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.