BARCELONA, Spain — The first thing to ask is not which side should actually have won a bad-tempered, chance-filled Clasico that actually ended 2-2, or how the heck referee Alejandro Jose Hernandez Hernandez managed to have such a bad game?
No, anyone who appreciates football played like this, at full-tilt and constantly simmering with the cordite of something explosive, should wonder how on earth do these players keep doing it?
We all know that they are toned, trimmed and tuned to within an inch of their lives; dieticians, fitness coaches, recuperators, masseuses, special chefs, physiotherapists, computer programmes and GPS units monitor their every thought and whether a milligram too much sugar ever passes their lips.
But I contend that, for Barcelona and Real Madrid to produce a no-holds barred thrillfest like this, at such a stage of the season, given all they’ve been through and with Barca playing for the majority of the match at a one-man disadvantage, is amazing. It gets ignored, we become complacent, we expect. But let’s face some hard facts.
Real Madrid finished Tuesday’s Champions League semifinal second leg against Bayern clinging on. Raphael Varane hobbled for a quarter of an hour but played through the pain, and Luka Modric had the stooped-shouldered, clammy pallor of a man who was utterly exhausted. Meanwhile, Toni Kroos played at walking pace, and there seemed to be about four Sergio Ramos, popping up everywhere to hurl himself at Bayern shots.
But five days later, in sticky, sweaty Barcelona, howled at by some 98,000 angry Catalans, these Madrid men sprinted, checked, tackled, devoured thousands of metres and let their lungs burn. Despite the temptation to relax just a little, because of an upcoming Champions League final and with no Liga title at stake, Zinedine Zidane’s team played as if someone was holding their bank accounts hostage and only a thumping victory, provided by a performance of comic-book heroism, would liberate the hard-earned cash.
Forgive my whimsy; I was just so massively stunned.
And Barcelona, too, emptied themselves. For more than 45 minutes, they faced playing their greatest rivals with just 10 men, of whom Andres Iniesta was already struggling with foot pain and Lionel Messi regularly paused to hunch over and rest the palms of his hands on his thighs, doing a fair impression of a guy on his knees figuratively and, very nearly, literally.
To paraphrase the expression, “I’d like to be a fly on the wall,” I’d like to be able to vicariously feel the pain that will surely shimmer through Ivan Rakitic’s calf muscles on Monday morning. The Croatian midfielder might have had technically slicker performances for Schalke, Sevilla or Barca in the past, but more heroic than Sunday? I really doubt it.
I believe he worked harder and ran further, pushing himself to breaking point time and again, in order to cover the gaps caused not only by Sergi Roberto’s expulsion but by how fiercely Madrid were running, supporting and overlapping all over the pitch. Rakitic did the work of three men; good ones at that.
Just as I eulogised the all-out attack shown by the German and (outgoing) Spanish champions on Tuesday, so I must place a halo over this 94-minute marathon.
It had drama, anger and ferocity of spirit. But, in due course, it had elegance: Zidane waiting at the end to embrace Iniesta and laud his brilliant career after his final Clasico. And it had wit: Gerard Pique seized the microphone after the match to state of Madrid: “Seeing as they didn’t want to give us a guard of honour and seeing as we are in our family tonight, I want the Barca staff to give the players that guard of honour as we come off the pitch now.”
This match had brilliance. Exhibit A: The swishing, slashing movement of Barcelona’s first goal, scored by Luis Suarez’s sensational invention at the speed of light.
Exhibit B: An extraordinary goal from the Gareth Bale canon, in both senses, which ensured that the 10 men only got one point, not three.
Exhibit C: Ditto Messi. We’ll speak about the buildup to the goal that made it 2-1 shortly, but his little “Hi guys! Haven’t we done this dance before?” shimmy around Varane and Ramos, before bending the ball inside Real Madrid’s right-hand post, was part Fred Astaire, part Mike Tyson.
Exhibit D: Good old Keylor Navas. I have often defended the Costa Rican goalkeeper as cheap critics wait, often for many months, for even the merest whiff of relaxation before pouncing on him and demanding the signature of David De Gea or Thibaut Courtois. But Navas is made of the right stuff. A massively competitive man, he made two wonderful saves.
Honestly, I doff my hat to all of them. They make life better and my working life more fun. They are the elite of the elite.
So dramatic and tense was the night that, once substituted, Cristiano Ronaldo stood leaning on the edge of the bench at times, gnawing at his fingernails. Iniesta, for his part, intermittently bowed his head, resting on the seat in front of him, as if he were uttering a silent prayer: “Please don’t let us lose this one!”
And so it gives me no satisfaction, having oozed with happiness about the regal parts of this Clasico, to switch to vitriol.
And this is no cheap jab, but referee Hernandez will be sore about his performance for a long time. In a week that has been charged with the zing and sting of accusation and counter accusation about officiating standards in Europe’s most important football competition, his performance was, simply, indefensible.
Without even making a comprehensive list, he missed the fact that Bale should have been sent off long before his equaliser, that Suarez patently fouled Varane before assisting Messi’s goal, that Marcelo was undeniably fouled by Jordi Alba for a penalty late in the second half and that Barcelona’s disallowed goal was onside. Further, I’d argue that the decision to red card Roberto was taken improperly and was injudicious.
That’s enough to be going on with. Before we get bogged down further in VAR debate, it’s quite apparently time to improve the fine-tuning of the best referees — certainly in Spain — so they can get fundamental decisions, which do not need reviewing, correct more regularly. There, that needed saying.
It is worth finishing with a thought about the two managers and their tactics.
Ernesto Valverde, despite an 8/10 season in general, has some explaining to do. Barcelona’s Champions League failure in Rome had a huge amount to do with physical and mental fatigue. Valverde, intent upon fulfilling his part in a pact made with the players that La Liga was the absolute priority this season, took too few rotation risks, relying repeatedly on the same 12 players as his mainstays.
When the time did come to make a change in the Italian capital, he fluffed still more dramatically. His substations all came with fewer than 10 minutes left, and the first change, instead of being the improving, rapid and dangerous Ousmane Dembele, was the hitherto shunned Andre Gomes who, in the one month since then, has made just one further appearance
And here, with tiredness gnawing at his shorthanded side and with Dembele on the bench having improved recently and possessing the kind of pace, dribbling and goal potential that might have tilted the match, there was not a whiff of the French international. What, if not winning a game such as this, was an investment of €120 million for?
Almost all season, certainly since Gerard Deulofeu stopped featuring and Dembele’s injuries slowewd his progress, Valverde has used a four-man midfield. The extra control that comes from easier passing triangles, from Rakitic and Sergio Busquets playing tightly together and from wide cover for the full-backs if they overlap, have been huge features of Barcelona’s title.
Yet, against Madrid, Valverde pushed Philippe Coutinho — unless the Brazilian self-decided this nuance — to play as a third forward with the expectation that Barcelona could be in a 4-3-3 formation with the ball and, without it, an immediately solid 4-4-2.
It didn’t work. Barcelona’s midfield was more porous than for most of the season, with the perfect example being Toni Kroos’ isolation in beginning the move for Madrid’s first goal, which was followed by his gentle run — with no Barcelona player within any serious distance — to overlap for the cross from which Karim Benzema headed down for Ronaldo to score.
No question, Valverde spots changes during games and often uses the right personnel to tilt a result. But he’s going to need to learn to have that devilish “let’s give this a try” approach for things that his conservative instincts do not help him.
As for Zidane, kudos to him for nipping off Nacho when Madrid were threatened with receiving one or even two red cards. That was smart, as was the decision to play Bale as an “extra” right-back, so that Madrid sometimes had five defenders strung across their penalty area, specifically to stop Alba’s trademark overlap.
All in all, this was fine entertainment and a nice way to spend a Sunday evening. There was no guard of honour, but honours were even, and honour was paid to Iniesta. But, honestly, how do these guys do it? To me, it is a minor miracle.
Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of “Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World.” Twitter: @BumperGraham.