Real Madrid 0, Barça 3 aka “Decisions”

You could almost see it brewing, this battle between two coaches in what was a match that was significantly larger and smaller than just three points.

You could see one thinking that he had the answer, while the other knew that he had the answer, a series of questions that all came down to a single moment featuring players all doing their jobs, and all deciding the match.

In September, when Barça beat Girona 3-0, Messi was man marked by 19-year-old Pablo Maffeo, a player who succeeeded in the task of taking Messi away from the glory, away from the goals while also frustrating the Argentine genius.

How many coaches watched that match and, forgetting the result that they put down to Girona being what they are, thought, “Yeah, man marking Messi. With better players … ”

Zinedine Zidane probably thought that, and grew ever more confident in his decision to start an alliterative blink away from Maffeo in Mateo Kovacic, who had one job: mark Leo Messi, don’t let the greatest footballer in the history of the game kill you. And Kovacic did his job, and exactly his job, even when he shouldn’t have, even when he should have improvised, ignored his coach’s orders to potentially save the day.

A bit of Busquets magic got the ball to Ivan Rakitic, who started running. Then he ran some more. And some more. He looked around, still running, probably wondering if someone had been called offside, such was the acreage that he had to run into. And ran he did, stunned look on his face like a guy when a woman consents to spend time with him, like, “Holy crap! I guess I’ll just see where this wonderful thing goes.” And he ran.

Also running were Sergi Roberto and Luis Suarez, the former because that is what he does, particularly when his astronomical football IQ senses magic in the air. Suarez ran because that is what a player who has returned to form does — read the game, understand potential and make runs. Rakitic, still running, still a bit bewildered, slid the ball over, a perfectly weighted pass to Sergi Roberto, who did what he does with delightful frequency: made the exact right decision with the ball in sliding a flawless pass to Luis Suarez, who at the terminus of his intelligent, hungry run, found the payoff.


Messi stood there as Rakitic ran past, probably figuring, as did the rest of the free world watching this match, that surely his marker wouldn’t just keep standing there to man mark. That surely he would just slide over and hinder Rakitic. But Rakitic kept running, the goal came, and that was that.

Lionel Messi was decisive even when he didn’t have anything to do with that goal, because of The Fear. The perception is that Barça is Messi, that if you stop him, you can beat them. Coaches think that, opponents think that, even Barça supporters, who should know better by now, insist that there is Messi, then nothing else. So he stood there, and so did Kovacic, and the other guys killed Real Madrid. Then Messi, who doesn’t have to tell everyone that he is the greatest player in the game, ran over to celebrate with his teammates.

The final score was apt and deceptive in many ways. My keys to the match from yesterday for a Barça win were Depor-level Iniesta showing up, and Barça surviving the first frantic 20 minutes. One happened, the other almost didn’t as Real Madrid came out as everyone knew they would, like a proud team at home with something to prove to its fans. The difficulty with that is once that energy dissipates, if there is no result, you just have players whose buzz has worn off, and an opponent waiting to put the knife in.

Ronaldo got a fantastic chance in front of goal, and “Riverdance” happened. He fell down. No goal. Not even a shot, really. And Ter Stegen happened, as did the rest of the team in the best unit performance of the season so far. Vermaelen, Pique, Alba, you name it, they showed … not even strong. They showed as they have all season, leaving Real Madrid to struggle to match their level.

Someone on Twitter mentioned the “rope-a-dope” tactic, which was certainly how it felt at times. Real Madrid got the ball, and did its swashbuckling best. Barça marked, absorbed and erected a final wall before calmly moving out with the ball in possession. Madrid huffed and puffed, Barça players worked in zones of the pitch, controlling what entered rather than chasing. But when they got the ball, they made the opponent chase.

In the BeIN post-match, the first almost 10 minutes were spent discussing what Zidane did wrong, rather than what Valverde and his team did right. It wasn’t just man-marking Messi. That didn’t account for the other two goals, sumptuous feasts of football leavened with desire, and other chances that saw Barça dancing through the Madrid defense like a Sardana of death. One player said that he was the best in the world. The other had a hand in all three goals that his team scored, dummying Kovacic, blasting a penalty past Navas then hustling to keep the ball in to keep his team alive, a combo of genius, glitter and grunt work. Real Madrid didn’t give that match away. Barça took it.

Zidane tried everything after his team went down a man, deservedly so, after a blatant hand ball call in the wake of being eviscerated by the Barça attack. He even brought in Bale and Asensio at the same time, former great hope and future great hope, the latter a player that culers screamed about for the entire summer, screamed about every time he did something delightful, and who was rendered invisible by less-lauded players just doing what they do.

Nearing the 70th minute, with Zidane waiting to sub on his presumptively dynamic duo, Barça kept the ball. And kept the ball. Minute after minute, passing it around the pitch as the Madrid players stood there, not entirely clear on what to do. If they chased it, there was another outlet that popped up in the space just vacated. If they didn’t chase, the ball just kept circulating. Minute after minute, two, then three minutes, Bale and Asensio stood there. It was a sequence as remarkable as any in the match.

A team takes on the personality of its coach. How quickly that happens often depends on the coach. Under Luis Enrique, Barça was dynamic, hart-hitting, mentally tough and a bit erratic. Under Valverde, who has placed his stamp on the team sooner than anyone expected, Barça is calm, almost dour. There never seems to be rush or panic. Players just do their job and their coach stands there, expressionless, taking it all in.

This was a match that, thanks to Barça’s crosstown rivals Espanyol, who beat the hitherto-unbeaten Atletico de Madrid by a banter scoreline of 1-0, could afford to be lost. Valverde seemed to be playing it that way, packing the midfield, closing down rapidly though not pressing, per se, and keeping things under control. The first half ended scoreless, and many were waiting for the second half display from the home team.

What happened instead is that Barça came out of the Ray Hudsonesque “long grass,” ready to take advantage of an opponent who came out like a whirlwind, then chased the ball. And it worked. Once it worked, once that first goal came, then Real Madrid would have to chase the match. No matter how good you are against Barça if you chase the match, you will get caught out.

But Barça rolled into this Classic with a potential nine-point lead over Atleti, and an eleven-point lead over Real Madrid. Lose, and it was still a six and eight-point cushion. There was some luxury built in. But it was also a massive match, because if Barça can get to the break with that same lead in the standings, the race isn’t over, but a team that is at the moment unbeaten, would need to somehow drop more than 9 or 11 points in a half of a season, a half that has seen them away to Atletico, Valencia, Sevilla and Real Madrid. Yes, it could happen. But a lot would have to happen for it to happen. The notion that this team of assassins with the mien of accountants would allow such a thing seems rather far fetched.

And perhaps at some point, the credit for Valverde will come. He started his midfield signing in Paulinho, who was all industry, football IQ and the right pass. He defended, ran, had a great scoring opportunity stopped by Navas and another goal ruled out by the red card offense. Valverde wanted him, and this was why. Iniesta demonstrated to Modric why, despite suggestions, no, he is not washed up and not, they are not on the same level. Vermaelen continued his rounding into form with an excellent match, sharp and decisive, and Pique was his old self.

The team, its coach, its players have faced doubt. Wrong coach, wrong signing, wrong lineup, wrong formation, wrong tactics, everything wrong. And they just played. And won. Wrong results, as well. Only fools look at results. It is how the team plays that matters. And they just kept on getting results. Poor finishing, stanky officiating and they kept on getting results. Today was supposed to be a reckoning in the form of the team that obliterated Barça in the Spanish SuperCopa.

Valverde said that his team wasn’t that team any longer, and everyone winked and said, “What else would he say?” The credit is begrudging, and that’s okay, because the team is, still, doing what it has always done this season, which is to get results. The Classic was another one. Huge? Yes. Unexpected? It all depends on who you ask.

By Kxevin

In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.


  1. “Valverde wanted him, and this was why. Iniesta demonstrated to Modric why, despite suggestions, no, he is not washed up and not, they are not on the same level.”

    So glad you said it. It was priceless to watch the master school the student.

  2. Just wanted to check in with Classico and Season’s greetings from the SF Penya! It’s a great day to be a Cule!

  3. One unusual shout-out to the referee as well. Best I’ve seen in a Clásico so far, got nearly all the decisions right, kept things in order and from becoming too violent, which is hard to do in a Clásico.

    Nice take on the first goal, though personally I would rather liken Rakitic to Moses, with the RM defenders parting before him like the Red Sea ; )

    As tempting it is to focus on Messi, it was so much about the other ten on the pitch today (as always). Tactics aside, RM have great players, many of which were found wanting today. The attackers were always a bit off in their finishing, the crosses from Modric and Kroos were being headed out on a regular basis, and Carvajal with one of the more stupid red cards in recent times. Casemiro and Kovacic tried their best to destroy the Barcelona attacks, but Busquets on the other side not only made crucial interventions but also found time to initiate attacks, making the difference between a merely very good DM and himself very clear. Rakitic did pretty much the same this time.

    One more thing: if Barcelona don’t lose either of the next two La Liga games, they have gone an entire ronda without losing, which is impressive. They have only dropped six points so far…

    Merry festivities to everyone here!

  4. Thanks Kev for another great piece. One word I would use to describe Barça’s second half-that I have not read in any post-match pieces today-is brave. Yes we absorbed pressure in the first half, but Madrid were rampant, and I was very worried about the second half. That the blaugrana had the presence of mind to maintain their philosophy and try to possess the ball in the second half and make crucial attacking passes rather than “safe,” time-killing passes time and again was remarkable. For me, the second half was one of Barça’s best “team” halfs of the past decade. Time to watch it again for the 3rd time today! 🙂 Have a great holiday culés!

  5. I just wanna say thank you to this lovely team for giving me soo many lovely moments over the past decade. They just keep doing it again and again, in the face of cancers, relapses, injuries, retirements, heartbreaks, deaths, personal losses and key departures. thank you.

    Bernabeu is indeed our second home and all these results 2-6, 0-2, 1-3, 0-4, 3-4, 2-3, 0-3 come to mind. thank you barca. Being a barca fan is the best thing there is.

    Leo! It’s been a pleasure watching you over the years and what you are becoming.
    Ter stegen and SergiRoberto, you guys are my new besties.
    what a Lovely day.

  6. Yes, a huge team victory and I dont have words to thank our players. They really held on in the first half and those of us fans who watch them regularly knew that it would be different in the second half, and so it was.
    But I cant help talking about our little maestro. Even in that 1st half, he made a gorgeous pass from near the half line for Paulinho. And another one again for him.
    And he is causing a real dilemma for the coaches and opposition players. If you mark him, his friends gets space, if you dont mark him he just go on a killing spree. And to kill out RM like that, by just running slow knowing Kovacic will follow him (I felt Marcelo also was having an eye on Messi which was good or SR).
    His contribution for the second goal was even more incredible, first gives a ball on the plate for Suarez, and then gives him an even easier ball with an open goal, ha ha. I loved it. Creates chance after chance for all 3 of our substitutes. 2 for Gomes, 1 each for Semedo and Vidal, and one of it goes in. Another day Messi would end up with 4 or 5 assists.
    And friends, we also have the greatest team player in our team, who is infact the greatest of all time. He absolutely dont care for his stats or personal glory. It was so evident yesterday after the second goal, how all what he wanted was to keep possession. His team leads 2-0 and in the last 6 or 7 minutes the GOAT is defending a ball just outside his own
    He has grown soo soo much that, we are now taking everything for granted. This the only reason why I decided to talk about Messi.
    Am not saying at all that others were not excellent, but we must not forget about this maestro.
    SR once he came into the midfield was incredible.
    Rakitic would never forget the guard of honor RM gave him , ha ha..
    Messi Xmas to all :)-

  7. Still have that warm fuzzy feeling the day after which is good. Also hearing the Sunday football writers on Sky say we “destroyed” them doesn’t hurt. Just watching it for the third time now – no, it’s no hardship, trust me. It’s only on a second or third viewing for me that you realise the cleverness of some things and often that you’ve been too hard on somebody because you have time to look at why they made a particular decision. So, in no particular order things I enjoyed on this watch :

    1. Like others I’ve been praising the defence. Somebody is working well with them at the moment. For the first time that I remember they are looking round at each others’ positions and adjusting accordingly. In particular they are taking their line from Pique. Just watched around the 9 minute mark and as Madrid attack Vermaelen while retreating looks over two or three times to take his cue and make sure there isn’t too big a gap between himself and Pique. Also, set pieces. We’d have been one down after a couple of minutes if the defence hadn’t been well drilled on set pieces. They follow the ball out straight away leaving Ronaldo stranded. Switched on right from the start.

    2. Little gestures that let you see what’s happening in their minds. I mentioned Iniesta before motioning at his defence to calm down and keep possession better. He also later gestures to TS not to be afraid to send it long to Suarez. Several times, Pique, arms outstretched, shepherding his back line up quickly. All good and nobody found missing when we needed them ( maybe Alba once?) .

    3. Busquets’ dance for Suarez’s goal. You have to remember the pressure that was around at 0-0. Nobody wants to make a mistake yet he wouldn’t part with the ball until the time was right and it wasn’t the easy backward pass which keeps the pressure on us. Brilliant ! On that move have to feel sorry for Kovacic. The whole world is laughing at him today for marking Messi rather than the runner yet I’m gonna say he didn’t do much wrong. Modric was outrun at the start by Rakitic, enough in most situations to hook him immediately, and makes no attempt to catch up. All Kovacic does is delay to take a second to look at Messi, moves to try to split them ie. cover both by being half way between them, and then he is the unluckiest player in La Liga this season as Rakitic decides he will run instead of passing and he is screwed.

    4. Ramos. The gift that keeps on giving. He was pretty awful. Apart from in any other world he wouldn’t have finished the game, he insists on trying to play a kind of sweeper role meaning he keeps extra depth on the others at the back but doesn’t use it. He also seldom looks round to see what is happening. The first he knew of SR behind him for our first was when the ball went to him. He also provides Suarez with an extra two or three yards to make his run into. Just a few minutes later ( 55mins) he is five or six yards into his half behind his defence with Messi, Paulinho and Suarez all on the halfway line waiting for a ball to run onto. A minute later he picks up the ball in his own half, carries it straight into Paulinho and is caught upfield as three of us break. No need at all. While I’m at it I wouldn’t take Varanne in a lucky bag ( Scottish expression ! ). Remember when some were envying him ?

    5. Messi’s boot ! Who knew ? I watched that whole match twice and didn’t spot that. Messi doesn’t even blink. Anyone who has had a boot comes off knows that the overwhelming instinct is to stop and if you try to continue you only get a couple of yards all the while feeling you’re going to go over your ankle. Talk about focus ?

    So, all good. Well, just one niggle at the back of my mind. When Dembele comes back and we presumably go back to 4-3-3 do we lose the defensive stability ? Did I also hear the commentator say that was our 18th clean sheet out of 25? Unbelievable.

    Anyway, enough. I fear my now traditional fate on Christmas Eve is to sit down and watch “Love Actually” ( again) with the good lady ( although it’s a testament to this result that this year I’m not even bothered by the prospect) . Or it may be that for the first time I’m looking forward to opening a couple of bottles from Bodega Iniesta for the meal tomorrow !!!

    So I’ll wish those who celebrate it a Merry Christmas now and repeat thanks to Kxevin for his efforts keep this place going and who is often poorly rewarded (on my part ) with a barrage of disagreement ! I hope he realises that the opportunity to rant, blether or just pick up some new thoughts is much appreciated by us all and I’ve still not seen anyplace like this with the quality of writing or discussion on the Internet . . .

  8. A soul-uplifting win like this is the perfect sporting Christmas gift any culer could wish for.
    With Dembele to return and Coutinho (potentially) to team up with us, the future looks even brighter than it was when the season began.
    Special shout out to our impressively indefatigable wordsmith, Kxevin, for his invaluable contributions here. You rock! Happy Christmas to you and to all.

  9. I also want to thank everyone here that provides interesting discussion, most of all Kxevin. I remember before there was an “x” after the “k,” so ive been reading a while. Thank you fot hours of procrastination. I think someday a proper way to document this special era in Barca football history would be to compile all Kxevs posts into a book. Would be very readable. Thanks again, happy solstice and everything else.

  10. I am sory for this,it s just my opinion,but this game won by a great tactician.
    Ernesto Valverde is nt Guardiola but he is a very intelligent coach.
    Many underestimated him in summer when he announced by the club but the man let his work speak for him.
    Yep madrid had chances but come on,in Bernabeu in the past worst madrid teams had chances better than those vs better quality Barca teams.
    And i am sory again but there is nt any team in the world that can win so often there,i doubt if PSG or City can do that.
    Quality and mentality of Barca is very special.
    Merry Christma to all.

    1. We have won 7 games there since 2011.

      The same with Celta. Their aren’t better by this do not believw they can win. It’s simply
      We feel we can win, they hope to win.

  11. Where to start….

    That was one of the best games I have seen us play in a long time. Not because it was the best attacking display or the prettiest football, as we have definitely played “nicer” football than that, however I cannot remember a more complete performance in a very, very long time. When I say complete, I mean all facets of the game. We were fantastic everywhere. Defense, midfield, attack. I felt supremely confident no matter what was happening, whether we were defending an attack, pinging the ball around in the middle of the park, or creating chance after chance at their end. It was magnificent to watch and very much down to Valverde who has instilled a calmness, composure and solidity that was much needed. Kudos to him, he was blindsided first by Neymar departing and then with Dembeles injury and has adapted wonderfully. Extremely impressive.

    I cannot wait to see what he is able to do once he gets Dembele back into the team properly and can unleash the front 3 again. I expect Suarez to benefit the most from Dembeles return and wouldn’t be surprised if he rakes up a ton a goals second half of the season.

    Obviously nothing is won yet and still a lot of work to do, but I haven’t been this optimistic in a while and I really feel like Valverde could be building something special here. Maybe not the prettiest Barca ever, but dare I say a more complete and possibly effective one? Only time will tell.

    Merry Christmas all!

  12. This is by Sid Lowe in the Guardian – I knew Messi was excellent in the el classico, but I didnt know about these numbers:
    And then, step by step, he took to the stage, until there he was standing at the north end of the stadium with his team-mates, victorious again. The stats bear out the sensations, even though they can’t explain everything, even though they can’t measure the timing, the decision-making, the control, the effect on all those around him. According to Who Scored, Messi had 81 touches, more than any Madrid player and second only to Busquets; he completed six dribbles, three times more than all the Madrid players put together, and played more passes than any Madrid player except Modric, completing 88% of them. He made three tackles; only Toni Kroos and Busquets made more. He made nine key passes, more than twice as many as any other player, and created more chances than anyone had made in any game this season. Against Real Madrid. At the Bernabéu. On the day they man-marked him.

    1. Sid’s article is almost as nice as one of Kxevin’s. Nice that he also mention’s Busquet’s Cryuff-turn to totally befuddle Kroos right before the game changing pass to Rakitic.

      Johann’s spirit was indeed with the team that day.

  13. It would mean that it will be a foolish move from us for a CL cup tied player to try to bring him now in January.
    Unless they only agree the fee or something and he arrives in the summer.

    1. I would bet on an agreement secured in January for him to come in the summer. He will not be all that useful as a cup tied player now anyhow (aside from giving Iniesta rest in the league). If we didn’t have such a commanding lead in La Liga I would say it might be worth it, but given we have played all our toughest away games and we have the squad to rest Iniesta for the big CL games, this would be unnecessary in January. That said it would be smart of the club to try and close the agreement now, because come summer with the WC, I expect his price to be even more insane.

  14. That would be my thinking but the more I mull it over the more I wonder.

    If he’s coming in the summer the deal needs to be watertight with both player and club or else as Hilal says others could easily attempt to intervene. If we brought him now, and still no great reason for Liverpool to agree although that’s a lot of money they have spent, there are maybe still a couple of positives, assuming Coutinho would accept that. Firstly, from Liverpool’s POV Coutinho is playing really well but the WC is coming and there’ll be a few players starting to ease off as it approaches. Will Coutinho himself be quite as willing to risk a serious injury which could derail his dream move?

    From our viewpoint, first, as has been said, we want Iniesta on top form for the CL. There are gonna be some tense games still left in La Liga and Coutinho is way better than any of our current alternatives. Not that I think he’d just be subbing Ini. He’s also our third attacker because no way you can just throw Dembele in for a whack of games after that injury. Even given a favourable wind I don’t expect to see the best of him till he can fully trust his hammy which could well be next season.

    However, secondly, blooding Coutinho now in less vital situations also gets rid of some of the normal acclimatisation players need when arriving. We normally say a season but for a gifted player it should be less. That would allow him to hit the ground running with a good pre season with us.

    Not saying it’ll happen in January but it wouldn’t be an altogether bad move from us. Spend money now or then, not much difference.

    1. Completely agree Jim, if we can actually get him in January I would be all for it, for all the reasons you stated. However I find it very hard to see how Liverpool sell him in Jan, they might agree to sell him if they can loan him till the end of the season or something like that. I do think given their big spending on Van Dyke that they will probably have to sell him in the summer, and they know how badly we want him so I can’t see what would compel them to sell him now.

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