Real Madrid 2, Barça 1, aka “Has anyone seen that gift horse?”

This match sucked.

I know that neutrals enjoyed it, and it was certainly an enthralling contest at times. But for me, the rage at seeing my team get punked and as usual, show up late (but too late this time) killed any enjoyment for me. The first half was a masterclass by Real Madrid of looking like a team ready to play, while Barça looked like a team ready to concede the league leadership.

Which is what happened. That is what stings. A team, YOUR team, is supposed to seize a moment such as this one. The league is far from done, but this match mattered so much, and nost just because it was the Classic. Psychologically, it was for the league title.

To give yourself a chance in a big match, you can’t make silly mistakes. They were countless in the first half, all playing into the hands of a team just looking to break. Both goals came off turned possession, and despite Ousmane Dembele — who was as poor as the rest of the team — being the punching bag of much of Barça Twitter in the first half, neither episode of turned possession came off him.

On the first goal, Alba gambled, leaving absolute acres of space for RM to play into. Araujo did the exact right thing, bodying up on Benzema so that he had one option: the backheel. Was Ter Stegen ready for the near-post backheel, the one option the attacker had? Nope. 1-0. The ease with which Real Madrid strode up the pitch to score that goal brought back sad memories of the way Barça used to “defend,” when team after team stretched them as Busquets was left in space. Credit Zidane for drawing up his team to play, even as they have been playing that way all season, played that way against Liverpool, a match that Koeman and his team apparently chose not to watch.

The second goal found Vinicius Jr. doing what he does, and using his one move to snooker Mingueza, who except for a couple of monents had an excellent match. Ter Stegen drew up a wall that functioned more like a gate, and Dest jumped and turned his body to the side, deflecting the ball to a place where Ter Stegen, who had the free kick covered, suddenly wasn’t. Alba couldn’t clear the deflection either, for reasons known only to him. 2-0, and the easiest 2-0 RM will have seen in a Classic in a very long time.

The response from Barça was slow, sloppy football. The possession picked up but the pace didn’t. The Real Madrid defenders could walk and trot around to keep their opponents in check, scooping up wayward balls and feeding Vinicius, who would do what Koeman probably had hopes that Dembele would do except that Barça plays too slowly out of the back, so any advantage by a runner breaking loose is eroded by cnntemplation.

Barça was a frustrating team to watch, against a Real Madrid missing its two starting centerbacks, one with injury the other with COVID. Messi and Dembele should have been running rampant. Instead both were making poor decisions on the ball, loose in possession, Quixotic runs against banks of defenders, not valuing possession against a team whose game is off the counter. With a match like this one on the line, every culer expected more from the team they love, expected more from their talismanic captain. And in that first half, only one team played to win. Alba was a mess, Dest was clearly not ready for the occasion. Busquets, recently in his pomp, was far from that. Possession is fine if you do something with it. They set up camp in the RM half, but to what effect?

The weird thing about this Classic is that when the second half commenced, and Griezmann came on for Dest, suddenly the team was sharper, with more industry. It wasn’t just a formation change, even though that helped a lot. Dembele moved to right wing where he became a lot more dangerous, and could also help out in defense. Griezmann lived in half spaces and suddenly the pitch tilted. Barça was still too easy to defend because everything moved too slowly, but at least they had the ball. And with some great plays to keep Real Madrid from going 3-1 ahead, this match seemed poised for something, someone to seize it. Messi strode off to change shirts like Clark Kent in the phone booth, and you believed that maybe, just maybe this was it. It was his time to show up. Alas, no.

But the heartening thing about this match was who in fact did show up, presaging a bright future. Mingueza balled, as did Araujo. Ilaix came on to make an immediate difference, fighting like a lion and he almost tied the match on the last play, with some fantastic control and shooting, only to hit the crossbar. Araujo was a lion, playing like a future leader of the back line. They weren’t cowed by the moment as some veteran players seemed to be, and they had the legs to take advantage of their fearlessless. These are exciting times.

Which makes this loss no less disappointing. The place of the team in the standings right now is an unexpected bonus. With the eggs they were laying early on, most of us would have just been happy in a European position — hell, even Europa league. They now sit third, and are in the thick of the championship fight. We can’t take that away from them, the excellent football that has been played since the group changed formation and got its act together. But this is the second big match, the first being the PSG first leg, where the team hasn’t shown up, hasn’t acted like it’s been there. And it hasn’t been the kids that have let down the side.

Post-match snarking is going to be about two moments that might have been penalties under a different set of officials. Nah. The first we have seen given, and was much clearer than the second, which was closer to a yellow for simulation than a penalty, even as Mendy wasn’t very bright in making that play. There will be carping about only four minutes of added time, given that the officials spent at least two with technical difficulties.

But no, the post-match chatter should be about the future of the team and who is going to take part in it. Sergi Roberto came on and was anonymous. He combined with Trincao to create a right-side attack that was soft enough to rest your head on at night. Say what anyone wants about Dembele but when he went out the tean looked bereft of ideas, too slow to even take advantage of the Miracle of Madrid, Casemiro being sent off after his second yellow in about two minutes.

But here’s the thing about thie Barça team: third place in the standings, with a Copa final looming, is about the best that could be reasonably expected from them after the start of the season they had and in the condition they are in. So we should be happy, right? Not gutted. But this Liga season has been a gift horse. And would we be all that wrong to expect the team that we support so dearly to hop on and ride away, instead of taking a nap with the stable door open? The league was in their grasp with an opportunity to make a statement. But only one team made a statement today, and it was the team missing key players but is still with a leg in the Champions League semis, and almost in the driver’s seat of La Liga. Impressive? Yes. Lucky? Not entirely, as you make your own luck. Frustrating and hateful? Like a big dog, for every culer. It might be football, but it isn’t a crime to want more from it, to expect more, and be bitterly disappointed that we didn’t get more.

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.