Barcelona twist knife in Madrid
"It's over", screamed Marca's cover on Sunday. After 18 matches unbeaten, Real Madrid's impressive streak came to a brutal end at their own stadium, at the hands of their biggest rival. Barcelona's overwhelming offensive display led former Real Madrid and Barcelona player Luis Enrique to speak about feeling a "footballing orgasm" while watching the blaugrana play in Madrid.
And even though one would not go that far, the thrashing of the madridistas immediately became part of history, as no team had scored six at the Bernabéu since 1950. However, just under a year ago both teams played a very different derby. On the 7th of May of 2008, their line-ups were almost identical to their current ones, but the outcome was a clear 4-1 for Real Madrid.
After that match, a handful of Barça supporters received their players at El Prat (Barcelona's airport) chanting "You don't deserve to wear that shirt". But one year works wonders in football, especially when the ying-yang dynamic between Real Madrid and Barcelona comes into play.
The genesis of today's gap between both teams may well be rooted in that match and the ensuing mediocre La Liga finish for Barcelona. While the Catalans took quick measures to get back on the right track, Real Madrid thought there was no need for radical changes once they had won La Liga with ease. However, their recent history of early Champions League exits should have warned them otherwise.
The first step Barcelona took was the promotion of Josep Guardiola from the B team. There is one very significant point in Pep's selection as a manager: his idea of how football should be played is absolutely in sync with that of several predecessors of his, such as Johann Cruyff or Frank Rijkaard.
This coherence makes sure that all Barcelona teams, no matter the age or division, play with the same structure and philosophy, therefore it is no coincidence that players of different generations such as Xavi Hernández and Sergi Busquets understand each other perfectly on the pitch. Barcelona aimed to develop a very specific brand of football during the last couple of decades, even if the gaffers have changed more than they would have wanted, and that is something Real Madrid have indeed lacked.
Pep started his job by getting rid of the rotten apples, such as Ronaldinho and Deco, and put Samuel Eto'o on probation until he showed he could be an asset to the team. The few, shrewd summer signings aimed to strengthen specific parts of the pitch were Barcelona lacked options, such as Daniel Alves at right back, or Seydou Keita in defensive midfield.
In the meantime, Real Madrid's Ramón Calderón was busy chasing Cristiano Ronaldo and ignoring Bernd Schuster's claims for reinforcements in other parts of the pitch. Only Rafael Van der Vaart joined the side during the summer. By midseason it was evident that the side was not deep enough to cover for injuries to Ruud van Nistelrooy and Mahamoud Diarra. The signings of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Lassana Diarra, together with the new coach Juande Ramos, were enough to steer the ship in the domestic competition, but the doubt about how far the team could go when facing top-level rivals still lingered, especially after they were easily disposed of by Liverpool in the Champions League.
The question was answered in emphatic fashion by Barcelona on Saturday. Guardiola sent the first message even before the match started: no players would be rested, the best available line-up would play from the start. It had become a habit of previous Barcelona gaffers to behave more defensively than usual at the Bernabéu (even Cruyff himself played five defenders in the nineties). In his first Bernabéu match as a coach with the title at stake, Pep felt this was the right time to make a statement.
Once the referee blew his whistle, both the collective flow and every single matchup on the field went Barça's way. Sergio Ramos presented Barcelona with a show out of Roberto Carlos' handbook, trying to hide his utterly shambolic defensive performance with offensive forays that left additional room for Thierry Henry and Lionel Messi. The latter's positioning was probably the best of Guardiola's tactical tricks for this match, as the Argentinean roomed freely up front instead of sticking to the right wing as usual. Real Madrid were not prepared for his endless string of one-twos with Xavi and Iniesta. Had he been more accurate with his finishing, who knows what the final score could have been.
At the end of the match, Guardiola said: "This was an immense step for us". His comment referred not only to the Liga title, but also to the required maturity of a young, extremely gifted side that needs to test its limits under the most demanding circumstances. On Saturday they still showed some of their weaker links, such as their poor defending of set pieces, or the average protection their full-backs offer: Guus Hiddink will be taking notes, no doubt. In any case, only time will tell how far can this Barcelona team go, but if we have to judge by their talent, their youth and their manager, this is just the beginning of a side to be remembered by football fans around the globe.
And that is probably the heart of Real Madrid's drama. Their football-savvy supporters know well that the last two Liga titles cannot hide the ugly reality of the most victorious club in Europe. Despite their recent heroics, theirs is not a side to be remembered, nor will it be if things do not change at the club. Gaffers coming in and out, random policy of signings, reluctance to make tough decisions, lack of opportunities for the youth team talents.. Real Madrid, today, is a club managed through spasms, prisoner of a glorious past that will not be repeated unless they go back to their own basics.
Juande's job with an inherited group of players has been nothing short of spectacular, but this side's limitations cannot be ignored any longer, and they go beyond a specific line-up. The remarkable resilience to fight until the very last second is the only Real Madrid trademark now recognizable at the club, while the taste for good football seems long gone.
Marca's cover page was not only referring to the La Liga title. The baptism of fire of a charismatic Barça side must have sealed the end of a turbulent phase for Real Madrid. We shall see if the madridistas are able to learn from their own mistakes, and also from Barcelona's wise moves. Finding their own Guardiola would be a good start..