Real Madrid trample over Barcelona as Clasico lives up to all the hype
MADRID -- We love football, we are addicted to it for life, partly because it produces the most unbelievable scripts.
We love matches where a team is on the ropes, battered like a 99-pound weakling by a vicious middleweight champion, but somehow produces resilience, luck or an unpredictable knockout blow. You know the matches, you could name them. The Champions League finals of 1999 and 2005 spring to mind as iconic examples.
Then there are games like this, where the sport needs the team trailing but playing immensely better, quicker, more convincing, and more entertaining football to win. And win decisively.
Real Madrid trampled all over Barcelona here. And they were doing so even while they trailed 1-0. Even while Iker Casillas needed to pull off one of his totally remarkable "whites-of-the-eyes" saves to prevent it being 2-0.
As usually happens, the irresistible force eventually triumphed handsomely over the immovable object.
One of the things you have to respect -- adore if you are a Madridista -- is that when the European champions went 1-0 down to a team that has firmly dominated them during the last 17 Clasicos at the Bernabeu, allowing Madrid only five wins in that time, Los Blancos played, behaved and thought like they'd won the previous 17.
Although Barcelona made a couple of really good chances while 1-0 up (more of which later), watching Madrid play with a 0-1 handicap was like watching a charging rhino not be stopped in its tracks when a prettily-coloured, stubborn Flamingo stood in its path.
The word "Charge!" never left the frontal lobes of a "nothing-can-stop-me" brain.
Honestly (no Monday morning quarterbacking), Madrid never once -- not once -- looked like losing this.
If anything, this was still more impressive than Real's Anfield midweek mauling. To treat a Liverpool shorn of their best player, already in bad form and drained of defensive confidence like rag dolls was one thing. To go one down to a strikeforce of Suarez, Messi, Neymar and never look in the least bit shaken, in fact to take it as a heinous insult that Barcelona had the temerity to score, was deeply impressive.
So, to Madrid first.
When they play like this, it's like a glorious hybrid between the most raucous, committed and warrior-like of German or British football ... but with the daring, vision, creativity and technique of football in Spain.
I'll bet that whatever the television channels around the world paid, whatever the many thousands of Asian, German, British, Scandinavian and North African (nationalities I either saw, heard or spoke to in and around the game) people who paid a decent chunk of this month's mortgage fee to be here, that they'd happily pay double that to live through this game one more time.
It was 3-1 going on 7-2.
Carlo Ancelotti deserves credit. Why? Here's why.
Last season he was given a real tactical poser of how to fit in all his attacking players, and though he achieved it, it took him until January to make it really click.
He was given an equivalent, and equally unwanted, challenge this summer -- how to defend in midfield without the two midfielders who defended best for him last season.
It's October, and he's solved it. That's the mark of a special manager.
There's more. He deserves credit for reading his squad perfectly. There was a time when they were overrun by Real Sociedad, losing a 2-0 lead, and beaten twice in short succession by Atletico when it looked as though there was massive rehabilitation work to be done.
Ancelotti said, "No, calm down. In about three weeks, we'll have played our way to fitness and sharpness, and then we'll be in better shape than we were this time last season."
Bang on the money. Jackpot, in fact.
But once the veni, vidi, vici Italian is venerated, I think it's important to give proper credit to the Madrid players.
Not because they can play excelsior football. We knew that.
But because they exhibited a degree of self-confidence, and mutual confidence, which if you could measure in a high-tech lab, would be about equal to Mike Tyson's testosterone, adrenaline and aggression when he was winning title fights for fun.
In sport, not just football, it's thrilling (literally) to watch throbbing self-belief allied to optimum talent.
The moments that will be indelibly etched on my mind forever will be Casillas' save from Messi in the first half when the score was still 1-0. When it might, just might, have damped the rampant, although I honestly doubt it.
Just the tiniest of nicks on a one-on-one chance set up by Suarez, but it means that in his last two games, this under-pressure keeper has produced two of the saves of his prodigious career -- the first being his outrageous tip past the post from Joe Allen at Anfield.
The second indelible memory from this fabulous match will be the 55th minute. Neymar worked a little bit of magic down the right of Madrid's penalty box, and instead of centering, he squared it back into Messi's path.
This was Messi territory. The fabled space where a "9" is supposed to be, but when Barcelona don't use one, it leaves space into which Messi, playing deep, rampages and scores.
Neymar did perfectly. But Messi, for some reason, was dozy all night.
The chance sat up, begged and pleaded to be finished off -- but Sergio Ramos was at his lung-bursting, muscle-rippling best tonight.
He reacted first, got to the chance first and committed that most difficult of arts -- the sliding penalty box challenge. And with his weaker foot, the left. It was glorious.
And then the jouissance. The running, passing, intelligence and conviction from Isco to Cristiano Ronaldo to James Rodriguez to Karim Benzema in Madrid's third goal was fabulous to watch and brought a roar from this crowd like they've not released for years. Triumph, vindication and admiration.
There were both technical and tactical nuances throughout the match -- like stitching tiny emeralds and gold flecks onto a boxing glove filled with a horseshoe.
But you can reduce it to football basics. Madrid worked far, far, far harder. Madrid were more confident. Madrid were more athletic. Madrid wanted it more and, thus, Madrid deserved it more. In fact, they deserved more. "Un resultado corto" is how you can say it in Spain. "A short result" -- Madrid were giants here and deserved a scoreline to match.
What it leaves is some searching questions for and about Luis Enrique.
Let's not be revisionist. He has made a palpable difference to Barcelona. They work harder every day, they train and play with greater intensity. They have a squad that he's moulding into a decent unit, and in midweek, during the first half against Ajax, they scintillated.
Yet this showed that in some departments, they are not only not keeping pace with Madrid, they are falling behind. Literally.
All night, rather like in Paris last month, Luis Enrique's team was outworked, outrun. Madrid thought more quickly, reacted more quickly. Sometimes, particularly the third goal, this was not like men against boys, but men against statues.
And here's a central problem.
Javier Mascherano is not, repeat not, a top-class centre-half.
Javier Mascherano is, repeat most certainly is, a top-class central midfielder.
He was held down with remarkable ease by Benzema when Pepe scored the crucial second goal. His wild, wild decision to run to the far touchline and to fail to communicate with Andres Iniesta directly led to Madrid's third goal.
What's bizarre, what I completely fail to understand, is that there's a round hole waiting for a round peg while Luis Enrique joins Tata Martino and Barcelona's previous two coaches in trying to ram square-peg Mascherano into the wrong receptacle at centre-back.
Sergio Busquets was one of those for whom the pace of this game was outrageously too fast. Not for the first time.
Is that to do with residual injury damage? General tiredness? The change of role needed from him now that Barcelona have abandoned the sacred "positional play" of Pep Guardiola? I'm not sure.
What I am wholly sure of, however, is that if Mascherano had been in central midfield and Jeremy Mathieu at centre-back with Gerard Pique, then Barcelona would have played with more security, pace and aggression. These are two massive issues for the new Barcelona coach. How to make his team more athletically robust and how to use Mascherano properly?
It was his debut Clasico, and it went downhill from the moment he snarled, "Take THAT!" (Toma!) when Neymar scored in the fourth minute. But he'll look back and realise that not changing his XI and his tactics at half-time and sending the same guys/structure back out to the snarling, rampant Madrid was like handing them the game.
The boys in white knew. From then, they knew.
It would be inept not to note that the Suarez experiment was a "close but no cigar" job.
He set up the first, nearly set up a second, and then either found the relentless pace too much or his teammates were too slow to find him with the ball. Nevertheless, he's part of the solution, not the problem.
Also, it needs saying that Messi, so prolific here in the past, was a shadow of himself. Not only a little toothless, but he was looking a bit bewildered by what went on around him and not enjoying the 4-4-2 formation with which Ancelotti tried to suffocate the spaces in which he likes to work.
Still, this was a great spectacle. The losers were well-beaten but produced some fine moments all the same. The winners were imperious and will have sent people who love football all over the world onward in their day with a spring in their step.
These 90 minutes of infectious excellence underlined why this isn't just the biggest, but the best, football fixture on the planet.
Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World." Twitter: @BumperGraham.