The importance of the clsico was never likely to be about the league, Madrid knew. But it mattered, and they were entitled to celebrate their 2-1 triumph
Sergio Ramos went through the back of Luis Surez, across the pitch, up the stairs, past the chapel, to the left, through the door and into the press room at the Camp Nou where he watched his Real Madrid team-mates beat Barcelona on television. There were 99,264 people outside; inside it was quiet and virtually empty. There Ramos sat, not crapping myself exactly but very nervous. It was 1-1 when he was sent off, leaving Madrid with 10 minutes left to play and 10 men left on the pitch, but just as he took up position in front of the screen Cristiano Ronaldo scored a goal that no one had scored against Barcelona in six months: the winner.
There were still five tense minutes remaining, then three more, but Madrid got there. Relieved, Ramos went looking for the others. Men like Marcelo, to whom hed given his armband as he walked for the 21st time, and who insisted: Sergio doesnt need a clip round the ear; everything he does he does to help. Even this. If Id known wed win with 10 men, Id have got sent off in the fifth minute, Ramos smiled. Well, they cant say he didnt try. Eventually, in the 83rd, he did; so, more importantly, did they. Gareth Bale had one winner ruled out for being tall, before Ronaldo got another on 85 minutes. Thirty-nine games later, Bara were beaten.
Before the game, Barcelonas manager, Luis Enrique, had admitted that if his side defeated Madrid, if would end Madrids chances of winning the title. But it didnt work that way and so after it Zinedine Zidane was asked, a little apologetically: Hay Liga? Is there a league title race? Well, he replied, were seven points away and before that we have to catch Atltico. We have to think about the next game which isnt a league game; its a Champions League game. Gareth Bale said Madrid had to believe that they could still win the league. Just as importantly, maybe Barcelona might believe that they could still not win it. You never know, football does funny things to teams when you lose, he said. All they need is a few bad results and we need a few good ones. In Marca, Toms Guasch gleefully wheeled out his crappingyourselfometer, hoping that Barcelona might yet bottle it.
But realistically, there probably isnt a league title race, no. With seven games to go Barcelona have a six-point (plus head-to-head goal difference) lead over Atltico, a seven-point lead (ditto) over Madrid. They would have to drop points three times and although Madrid have clawed back five points on them in two weeks, few anticipate that: Bale and Zidanes responses, looking beyond Saturday night to Wednesday, suggested as much. Yet that did not matter, not when they were caught in the moment; and not after it, either. In the dressing room Madrid marked the victory with a team photo, clenching their fists and celebrating like actors in an advert for a bookies, while Ronaldo posed in a pair of pristine white pants.
Celebrating as if they had won a title, sneered Sport the same Sport whose cover before the game, back when they expected Barcelona to win it, had declared the clsico: Another title.
The importance of this game was never likely to be about the league, Madrid knew. But it mattered, and they were entitled to celebrate it. Not just because the clsico is always the clsico, not just because they had ended their rivals long, long run, but because of the score, because of the way it happened, and because it was unexpected. Because, its impact may be felt in Europe. Because, above all, they felt it. Something shifted on Saturday night; perhaps only fleetingly, but it did. Zidane agreed that it could be a turning point, describing it as very, very important psychologically.
Nobody scored four or five against us, like people said, Pepe remarked. Zidanes position was reinforced, so too the players. Marcas front page ran with ReALMAdrid. Alma is soul. Madrid always come back, AS said. Theres an optimism now; the last fortnight has gone rather well for Madrid: the Champions League draw, a thumping win over Sevilla, and now this. Their season is not over yet.
What did you like about the way your team played? Zidane was asked. Everything, he said. If it was an exaggeration, it was understandable. This was a strange kind of clsico, not always easy to analyse, not given to simple conclusions, where there were as many mitigating factors as there was football. It was not a particularly good clsico either, in truth. (The Rayo manager, commentating on the game, was asked who deserved to win it. Neither of them, he said.) It didnt always seem to be going anywhere. Nor did Madrid and nor did Barcelona. At one stage it even felt like the unthinkable might happen; that it might be a 0-0 draw.
For an hour it was Luis Enriques side who had the ball but rarely did they pass it with the pace and precision that defines them. They looked like a team that had crossed the Atlantic, sluggish and seemingly tired. At the risk of reading too much into it, they also looked like a team that at some subconscious level knew that the result probably did not matter. The front three were unusually clumsy, the ball escaping them with unusual regularity.
Mostly, Madrid watched them from deep at times, seemingly satisfied to do so; at others, frustrated. There was a moment when Toni Kroos looked at his team-mates, shrugging his shoulders in exasperation as he chased alone. But the win, even if it arrived when they abandoned some of that caution and went for their opponents, Marcelo leading them forward, reinforces the idea and illustrates that it can work. And right now, an idea matters: this victory gives Madrid an identity to hold on to, legitimising it; there is a path to follow. Victory brings vindication. Zidane played the side that Rafa Bentez regretted not playing no James Rodrguez, no Isco, Casemiro in the middle, Dani Carvajal at right back, deep, waiting, looking for the counter-attack, particularly with the ball behind Jordi Alba for Bale and did not regret it.
If the idea appeared to be to cede possession, they had largely contained Barcelona, who created chances but far fewer than normal. Casemiro helped control Lionel Messi and Andrs Iniesta, Neymar never really went beyond Carvajal and Sergio Busquets found his range of passes limited. Besides, when Barcelona scored, Madrid reacted. That was the way it went for an hour, but for the final half an hour Madrid were the better, more adventurous team and for the final 15 minutes they were a stampede. Chances came and quickly. Bale admitted that even after his goal had been ruled out, he was confident that there would be more: Madrid looked fit, strong. Barcelona looked gone.
Suddenly, Madrid were hammering forward, right through the middle and flanked on either side. Busquets overrun and unable to stop them. When the ball was given away both goals came from misplaced passes by Alba they headed forward quickly and in numbers. The first goal starts superbly, the ball exchanged swiftly to unlock the space in front of them, Luka Modric turning the key. Protected by Casemiro, Kroos was Kroos again, heading into the space. Carvajal went with him, Marcelo too. The finish for the first was brilliant from Karim Benzema, the finish for the second from Ronaldo too, calmly controlled on the chest and thumped through Claudio Bravos legs. The finish for the disallowed goal from Bale wasnt bad, either. There didnt seem much wrong with it, thats for sure.
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