The 1986 Super Bowl Chicago Bears were going for an undefeated NFL season, a feat that had until that moment, been accomplished only by the Miami Dolphins. On this night, they happened to be playing the Dolphins, and as team legends watched from the stands, the Dolphins beat the Bears, hanging on them the only loss the team suffered that championship season.
When Barça and Real Madrid faced off for for this mess of a Classic, Liga champions sans pasillo vs Champions League finalists, rivals joined in seemingly eternal enmity, there was more morbo than anyone could ask.
This fascinating Classic that was ultimately meaningless was an endlessly fascinating match that was allowed to devolve into a dyspeptic shitshow by the very man whose job it is to keep control of proceedings, to make sure a football match instead of a drunken football brawl breaks out. In doing so, his ineptitude has become the focus of the match for many, instead of the match itself, which was a crazy quilt of drama featuring yellows, chokes, phantom slaps that felled grown men like redwoods, pretty goals and an ejected Legend.
Yet when all was said and done, the one player people will remember is Messi, who went into turbo mode about halfway through the second half and was unplayable. He stroked an astonishing outside-in goal, laid off passes, made runs and generally tormented Real Madrid, forcing excellent saves from Keylor Navas and even leaving a couple of goals on the table from moments when he chose to shoot rather than pass. But like the baker who fixes your car, drives you to the bake shop, sets the table, bakes the cake then misspells your name under the Happy Birthday, you can forgive an artist a lapse or two.
Both teams came out with their best XIs, Zidane even opting for the vaunted BBC trio as Valverde went with the gala XI. And this match mattered. Not in the standings, but in every other way. They wanted to break the unbeaten run. Barça wanted to continue it, and have one up on the Champions League finalists as if to say, “You might be there, but you aren’t the best team.” The morbo factor was off the charts, even as the Liga standings are mostly settled — sure Real Madrid would like to be second rather than third, but Barça are already champions. The sole meaning these proceedings had, is that is was the Classic. It was face-rubbing time.
In hindsight, the tone of the match was set by the petulant decision taken by Real Madrid to not hew to tradition and give Barça the pasillo due the newly crowned champion. Zidane’s excuse was that Barça didn’t give his club one after it had won the Club World Cup, so all bets were off. It was childish tripe that didn’t become a club of Real Madrid’s history and stature, and going into the match you can be sure that their players wanted to make the question moot by hanging the first loss of the season on the Catalan side.
The level of play was erratic and sloppy as both teams attacked, placing defense on the back burner. Ego was the reason, just as ego was the reason that Luis Suarez looked a dynamo. Rather than collapse two men on him like lesser teams, Real Madrid played him straight, and Suarez stalked around like a force of nature. That the first goal came from him was inevitable. That it came at the apogee of a sequence of scintillating football of the kind people assert Valverde’s team doesn’t play was just icing on the cake.
Barça ripped Real Madrid open with three lustrous passes, all single-touch and unerring. Sergi Roberto ran onto the ball and, from the dead run, placed his cross exactly where Suarez needed it. Bang. 1-0. Game on. More chances came to Barça before they decided to play Keystone Kops when Madrid had the ball. Busquets whiffed on a defensive play at midfield, allowing his man to run free. Too much space was left for Marcelo, who had time to cross to Benzema, who was left on his lonesome by an uncertain Umtiti, who should have covered him. With proper cover, Umtiti just heads the ball away, and off they go. Instead, Benzema laid a perfect header pass into the path of Ronaldo, who was running around in the box, unmarked until Pique said, “Hey, looka that,” but too late. 1-1
From here the match went to hell. First Alba and Modrid squared off after the cranky, diminutive Catalan fullback decided to give the Madrid mid a throat massage. Handbags ensued. Then Ramos applied a robust foul to Suarez, and more handbags ensued. Through it all, Marcelo was applying the dark arts, exaggerating and collapsing at the least provocation as the ref watched proceedings like a dude who poured kerosene on a camp fire then wondered what all the fuss was about, then deciding to extinguish the flames with a bit of gasoline.
Umtiti played a ball on the sideline, and Gareth Bale went in hard, leg raised, stomping on the back of Umtiti’s calf. Nothing. Not even a foul. More handbags. Then Sergi Roberto and Marcelo came together. The former’s arm went up, and the latter went down as if he was shot with a sniper’s bullet. Red card for Sergi Roberto in a stupid, stupid moment that he will see and be ashamed of, because he not only cost his team, but played right into Marcelo’s hands. Off the pitch went running, intelligence and passing ability from the right side, all essential things for his team’s attack and defense.
Yes, the ref had lost control of the match, and the players all knew it. Real Madrid knew that the way they were going to be able to play with the better team (yes, and you know it) was to turn the match into an alley fight. That Barça fell for it was to their detriment, even as it made for engrossing, nasty television, millionaires having at it like petulant children. Halftime couldn’t come soon enough.
For those wondering whether Valverde has learned from Rome, the answer is yes. The most immediate reaction to the Sergi Roberto ejection was to sub on Semedo, who had his best match in the colors. He was sharp, alert and decisive on and off the ball. His forward runs made Marcelo pay the price for being an absentee fullback, while also consistently putting the Madrid back line into difficulty. He even would have had the winning goal had Messi chosen to slide the ball to him. Messi probably isn’t used to having company when he makes his jackrabbit runs, but Semedo was right there, and wide open. As impact subs go, this one was significant, and allowed Barça, even with ten, to spend a period bossing the match.
Semedo’s effectiveness should worry Dembele, particularly as the Griezmann rumors are growing in strength, because with Dembele’s defensive lassitude (euphemisms, kids! Euphemisms!), Semedo provides a way to get incisive runs, pace and ball control along with defending.
The second bit of evidence that Valverde learned from Rome was when Real Madrid turned the match, gaining more control of the ball and the middle of the pitch via a flagging Iniesta, who lost possession, mislaid a pass, lost possession again. It was clear he was feeling the match, and the answer was Paulinho, who came on to do Paulinho things, and restore balance to proceedings. The second half was calmer than the first, and peaked with a stunning Messi goal as he took the pass, was fronted by defenders and the moment seemed lost. Then he drifted left and unleashed a shot that curled from outside to just inside the post. It was the strike of a man who wanted to send a message, an amazing goal that didn’t even look like the stupefying bit of physics that it was. And because it was Messi, we have almost gotten used to this kind of stuff. We never should. He had a miniscule window in which to put that ball, with all the pressure in the world on him, from the Classic result to the unbeaten streak to bragging rights and everything else. He was unerring. Again.
Lost in the maelstrom is my contender for MOTM, even in the face of the Messi exploits, Ivan Rakitic. In a week where Thiago to Barça rumors had people in a tizzy, all that the Croatian workhorse did was outplay Kroos and Modric, doing so with his midmate, Busquets, having un jour sans. It was one of those matches Rakitic has where it seems like he has seen the video before and knows exactly where to be. Interceptions, smart runs and passes. Has Rakitic learned from playing alongside Busquets? Absolutely, and it showed. He almost looked a Masia player and if he WAS a Masia player, there would be sonnets of praise instead of assertions that he isn’t good enough, from people who should know better. He and Messi were streets above anyone else on the pitch, the kings of a team of lions, a team that didn’t want its ethereal genius, Andres Iniesta, to go out with a loss in his last Classic.
This match mattered. From Messi’s face and celebration after the goal to the way he fought for everything in that second half. Rumor is that he is going to be captain next season, and he looked, reacted and played like it as he took the armband from Iniesta when the outgoing midfield genius came off. And when he steamed over to clear out Ramos, clear payback for his aggression toward Suarez, the Chicago Penya broke into cheers. It was magnificent.
It was also a fitting sendoff for Iniesta, to watch his teammates defiant and fighting, some would suggest playing against 12 rather than 10, going in hard right until the end.
Anyone who doesn’t think this team wants to go undefeated hasn’t been paying attention. Anyone who thinks that it doesn’t matter hasn’t been paying attention. Athletes want to become legends. Cristiano Ronaldo, with his vaunted Real Madrid, has won but two Liga championships in the last ten years. Two. Hundreds of millions of dollars, dozens of transfers and a legion of coaches. Two. They are in their third consecutive Champions League final in the last decade. If they win, it will be as many as Barça has won in that same decade, but Barça also has a pair of trebles. This team wins, and does so with a regularity that has destroyed expectations for anything approaching normality. Going a Liga season undefeated would be an amazing accomplishment, especially with the overall quality of the league, which is the best in world football.
You might not be impressed with them going the season unbeaten, you might not have been impressed with the way the team fought, scratched and kicked against Real Madrid in a huge match. You should be. You should also come out of corner and forgive this team for its crap 90 minutes in Rome. Barça rolled into a Classic that it didn’t have to win, and gave everything. Everything. Hold Rome against them for eternity if you like, but not me. This is my team. They had a bad night. Judge them if you want, let it ruin this amazing season if you want. Not me, not my team. From the Copa final to the Classic, this team has killed it, has done everything that was required of it exCEPT in Rome. Okay. Off nights happened, and they had a bad one. Get over it.
If it goes undefeated this season, many years hence, people will look back at this season with pride, as Arsenal supporters do with their Invincibles. People now lining up to kick dirt on this group will, as time passes, flush with pride, because sometimes, common sense and logic take a while to build.
Bottom line is that this team has been exemplary this season. Subs have sometimes overperformed, sometimes played below standard, just as first team players have. But week after week, match after match, they have gotten it done. Except once. After that single time, the season is ruined, accomplishments don’t matter, everything is wrong. From this chair, this team is a champion. It’s better than we all thought, has done better than it deserved to and when all is said and done, is a better team than we all deserve.