El Clásico was no classic. No roasted pig’s head was showered on the players, no bottles rocketed onto the pitch, no flares were lighted up in the stands and not even the teensy bits of paper were hovering anywhere above the Camp Nou turf.
There were only 3 yellow cards brandished and no red cards dished out to the players by the man in black, no punch-ups occurred between the two opposing sets of players, not many (in other words, hardly any) instances of sorcery in the match and even the respective club presidents suitably attired for the colossal occasion were dignifiedly mute.
Yet this very much un-classic Clásico could just have decided a hell lot of things. It could have decided this season’s Spanish championship, it could have decided Ronaldinho‘s future (or the lack of it) at FC Barcelona, it could have decided Julio Baptista‘s place in the Real Madrid starting line-up for good and it has probably confirmed that Barca’s saviour is not a long-hair-tied-like-a-horse-tail, wonky-teethed, forever grinning Brazilian (read Ronaldinho) but a soft-speaking hobbit with a magnet in his shoes and an iron chip in the ball who wasn’t even there for the match (read Lionel Messi).
If anything, El Clásico exhibited the subtly contrasting features of Real Madrid and Barcelona and underlined how the two most glamorous clubs in Spain are sailing on different boats. Real Madrid are still in a lingering transitional phase as manager Bernd Schuster keeps on struggling to mark out his best starting line-up. Yet they demonstrated a marvelous unity and coherence blend with collective commitment while Barca, who’ve been playing arguably the best football in La Liga so far this season, appeared distorted and lacked both imagination and invention. Barcelona were, in one word, shambles.
For much of the match the Barcelona players were frustrated by a battling Real Madrid side that was physically superior to them. Barcelona were often discerned chasing their own shadows like a dog striving hard to lick its own tail. Except in some small spells that were few and far between and towards the tail-end of the match, they looked lost like a child with a flat tire in the middle of a desert.
Barcelona failed to break the Real Madrid defence and when the likes of Andrés Iniesta, Samuel Eto’o and Ronaldinho did breach the Real backline, there was Goalkeeper Supreme Iker Casillas and his pair of safe hands that thwarted Barca’s efforts. The Barcelona players failed to produce the intricate one-twos and neat triangles so wonted with the Catalan giants. So painfully pathetic were they in their inability to break down their stubborn Real counterparts that they uncharacteristically constructed aerial forays which were essentially crosses looped in from the flanks and vaguely hoping for someone to get at the end of them.
As if a paralysis in their attack weren’t enough, Barca conceded the only goal of the match in the 36th minute when their midfield lost possession, propelling Real Madrid to launch an attack of their own. Playing a quick one-two, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Julio Baptista caught the Barca defenders flatfoot and the Brazilian stroked the ball past a desperate Victor Valdés.
And it was the man whom they affectionately call The Beast who was at the heart of all Real Madrid breakthroughs into the Barca citadel (which, it must be admitted, weren’t too many) and hatched the most beautiful moment of the match. Baptista’s ball distribution was quite good and the deft touch he displayed for the lone goal of the match was exquisitely carved as if by the great Pablo Picasso himself. The Brazilian player’s form has lifted its nose up in the past few weeks and his start against Barca was his 5th in as many games.
To suggest that Baptista was the best Real player on the pitch would be naÃ¯ve. There were a few others who contributed to the increase of the Real domination in the match. Mahamadou Diarra was a rock in his defensive midfielder role and executed manager Bernd Schuster’s plans of smothering Barca in the centre of the park to perfection by making tough and at times clumsy tackles. Sergio Ramos was in his usual impressive self, Iker Casillas made a match winning double save in the 33rd minute and averted a number of long shots later on in the match, Pepe justified the â‚¬30 million that Real paid FC Porto in the summer for his recruitment by marshalling the Real backline when Barca galloped onto the match in the final 15 minutes and the aging Italian master Fabio Cannavaro looked decent.
But Ronaldinho did not look decent at all. In the absence of the Argentine singsong Lionel Messi, the 27-year old Brazilian was anticipated to reassert his rapidly dwindling significance in the Barcelona unit but failed once again. He was as much crippled by the Real midfield and defence as choked by his own inability to weave his old magic. The man who had made it big in football the hard way, who used to practice long and hard into the night with only his pet dog, so comically named Bombom, to appreciate his dedication, who was the world’s best footballer just one and a half years ago was struggling to get even a slice of the ball as he limped on Barca’s left side of midfield.
This was supposedly Ronaldinho’s big night out, the night where he was touted to take the word by storm once more and attest why Barca should still keep him. Instead the Brazilian was out muscled, outwitted and even outplayed by the stronger, more confident and more motivated Real Madrid players. Except for his one shot on target in the first half and the captain’s armband handed to him by Carles Puyol when the Spaniard was pulled out of the pitch in the 77 th minute, Ronaldinho had no reason to take any positive from the match.
And neither had Barca manager Frank Rijkaard. The Dutchman kept the more established names such as Thierry Henry and Eidur Gudjohnsen out in the cold and gambled on two teenagers, one the 18-year old Giovani dos Santos and the other the 17-year old Bojan KrkiÄ‡. Rijkaard was probably hoping (against hope?) that either of the two youngsters or maybe even both would pull the rabbit out of the hat just as another teenage sensation had done back in March at Camp Nou. But there was no such adolescent heroic. Instead Barca slumped to their first home defeat this season after 8 successive wins and failed to score at Camp Nou for the first time since March 2005.
El Clásico missed Lionel Messi but more than the match, it was Barca who needed him. Messi is Camp Nou cathedrals’s true Messiah and without him Barca are seemingly lost.