Barcelona, Clubs, Real Madrid, Spanish Primera División, Story


The temptation to self-recriminate and assume that this Clasico was jinxed by my ESPN FC preview that guaranteed goals and pointed out that there hadn’t been a 0-0 draw for 17 beautiful, long years is dispelled by three names: Marc Andre ter Stegen, Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique.

Were it not for excelsior performances from these three Clasico warriors, we’d have had goals, and Madrid would be three points clear at the top of La Liga. However, the match did indeed end in a 0-0 draw for the first time in 50 editions.

Barcelona’s German keeper entered the fray with the contradictory knowledge that he was enjoying the best, most redoubtable and athletic season of his career, saving his team’s neck and reputation time after time. Yet his previous two matches had witnessed three fumbles, two of which cost goals — at home to Mallorca and away, in another draw, at Real Sociedad.

But the mark of greatness — or should that be of Ter Stegen greatness — is to refuse to acknowledge that a test of cauldron heat, an examination by ancient rivals who are desperate to take Barcelona’s Liga crown away, often adds to the likelihood of more mistakes.

Whatever Ter Stegen is being paid, I’d like to believe that his agent has put in an overtime claim after that 90 minutes of mayhem. Perhaps something along the lines of: “Dear President Bartomeu, my client did the work of two or three goalkeepers against Madrid. Please can he have double pay for the night of Dec. 18?”

Bartomeu would have little option but to sign the document, in triplicate, and say: “cheap at the price.”

There was a stage when the German — and Joachim Low, please hang your head in shame that you can’t find it in your conscience to usurp Manuel Neuer and give this phenomenon the No. 1 jersey in your Mannschaft — was the only thing between Madrid and a minor cricket score.

In front of an originally volatile audience, which was gradually bewitched into total stupefaction at the chasing their heroes were receiving, Ter Stegen performed little penalty box miracle after penalty box miracle until you’d have sworn that it must have been an imposter against Mallorca and Sociedad.

The best, for my taste, was when Karim Benzema rampaged into the left side of Barcelona’s penalty area, raised his right boot and took aim.

Marc-andre Ter Stegen was one major reason Barcelona didn’t lose to Real Madrid in the latest Clasico.

The Frenchman, enjoying his personal creme-de-la-creme season, too, slid an achingly delicious ball into what is commonly known as the corridor of uncertainty. Nominally, that’s a stretch of green land just outside the reach of the goalkeeper if he dives down at it and just behind the retreating defenders who are petrified of touching it in case they score an own goal.

The uncertainty on this occasion was between the tide of Madrid players who were lining up and having a committee meeting about which of them should score first from this tantalising, unmissable opportunity.

Meanwhile, Ter Stegen took executive action. The direction and location of Benzema’s “pre-assist” was very similar to that of Nacho Monreal‘s wicked ball across the 6-yard area at Anoeta on Saturday.

On that occasion, even with a tiny deflection off Ivan Rakitic‘s toe, Ter Stegen had fluffed both decision and execution. Lunging outward, he could get only a touch that deflected the ball to La Real’s young Swedish striker, Alexander Isak, who promptly scored.

This time, Ter Stegen ripped up that template. He did what in gym-bunny terms is called “a lunge.”

Left knee bent downward under your hips, right knee extended forward so that your planted right foot is not only stretched out in front but also, ahem, your gluteus maximus muscles are stretched to screaming point.

Using this technique, like a noble Knight bowing to his Royal Liege, Ter Stegen not only intercepted Benzema’s maleficent centre but also kind of passed it straight back out toward the edge of the box.

Brilliant, daring, successful, improvisation. Just a minor part of a major repertoire.

Of course on the one occasion when Ter Stegen was beaten by Madrid, there was the only other real Barcelona hero on this night when their points total wasn’t left in smithereens, but their self-belief and right to be called a “positional-possession” team were.

The amount of rubbish written about Pique needs to be seen to be believed. In fact, most of it needs to be disbelieved.

Viz: “He’s more interested in his business pursuits” or “he cares more about tennis and his Davis Cup idea than about training and focusing on Barcelona.”

On it goes: “He’s in decline.” “He’s not serious enough.” Blah blah.

Not only was he Barcelona’s man of the match last weekend when he single-handedly kept a rampant Real Sociedad at bay, but he also gave a towering performance to keep his infernal rivals from scoring.

His was the header off the goal line that stopped Madrid from taking the lead at a time when they merited it and were preparing a case for the European Court of Justice.

How it was still 0-0 even at that midway stage of the first half was something for the advocates and jurists who fight for what’s just and proper to decide.

There were other Pique moments, and boy, did Clement Lenglet chip in with some blocks, tackles and one almighty clash with Gareth Bale. Late in the second half, when Benzema went haring after a pass into the corner, Pique extended his stride and pulled away from the Frenchman as if he were at the seat of a Maserati.

Pique was mighty.

The third of the names that save me from full culpability for there not being goals to decorate a thrilling, end-to-end and intense battle, is Ramos.

Thibaut Courtois must have had some moments in the first half when he worried about not having brought a paper and pencil so he could keep score while his teammates bulged the Barcelona net at will. He must have had moments when he imagined that he might as well have used that paper and pencil, had he brought them, for some gentle sketch work to commemorate a great Real Madrid win — you know, the kind of thing you see street artists dashing off for money in the tourist traps of big cities.

This is to say that the Belgian had next to no real work to do. Barcelona had a couple of minor opportunities, one major one when Lionel Messi‘s floated lob met Jordi Alba‘s run into the box and the Catalan cushioned a volley wide of Madrid’s far post.

Except for the moment when Courtois punched a through ball away, it fell between the boots of Casemiro and Messi and, somehow, the football was returned past the Belgian and toward the Madrid net. But there was Ramos, all tumble and thunder, to bowl the ball away just before it could unleash a disbelieving but joyous Catalan roar.

This was a pulsating match — it never really relented. But, with calm, there are some conclusions to take. For whatever complex bundle of reasons, Barcelona were not only outplayed but also actively poor.

Several players tried their little hearts out. There wasn’t a shirker or a coward aboard the “Good Ship” Ernesto Valverde. But they were outworked, outrun, out-thought and out-everythinged.

In the midst of this mish-mash of a performance, there was the increasingly mystifying sight of Leo Messi doing what Leo Messi has been doing for a few weeks. The fact that he’ll occasionally do something utterly other-worldly cannot disguise that for a handful of matches he has looked disinterested, tired, slower than usual to take decisions and missing a little bit of that delightful “I can do ANYTHING I like to you at any time!” chutzpah.

Or else, he has simply hacked off with the feeling of “here we are again, midseason, utterly reliant on me to win matches, no Neymar and a team that some of the new ‘rock and roll’ European sides will simply blow away.” I’m not stating that as a fact, but it’s how he looks.

Oh, by the way, if Barcelona think that having a “training-light” approach in the first two thirds of the season will mean they aren’t exhausted by the time April and May come, then they aren’t just playing with fire. They are already being singed.

Finally: You’ll very easily find the Smart Alecs who still say that Zinedine Zidane, the man Johan Cruyff agreed to sign in 1996 from Bordeaux before the idiot Camp Nou board sacked him, isn’t an elite coach. They say he’s lucky. They say that he’s unsophisticated. They say that he has the gift of inspiring a player one on one because “It’s Zizou!”

Well, this display should put that trash to bed. Zidane might have rough edges to erase while he goes on gaining experience at what is still an early stage in his career as a stand-alone manager and coach.

But this was a performance that proved not only that he read precisely what Barcelona weren’t going to be able to cope with but also that he picked the correct starting XI to inflict it, and he thoroughly convinced his squad of the accuracy of how he deconstructed Valverde’s side in the prematch planning.

In football, there are no points for a technical knockout or for “clever strategic plans which nearly come off.” But despite the fact that there were no goals here, it does not mean Zidane didn’t score a direct hit on his most important rival and, I’d say, take one small step toward regaining the Spanish title for Real Madrid.



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