I WAS rooting for Real Madrid last weekend as they went into the 168th El-Clasico (The Classic) match-up with their eternal rivals, Barcelona, in the Spanish La Liga. That revelation may surprise not a few readers of this column who must know me as an admirer (let’s face it, who’s not?!) of Barca’s beautiful brand of football. (I do not consider myself a fanatical, “fan” of Barcelona, otherwise I wouldn’t be rooting for their opponents under any circumstances).
I tipped Madrid to win for several reasons. The first is the remarkable unbeaten run of 31 matches in all competitions (18 in the league) which they had built dating back to October last year. During that period, they had turned an eight-point deficit to Barcelona into a four-point lead in the league table. Now playing at home at the Santiago Bernabeu, I expected that the momentum which was firmly on their side would be too much for Barca to stop.
Second, I was getting bored with Barcelona’s endless passing in midfield without corresponding attacking penetration which had led several teams to hand them shock defeats in recent times. By contrast, I was enjoying Madrid’s direct style of play and the tenacity that their Italian coach Carlo Ancelloti had brought into the team.
Third, I wanted Madrid to practically wrap up the Spanish League title and join the likes of Bayern Munich (Germany) and Juventus (Italy) as champions-in-waiting in their respective leagues.
Finally, I wanted new evidence to back my prediction made nearly a year ago that Spain will not successfully defend their World Cup title because the rest of the world had grown wise to their tiki-taka. Barcelona are Spain-personified; exposing the former is akin to exposing the latter, I concluded.
Last Sunday night, the Blaugrana threw all my permutations out of the window with a gritty performance. After taking an early 1-0 lead, they had to fight back twice from 1-2 and 2-3 before snatching a 4-3 win albeit with some help from Madrid defender Sergio Ramos who got himself sent off. Never mind the referee’s several controversial decisions in the match, Barcelona fully deserved their victory.
In my opinion, Real repeated the same mistake that had resulted in several beatings in the past. Going eyeball-to eyeball with Barcelona even when you’re playing at home is always a dangerous proposition because of their superiority in ball possession. And when you allow Lionel Messi to roam freely, you are asking for trouble.
All four teams that have beaten Barcelona in the league this year have had to defend like 11 mad men! They didn’t allow Barca’s pass masters any room to breathe and closed them down as quickly as possible all over the pitch. Unfortunately, Real are a team of Galacticos and they find it difficult, even undignifying, to defend like “mad men”. And that hands the advantage to Barcelona.
However, Real have only lost the battle, not the war. Having also lost 2-1 to Barcelona at the Camp Nou in the first leg last October (their last defeat in all competitions before last Sunday), they cannot win the league if they finish on the same number of points as Barcelona at the end of the season because head-to-head rule, rather than goal difference, will be the first tie-breaker.
What Real have to do, therefore, is to win all their remaining nine matches which would preserve their current one-point lead over Barcelona. Had they defended like “mad men” and won last Sunday, their lead would have been seven points and title race effectively over for Barcelona.
Of course the title race is not just between Real and Barca. Atletico Madrid were actually the biggest beneficiaries of Real’s Clasico defeat as it allowed Atletico to remain top of the table on goal difference from Real with Barca a point behind.
But considering that Atletico’s final game of the season is away to Barcelona, those two may eventually hurt each other’s title chances. Real can then take advantage provided they win all their remaining games starting with Sevilla on Wednesday this week. If Real win that, they will regain confidence for the title run-in. But if they drop points in Seville, their season may just unravel.
Inevitably, I must end this with Barcelona whose brave win at the Bernabeu has led to all these permutations. They may not be as dominant as they were in the past (Jose Mourinho describes the present Barcelona as “the weakest”), but they are still a team for the big occasion and you write them off at your own peril.
However, I am sticking my neck out that one of the Madrid teams will beat Barcelona to the title, while restating that the rest of the world will also find an answer to Spain at the World Cup. As Bayern Munich showed in destroying Barca in the semi-final of last year’s Champions League, which Brazil copied in destroying Spain in the final of the Confederations Cup also last year, I insist that the days of tiki-taka are numbered. All you need to neutralize it are “11 mad men.”
Argentina Outshines Brazil
A KEY SUB-PLOT in last Sunday’s El-Clasico were the confrontations between Argentinian and Brazillian players on both sides. While Lionel Messi scored a hat-trick (including two penalty kicks) for Barcelona and his Argentine compatriot Angel di Maria created two goals for Real Madrid; Brazilian stars Neymar and Dani Alves were off-colour for Barcelona. In fact, di Maria was a handful for Alves throughout the encounter as he repeatedly took him to the cleaners. Neymar, meanwhile, was largely ineffective, apart from the penalty that he won for Barcelona while getting Ramos sent off. He (Neymar) was later substituted.
Host country Brazil and neighbours Argentina are South America’s biggest hopes of overthrowing Spain as world champions at the World Cup in June. On the evidence of last Sunday’s multi-million dollar talent display, the Argentinian stars are looking the more likely to perform the coup de grace. But then, there are many more influential players in several other clubsides that can change the tide for their countries. For example, Brazil must be quite happy with the form of Oscar, Willian, Ramires and David Luiz at Chelsea Football Club.