BARCELONA -- They do say fortune favours the brave. They do... don’t they? Well, don’t go asking Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti for confirmation. You may get a slap.
As he heads back to Madrid, having lost his first Clasico as Real Madrid manager, 2-1 to Barcelona, back to the drawing board, he can legitimately start to wonder why he can’t remember smashing that mirror, walking under that ladder or a black cat crossing his path muttering evilly about all cats having Catalan sympathies.
Don’t get me wrong. This first meaningful Barcelona win in a Clasico since January 2012 -- when a 3-1 victory at the Bernabeu saw them through in the Copa Del Rey, which they’d go on and win to make Pep Guardiola’s final trophy -- had some stars wearing the home side’s colours. Andres Iniesta was super, Lionel Messi had moments and Xavi was regal, while the supporting cast mostly hit their marks.
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And Neymar will legitimately claim man of the match honours. A scruffy goal in he 19th minute was his reward for invention and confidence, while a goal-assist pass for one of the most remarkable moments in recent Clasicos means he emulates Romario, Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho.
Each of those Brazilians, legendary in their own rights, won -- and some of them scored -- on their debut against Real Madrid. If Neymar felt the weight of pressure, he didn’t seem to have sweaty patches under his arms.
It was the toasting which Neymar gave Alvaro Arbeloa when Brazil beat Spain to win the Confederations Cup this summer that probably led to Ancelotti’s first bold decision. Arbeloa was dropped and Dani Carvajal, a really excellent young prospect and a buy-back from Bayer Leverkusen, having been raised in the Madrid youth system --La Fabrica-- was left to patrol Neymar.
The other little gambles from the normally conservative Italian were to leave Asier Illarramendi on the bench -- perhaps after the slight knock he picked up against Juventus in midweek -- and put Sergio Ramos in the defensive midfield role, the Spaniard’s first outing there since 2005.
Then there was Gareth Bale: willing, physically mended but not fit. He started in a 4-3-3 formation and, what’s more, he started down the middle with Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo either side of him.
At the beginning of the season, I mentioned Ancelotti’s musings about the Welshman being capable of playing down the centre because of a tip about the Italian believing it to be a serious option. Perhaps this wasn’t the night to inaugurate it.
Bale, Ronaldo and Di Maria were given liberty to swap but midway through the first half there was Ancelotti ordering Ronaldo to move to the left wing and Bale to play in the centre again. Hey ho. Some you win, some you lose.
However, it doesn’t paint a pretty picture, in the short term only, when Florentino Perez spends 100m Euros on Bale, having haggled all summer, and gets an hour out of the most expensive player in history in his first Clasico while Barca spend half that on Neymar and produce the man of the match.
That Florentino thought he was well, well advanced with Santos for Neymar’s purchase, only to fall out irrevocably with the president of the Brazilian club, will be galling in the extreme after this match.
Neymar makes his mark
Just after the now traditional chants for Catalan independence in the 17th minute, Iniesta fed Neymar. Carvajal was a metre short in closing him down and the Brazilian risked a shot off the youngster’s legs and into the far corner of the Madrid net.
Of course, it was the cue for Camp Nou hysteria, especially after only one -- meaningless -- win in the last six Clasicos, but timing was the essence.
As the goal spun off the back of the independence chants, the crowd took Neymar’s timing as an indication of Brazilian backing for Catalan secession from the Spanish state. And everyone went loco.
Messi, not looking particularly sharp or particularly happy to be asked to play wide for the second match in a row, flirted with a goal before the break but, really, it should have come from Madrid.
Ronaldo, who was imperious in defeat and committed to rescuing the cause, sent in a heat-seeking cross onto Sami Khedira’s toe. It was as close to a sitter as the moment was to half time but, thanks to a brave block from Victor Valdes and the referee’s decision that the ball bounced back onto Adriano’s arm without any intent from the Brazilian, it was 1-0 at the break.
Nor did bravery -- particularly Ancelotti’s -- get much return from the second half, which alternated from the scruffy to the scintillating.
Madrid dug in and I really hope, for Ancelotti’s sake, that this isn’t forgotten when some of Spain’s media get the scalpel out over the next few days. Luka Modric played with heart and intelligence, Di Maria sprayed some lovely passes and Ronaldo brought one of the saves of Valdes’ life.
It came when Iniesta was robbed by a combination of Khedira and Modric. The Croat sent his team leader off to settle the vendetta and Ronaldo, as is traditional, hit the ball with incredible venom. Valdes somehow got in the way and the ball slewed over the top of the bar at vicious speed and a remarkable angle.
Still less luck accrued when Di Maria sent Ronaldo into the box and Javier Mascherano pushed him over.
Honestly, it’s tough to figure this ref, Undiano Mallenco. Without taking sides it’s accurate to report that Barcelona’s players have felt prejudiced by his work over his previous three Clasicos -- each of which they’ve lost.
Yet, somehow, he chose not to give Ronaldo a blatant spot kick at a time when the match was evenly balanced and Barca were quite evidently losing athletic superiority over their rivals.
Post-match, Cesc Fabregas claimed that Undiano had also missed a penalty by Pepe on the former Arsenal captain, but there’s no real need to get into claim and counter claim. Mascherano’s barge on Ronaldo was a penalty. Full stop.
Moreover, Ancelotti might, when his sense of injustice subsides and the pain recedes a little, choose to whistle a little number from "The Sound of Music" on Sunday morning: "How Do You Solve A Problem Called Benzema?" would be the refrain.
Karim Benzema was dropped, understandably after a torrent of cat-calls and a not particularly meritorious performance against Juve in midweek. Thrown on to rescue a tough Clasico, though, he proceeded to miss a back post header which was scoreable, although not in the comedy category of his blooper against Juve.
However, fortune very nearly smiled on Ancelotti’s bravery in trusting this problem child so early in the match -- at the expense of Bale -- the most expensive player in history.
At half time I saw the remarkable sight of Don Florentino Perez, more "Blanco" than a bottle, being hailed by three Barcelona shirt-wearing fans from the side of the Camp Nou presidential box.
As his fellow VIPs trooped off for sherry and cakes, the Madrid president sidled over and happily posed with the fans as a bystander accepted the challenge of taking a happy snap of the ultra-weird moment.
Whether Florentino felt so beneficent after Bale departed on the hour and Benzema initially looked impotent again, we can only guess. Thus, the thumping effort which the Frenchman produced not long after his missed header was remarkable.
Hit with all the anger and vicious aggression of a man who can’t understand why the world is collapsing around him, the shot should have taken the top corner of Valdes’ net off and propelled it to somewhere off the coast of Portugal.
Instead, it almost broke the goalframe and Benzema howled to the moon. So did Ancelotti. And you knew, between penalties and crossbars, fortune wasn’t going with the brave tonight. Unless your name was Alexis Sanchez.
Sanchez seals it
When he grew up in his little Chilean town, Alexis’ family was poor, genuinely struggling. He used to tell his mum not to worry, because he was going to be a superstar footballer and solve all their worries. She used to laugh.
Little Alexis was nicknamed the squirrel, too, because if the football they played with in the Tocopillo streets got stuck up a tree, on the roof of the town hall or, work with me, on the wing of a passing plane, off he’d shoot, risking life and limb, to climb anywhere so long as the only ball any of them could afford wasn’t lost.
The trouble is that often since arriving at the Camp Nou, from Udinese, Alexis has looked like a little squirrel in a space reserved for big cats. With claws.
However, Barcelona manager Tata Martino has been good for the Chilean, and kudos to all at Barca who have spent months and months with arms around his shoulder, telling him: "You’re not a squirrel any more, you’re a lion." Suddenly, with 12 minutes left, the psychology clicked big-time.
Neymar roamed into the centre of the pitch -- which as a winger would have been "verboten" under Pep Guardiola -- and shoved a nice assist pass into Alexis’ path. He feinted to race Raphael Varane toward goal, stopped, thought for a milisecond and lofted a Phil Mickelson-esque sand wedge up and over the lighthouse-tall Diego Lopez for his third goal in Clasico competiton. It was the winner on the night and easily his best for Barca.
That Lopez had saved, excellently, from Neymar when another of those long diagonal passes which Barca now like -- this time from Iniesta -- had set the Brazilian in on goal, may subsequently be forgotten. There may, just may, be calls for the restoration of Saint Iker, as he’s called by the Madridista faithful.
There was time left in this angular but enjoyable match for some lovely images.
The introduction of 20-year-old Jese Rodriguez, ahead of the more expensive and more experienced Isco, which won’t have pleased Florentino, finally brought Ancelotti a reward for his bravery.
Ronaldo, unwilling to contemplate defeat all night, released a divine crossfield pass into the path of the Madrid youngster and his shot was too fierce for even Valdes. Too little, too late, though.
Alves nearly brought the house down with a cheeky nutmeg on Ronaldo who -- please note -- was filling in at left back to cover for Marcelo.
At the end, far, far from the vitriol and petty nastiness which devalued the Jose Mourinho era of Clasicos, there were handshakes and embraces between all creeds and colours. Indeed, Carles Puyol, an unused sub, passed a comment to Ronaldo as CR7 left the pitch, presumably about the not-given penalty decision.
They exchanged words … the situation looked tense. But it ended in a semi-hug and an arm round Ronaldo’s shoulder from Puyol, and the Portuguese choosing to let the Barcelona man accompany him down the steps and into the privacy of the Camp Nou tunnel. Not long ago there was eye-gouging and infamy around that very same spot.
This time Madrid took a bloody nose, partly through bad luck, partly thanks to the referee and partly because of the new Brazilian kid on the block.
But the impression remains that the result and the lack of fortune in return for bravery shouldn’t mask the slow but positive advances which are taking place in the early part of Ancelotti’s time in charge. Whether Don Florentino quite sees it that way remains to emerge.