There was a moment when many believe that the Classic was in the balance. Real Madrid came out of the half like lions, charging back into the match. They scored a goal, then hit the post with what would have been an equalizer. Barça was reeling, culers were freaking out.
The calmest man in the stadium might have been Ernesto Valverde. The same man who was bollocked for saying after one match that he didn’t know the exact changes to make, made it clear exactly what he meant. Today, he knew what changes to make. But the biggest change to make was to do nothing, to let his players work their way out, and it’s time for another Chicago Bulls analogy.
Six-title-winning Bulls coach Phil Jackson, when his team got in trouble, would always let them play out of it. He wouldn’t make subs, wouldn’t call timeouts. He let the players solve their problems. Valverde let his players solve their problems, play their way out of that funk and back into the match. Then he acted. This, like his subs, was exactly right.
This Classic was one that was a matchup only on paper. Real Madrid was in 7th place, Barça playing for the lead if they won. Judging by position, the Catalans were supposed to win, and in the first half, with Valverde rolling out the same XI that took Inter apart, they played like 1st against 7th. The ball pinged around, with Arthur at the eye of the maelstrom. The first goal was logical and inveitable as an incisive pass opened up Madrid, and their defenders naively chased the ball as Casemiro trotted after Coutinho, who was wide open for the pass from Alba. Goal.
We talk a lot about individual brilliance, and some scoff at the idea. They will probably point to this match with smugness, and say “This is what we mean about playing football.” But every goal had a moment of excellence. Brilliance is necessary to execute. The difference between Barça and say, Huesca isn’t 90% of the buildup to the goal. It’s performance in the key area, that key ball.
The match went pretty much as expected, though I think that most thought that the Real Madrid that showed up for the beginning of the second half would show up for the whole match. In the first half, Barça played Madrid off the park, and the match should have been over by halftime. Suarez made a couple of dicey plays, Rafinha missed an appalling pass that would have had Alba in alone on Courtois. There are those who will say that this match was closer than the scoreline indicated. It wasn’t. The better team won, the scoreline was reflective of the match. Big players play big games. So do their coaches.
Valverde will go to his grave wondering what in the hell happened to him and his team in Rome. But he seems to have learned from that experience. Real Madrid wasn’t Roma. They weren’t playing as well or as aggressively, but Valverde still analyzed the match and acted. And he knew that his players had what it took to straighten things out, to get everything to the point where the subs would tell.
Pique is majestic again. Rakitic played Kroos and Modric off the park. Lenglet mostly put their attackers in his pocket. Sergi Roberto did everything that he needed to do. Suarez missed chances, but was brilliant. His header is one of the most stunning goals he has scored in the colors. Alba was absurd. Every player — save Rafinha — showed up with their A game. Arthur didn’t look like this was his first Classic, Busquets was his own standard. And even Rafinha, though not on his attacking game, did all of that little stuff, running, tracking back, working. Barça was mentally prepared, hungry and that first half looked like it.
Then came the start of the second half, the period that people dreaded. Lopetegui went to three at the back, and his players suddenly had fire. But the larger question is did Barça go off the boil, or did Real Madrid pick up their game. Or did both happen? Either way there was a period where the match seemed in the balance, and culers were panicking. Valverde wasn’t. Once his players played their way out, with Suarez pranging a shot off the post. Then Valverde acted.
The first sub was Semedo for Rafinha, who was the weak link. My MOTM Sergi Roberto went to midfield and created the last two goals Suarez scored. Sememdo added pace and defending quality. The next move was Dembele for Coutinho, who created nothing much after his first goal, and was starting to run out of energy in addition to not creating much. In came Dembele, who immmediately paid off, pushing Madrid back with an incisive run. Suarez took advantage of a defense that was on its heels. Dembele also made a killer dribble and run into the box to set up the fifth goal, scored by the third sub, Arturo Vidal, who subbed on for a dog-tired Arthur, and brought fight into the midfield.
When Messi went down, a lot of pepple predicted doom. Twitter pundits say that Barça is a mid-table club without Messi. That kind of thinking is absurd. Look at the starting lineup: Ter Stegen is the best keeper in football. Pique is one of the best CBs. Lenglet is a briliant, under-the-radar CB. Also is one of the best LBs in football. Busquets is the best DM in football, Rakitic one of the best mids. Coutinho starts for Brazil, and he should. And Luis Suarez is, for all of his stumbling and bumbling, the best 9 in the game. Barça has the horses to get it done, and they have. Sevilla, Inter, now Real Madrid. What’s next?
This team is still improving, which is one of the key things to note. If the Dembele that showed up in the second half sticks around, this team is going to be savage. Supporters aren’t supposed to have blind faith in their team. But they are supposed to try to understand what a team is working toward. The progress with Barça has been steady and unmistakable. You don’t have blind faith, but you do have confidence in great players. Barça has great players, as we saw today, from the intense press to the ball and player movement. And today was the result. Sevilla was the result. Inter was the result.
A lack of faith makes supporters panic. Madrid scored a goal and people began to panic, begin looking for ways for the team to fail, began to expect their dire predictions to come to pass. The team (unlike in Rome) didn’t panic. Its manager (again unlike in Rome) didn’t panic. Everyone did what they were supposed to do, which is a favorite theme of mine. Barça has enough talent where if people do their jobs, they should never lose a match. Today, they destroyed the seventh-place team in the table, as they were supposed to. We celebrate it more because it was Real Madrid, because it was the Classic. But the best team won. Its players worked harder, made most of the right decisions, and their coach got it right. Barça football is logical. So was today’s result.