Further reflections from the clásico
Carles Puyol's presence is critical for Barca, he's missed their last seven defeats
Andres Iniesta's performance was superb, for once overshadowing Lionel Messi
Real Madrid fans and Madrid media were highly critical of Cristiano Ronaldo
Some more postgame thoughts following Barcelona's 3-1 win over Real Madrid in the clásico:
Barcelona's very own Captain Caveman, with his heart on his sleeve and his hair in his eyes. A real captain too and far more important than some realize. Carles Puyol was absent the last seven times Barcelona lost. You have to go back 44 games to find the last time they were defeated with him in the side. Since then, it's 37 wins and 7 draws with him, 33 wins, 10 draws 7 defeats without. Coincidence? No. It is Puyol who maintains the tension and edge -- Gerard Piqué gigglingly recalls the time Puyol screamed at him to focus even though Barcelona were 3-0 up, there were barely minutes left and the physics were on attending to an injured teammate -- and brings aggression and organization to a defense, to a whole side, that occasionally lacks it. He brings them calm when necessary, too. When Barcelona let in the first goal after 22 seconds, Puyol acted immediately -- getting in the face of everyone. Everyone except goalkeper Victor Valdés, with whom his words were rather quieter. And, for all the pressure, the message wasn't to stop playing passes and start booting it but to do quite the opposite.
An excellent defender whose wild hacks -- all legs and arms flailing about, feet ending up way above his head like Bobby Charlton post-30-yarder in 1966 -- and desire to do everything faster and harder, not just to clear the ball but to try to burst it, are an unnecessary risk.
The man who normally gets blamed. This time, some wanted a red card for Leo Messi but even the Madrid newspapers, proud of being partisan, admitted that the Argentine should not have been sent off. And although Jose Mourinho said he thought there should have been a red card when it happened -- at the time, he leapt to his feet complaining and turned to the fans, gesturing for them to play their part -- he admitted afterward that he couldn't be sure because he was a long way away and the ref was closer. "I don't want to say until I have seen a reply," he said. Which probably suggests he already had seen a replay. The first yellow was petty -- Messi was booked for telling the referee that he wasn't giving Barcelona anything but, according to the official report, there was no abuse, no swearing -- and the second offense was a pretty ordinary foul on Xabi Alonso. That said, rule book in hand, a red would not have been a complete scandal. And there has not been a complete scandal either, which is good. It's nice to have a clásico fall out that does not hinge on some ludicrous conspiracy theory. You might not know who the ref was on Saturday night. Let's keep it that way.
All across the Madrid media there were few complaints, just a recognition that Madrid had beaten again -- and justly. On Monday, though, Marca had spun into everything's fine propaganda mode, designed to defend and laud the man that really matters. And, no, it's not necessarily Mourinho. There were no recriminations, no analysis, no criticism. Three pages, including the cover, are dedicated to president Florentino Pérez going down to the dressing room and giving the players "strength" and support, his appearance proving a comforting "balm" as, with "entereza" (roughly, strength in adversity), he told them they could still win the league. The headline reads: "Florentino comes onto the pitch." Because that's worked so well before. Page four led on the captains of the team apparently backing Cristiano Ronaldo. Page five featured Alfredo Di Stéfano's column which takes the blame for not wearing his lucky sweater -- luck deserted us, he says, but defeat will bring even more meaning to the league. And page 6 declares Mourinho to have been "up to the task" -- for, erm, shaking Pep Guardiola's hand.
At times, still doesn't look entirely comfortable in a role that is still new to him, off the forward, and occasionally appeared unsure as to where to move on Saturday night. But Cesc now has eight goals this season -- and, perhaps surprisingly, offers an aerial presence few Barcelona players can.
The result inevitably diminishes his role, eclipsing his performance, but Barcelona's victory should not blind us to the way that Benzema played.
Madrid's best player by far. Skillful, clever, powerful and quick. And coolheaded. Scored the first, provided what should have been the second for Ronaldo, and was intelligent and incisive throughout.
Mourinho said that luck had played a big part in this result and you could sort of see his point -- Ronaldo's miss, Xavi's goal, Kaká's shot going wide off Valdés' elbow. When it was put to him, he also conceded that the results against Barcelona had not gone his way. Although he could not remember the exact numbers, he has won just one clásico of eight against Barcelona. He claimed the one that he did win -- the final of the Copa del Rey -- was the most important but that is not really true. And, anyway, he said, the figures are one thing but with the passage of time people forget how results happened. He then noted the red card for Pepe and the disallowed goal and left the sentence trailing -- a kind of verbal "..." that invited other reasons to be added. Reasons? Excuses. Excuses the likes of which were not entertained when he won --- with Porto, Chelsea or Inter. Instead, an objective fact was presented in the form of his trophies.
All of which is quite right and on Saturday night he might even have had a point. But it clashed with his legend that is built around him, the one that is founded on a single fact: Mourinho wins. The reality is that against Barcelona, he has not so far. That is the risk of reducing the narrative to success. There is no doubt that Madrid has improved and that it is a fantastically good team, winning 15 on the trot going into this match. It might even be favorite to win the league still. But the one team against whom it is truly measured is Barcelona and against Barcelona it was defeated again. If your entire identity is based on winning, the day you stop winning you have nothing. All the more so in Mourinho's case because he was explicitly brought in to defeat Barcelona. The question, and it is even being asked by his supporters, is: what now, Mou?
It is often assumed that Guardiola wins simply because he has the best players. It shouldn't be. This was a tactical success too, switching from a back four to a back three with Sergio Busquets dropping into and out of the defense. Iniesta went left, Alves right and Messi was everywhere. Only Alexis really played up front, dashing across the line to keep Madrid's defense occupied -- snarling and competing and diving. And finishing brilliantly when he got the chance.
It's all Ronaldo's fault, apparently. A section of the Santiago Bernabéu whistled Cristiano Ronaldo, a readers' poll on Marca's website gave him an average rating of 1.8 out of 10 and the paper itself rated him as 0 out of 3. One of the things that no one picked up on was that every time Ronaldo faced Gerard Piqué he dived -- as if he did not trust himself to go beyond the defender. What they did pick up on was what Jose Mourinho noted. Madrid's coach claimed that the game might have been different had Ronaldo taken his chance at 1-0. And there was the fluffed header in the second half. "Ronaldo is a fantastic player," the coach said, "and he normally scores them."
That "normally" is the point. On Monday morning the sports newspaper AS led on "Cristiano breaks down against Barcelona." Ronaldo's average is better than a goal a game, yet against Barcelona he only has a goal every 301 minutes and in 10 matches against them as a Real Madrid player he has only won once. This was not the first time he has missed a golden opportunity against Barça. He even missed a penalty against them for Manchester United.
So the old argument re-emerged: Ronaldo as a flat track bully, scoring irrelevant goals against irrelevant teams. He can't do it in big games, they say. Others noted the psychological anxiety he suffers when he comes up against Barcelona -- and Messi.
First of all, big games are by definition the hardest ones against the hardest opponents. Secondly, Ronaldo scored the winner in the Copa del Rey (Manchester United fans will recall that he scored in the Champions League final too), it is hard to make judgments on what's going on in his head, and focusing all the attention on a single player is unfair. As for the rubbish against Barcelona argument, many players are rubbish against Barcelona.
Perhaps the problem comes with his status. Ronaldo is a very, very good player -- a brilliant one, in fact -- but probably not at the level that has been created by? for? him. The fact that he has become Madrid's franchise player helps to foster rejection -- not all of it really of his own making -- while his personality does that too. Most of the "arrogant" remarks he makes are actually delivered tongue in cheek and there is a certain charm about him one on one, but the posturing on the pitch is provocative, even for his own fans. The fact that he dominates everything and not always to great success -- he has taken 22 free kicks this season and not scored one, for example -- makes him an obvious target.
And then there are the inevitable comparisons with the man against whom he is so often measured. The best photo to come out of the clásico appeared in Marca. It showed Ronaldo appearing to go down on one knee before Messi, bowing in deference, recognizing the Argentine's superiority.
And that's the thing. Ronaldo is brilliant but Messi is better.
Pro Football Now: Thursday December 5, 2013
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