods certainly affected Carlo Ancelotti’s gameplan, as the Real Madrid boss pulled off an already cautioned — and perpetually unhinged — Pepe in the 73rd minute in favor of the less volatile Raphael Varane.
Some have claimed that the constant fouling and diving of El Clasico has created an environment of petty histrionics around the fixture. Lahoz could very well be the inceptor of that credo. His liberal style of precedence regularly produces loads of cards, but also ensures a proactive approach to player scrutiny. The Spaniards performance on Sunday was consistent if not over-lenient at times. He allowed the players to play and didn’t accept complaints. And though he did misdiagnose some situations, so does and and every other official.
In the ongoing Saga de Messi v. Ronaldo, both legends soared in their own ways. Ronaldo feverishly bombarded his longstanding positional counterpart Dani Alves throughout the first-half and was even denied by the crossbar in the 12th minute with Claudio Bravo at his mercy. His eventual goal came against the run of play, yet didn’t feel out of place in the context of the Clasico’s topsy-turvy nature. But as Barca imposed their will throughout the second 45, Ronaldo’s visibility waned.
Messi’s night was equally mixed. Martialled heavily by Marcelo, Isco, and Toni Kroos, the Argentine struggled to affirm his place in Barca’s trident, leaving much of the early action to Neymar and Suarez. Of course, you can only keep a flea dormant for so long, and Messi’s millimeter-perfect free-kick was key to Mathieu’s header that opened the scoring. Conversely to Ronaldo, as Barcelona began dominating the play deep into the match, Messi sparkled. This Clasico was further evidence that even when he doesn’t have a spectacular game, Messi is still the most important player on the pitch.
As expected, Luis Suarez’s piping-hot form continued from Barca’s midweek win over Manchester City. The Uruguayan’s movement was at the core of the Catalans’ most effective attacks all night. With a couple of smarter — and unselfish — plays from his cohorts, he could’ve added to his 56th minute strike (his 8th Liga goal). Numerous critics may point towards Suarez’s cumilitive Barcelona scoring record as a black mark, but anyone who’s actually watched the ex-Liverpool wizard over the last six months would agree that he’s been anything but a letdown.
Neymar’s Clasico tale was less convincing. The Brazilian, while hugely involved on the night, has struggled in finding the back of the net for the last three games (quite the drought). This was never more illustrated than in the 31st minute when he modestly tapped an open-goal sitter straight into Iker Casillas’s chest from two yards out — a failure that immediately led to the Madrid breakaway in which Ronaldo equalized.
It wouldn’t be a reach to say that Neymar could’ve tallied at least three goals in as many games with more clinical finishing. But though his touches and passes were off all night, it didn’t stop Neymar from being incredibly influential as well. His willingness and ability to attack Real Madrid’s defense from his left-wing position created a constant outlet for Barca, whilst also dulling Dani Carvajal’s offensive threat.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, El Clasico has become about individuals. That might seem obvious, but during the years of Guardiola’s tiki-taka purveyors battling Mourinho’s hardcore heels, the game was collectivism at its core. Nowadays, with Lucho Enrique’s Barca being built on the fluid but singular talents of Messi, Neymar, and Suarez, and Ancelotti’s Galacticos squad being as expensive and star-studded as ever, the days of El Clasico as strategic footballing Battleship are over, at least for now.
This truth was confirmed as soon as the starting elevens were revealed and Xavi Hernandez was listed on the bench in what will likely be his final Clasico. A pivotal figure of the last decade of Barca-Madrid duels, the historic playmaker no longer steers the ship the way he used to. While much of that is down to his 35-years-of-age, some of it is also down to progression. This Barca — Enrique’s Barca — have fled the lands of tiki-taka to harvest something fresher and more fertile for today’s issues. But although it was his last quarrel with his rivals in white, Xavi contributed an 11 minute cameo of flawless, controlled football. At that point in the match, the objective was possession: the main tenet of both La Masia and Xavi Hernandez. A little dose of the original to punctuate the sequel.
Xavi’s small but profound role echoed the reality that El Clasico innately champions history and legacy. In one of the could-be moments of the match, Neymar found himself 1-on-5 near the halfway line with the ball tethered to his Sambas. Like a gazelle dashing through placid fields of grass, the Brazilian skated through Real’s defense undisturbed. But instead of playing in a wide open Suarez to his right, Neymar chose to continue his slalom in hopes of ending up on the eternal Clasico highlight reel alongside Messi, Ronaldinho, and Romario. His wayward finish guaranteed a different outcome.
That’s the power of this legendary fixture. Its participants are forever playing with one eye acutely fixed on their opponent while the other gazes towards immortality. Starting with his seminal hat-trick in 2007, Messi has taken Clasico folklore and made it into a kaleidoscope of his own design. Neymar, though he forfeited his chances this time around, enjoyed his inaugural moment in 2013. Sunday saw Suarez design his first. And on we go, to the next one.