Here is the only reason that today’s loss sucked: It was to Barça’s eternal rival.
Beyond that, The Classic That Didn’t Matter well and truly didn’t. At the San Francisco Penya, where a horde of culers watched, a 1-2 final result seemed logical and predictable for many reasons.
— RM needed to win that match for so many reasons.
— Barça didn’t need to win that match, again for so many reasons.
RM worked harder, ran harder, was more focused and sharper than Barça, a team that was battling not only lag from its South American players, but a looming contest with Atleti in Champions League, the competition that is in actual play. Had this match been against any other team, Luis Enrique would have rotated his lineup, but for the Classic, only the Gala XI will do. From this chair that was a mistake, because you not only run your players around, but you do it for a loss. Hell, Munir, Vidal, Vermaelen, et al could have overseen a loss. You didn’t need your best troops for that.
In many ways, top teams must think like smaller ones at times such as this. A lower-table club, in a relegation fight, will have Barça come to town and decide to rotate, because they aren’t going to beat the big club. Might as well save its best soldiers, powder dry, for matches that can be won. Except in this case, the Classic was a match that could afford to be lost.
There were a few pundits who assert that the Liga is back in play. Barça sit, with seven matches left, six points ahead of Atleti and seven ahead of RM. Here are the matches:
La Real (A)
For the Liga to be “in play,” a team that has just come off of a 39-match unbeaten streak would have to drop seven of 21 points over the Liga run-out. It would have to, in effect, either draw every match or lose two more and draw one, to have Atleti snag a one-point Liga title win. Atleti would have to run the table with its remaining seven matches as well.
Atleti have Espanyol, Granada, Athletic, Malaga, Rayo, Levante and Celta.
For RM to make the move, Barça would have to lose three of its last seven, since any tiebreaker would come down to head-to-head goal differential, where Barça have the edge courtesy of its 0-4 win at the Bernabeu.
Sure. Something catastrophic could happen. But even the most pessimistic culer would be hard pressed to conjure up a scenario by which Barça would somehow drop, in effect a point a match. The Liga is not in play. We know this because of how Barça played today. This isn’t to say that there aren’t things that are of concern, however, starting with:
— Jordi Alba’s form has been funky for some time now. He’s skittish and erratic, prone to chasing the ball. There was a time when he was in with a shout as one of the most effective LBs in the game. Those days are long gone.
— Messi has been in an odd run of poor decision-making with the ball. His brilliance obscures this, coupled with the fact that only blasphemers would suggest such a thing. But even on the play where Ramos tripped him outside the box, that ball should already have been passed to Suarez or Neymar. Messi lost balls, including one where a massive intervention by Mascherano saved the day.
— Suarez is in a funk. Video after video, angle after angle, still can’t tell us how he missed that shot early in the first half. He makes great plays, but then is unable to perform basic tasks. He has always been the best worst player in the game, but he’s even more so than usual.
— Opponents are figuring out the Neymar key. RM bottled him up today, putting Pepe over there on him and forming a triangle around him whenever he got the ball. When he is running free, Barça is faster, more dangerous and unpredictable. Opponents will take Messi running at them, choosing that risk. But cutting off Neymar makes Messi manageable (one or three defenders, when he’s on, forget it and when he isn’t, one defender is fine) and Suarez in effect rootless.
It would be blasphemous to suggest that if the standings were different and this match actually mattered, a sharper Barça would have shown up today. And like the crazy, intricate clock that is their game, if one of the cogs is lagging, the whole machine is off. Even at that, as Luis Enrique correctly notes, the match was under control except for a stretch of 10-15 minutes, where things got messy. Against most teams, Barça can get away with errors. Not against a team of the quality of RM.
Did Luis Enrique get the sub wrong, bringing off Rakitic for Turan? The Turk certainly didn’t cover himself in glory, but the system was clunky before he came on. Might Sergi Roberto have been better? Or Rafinha? Quite possibly. But defensive errors were a bigger issue than anything else. A sharper Barça takes the 1-0 victory, and celebrates. Not this team, not today. Baked? Maybe. Distracted? Certainly. Cognizant of the competitive realities of La Liga? Yup.
Now, let’s look at the goals.
1. A “my heavens, what was he thinking” pass from Alba for some dude in the neighborhood of Neymar went directly to an RM attacker. As soon as that first pass was made, I said to myself, “Uh, oh .. ” Here’s why. When Marcelo started running, a panicked Alba, interested in precious little more than making amends for his error, tracks the ball instead of functioning as a left back.
Now look at the run Marcelo made after he got the ball, up the center, from right to center left. When Marcelo cuts in toward the center, Alba is tracking the ball. Everyone has their people covered. All that need be done is to control any leakers. Instead, Alba cuts toward the center, where Marcelo and the ball are. Marcelo makes the pass to Kroos in acres of space. Why? Ain’t no left back, that’s why.
The cross fell to Benzema, who pulled off a hell of a shot in smacking that goal home. At another time in the match, Rakitic is probably there to take one for the team, as he did previously. Everything worked right in the tracking back on that goal except for Alba, who sank to his knees in chagrin as soon as the ball went in.
Goals are team efforts, but they are also a matter of garbage in, garbage out. Bravo contributes in that he misreads the play, locking focus on the ball at the feet of one attacker, without fully realizing what was about to happen. On another, sharper day he tracks the cross to Benzema and makes a sharp reflex save. Saturday he was headless chicken as the ball flew past him.
2. Jordi Alba didn’t have a good day. He spanks another pass for Neymar, but his marker pounces because it’s a pass that should never have been made. Neymar compounds the error by not fighting for the ball, and giving up on the play. RM have four attackers running at the Barça goal, with three Barça defenders running with their backs to play in an effort to catch up. This wasn’t going to end well.
Two of the most dangerous men on the pitch on a counter, Bale and Ronaldo, are both in acres of space. Bale takes the ball, has plenty of time to pick a target before making the pass. He lofts a pass for Ronaldo, that Alves, for some unfathomable reason, decides he can head away. He leaps, comes quite short and Ronaldo controls, lining up the shot once Alves lands, out of position.
Bravo panics. Rather than just staying home and letting the defenders do their job, he decides, too late, to rush at Ronaldo to close down the angle. All that did was force Pique to scramble to cover the goal line, and open up a shooting angle for Ronaldo, who isn’t going to miss from there (unlike Suarez). If Bravo stays home, the near post option is gone, and Ronaldo has to try to bend a shot around the keeper and a pair of defenders. By coming out too late, Bravo made it easy. That second goal was a comedy of errors that wasn’t funny except to Ter Stegen, who probably contacted his agent to have him stand down, assuming any such rumors were true.
It’s easy to feel bummed that the unbeaten streak has ended, even worse that it was RM as the perpetrator and Ronaldo with the match winner. There is usually joy for the vanquished in winning a battle while losing the war.
As for Barça, next up is a match that does matter.