Monday, March 4, 2013
I recall a conversation with a Rangers fan a few years ago, who told me that he'd always have swapped a league title for the seasonal double win in the Auld Firm Glasgow derby, back in the days when there were only two games a season between the teams. There was something of that feel to the reaction of Real Madrid to their second win over Barcelona in the space of five days this weekend.
Saturday's 2-1 league win in the Bernabéu won't win them the title but it marks a significant shift in the yin-yang relationship between these two sides. Each game has its own particular context and circumstances, but this was a strangely decaffeinated affair - to the extent that the Clásico can ever be really thus, with Madrid more worried about Tuesday night's game at Old Trafford and Barcelona more concerned with their own form, becalmed in the doldrums of their first major blip of the season.
Madrid predictably rested a bunch of first-teamers (Ozil, Alonso, Ronaldo) but Barcelona, culturally obliged to treat the fixture with the seriousness it normally deserves, turned up with their main weaponry (minus Xavi), determined at the very least to heal the wounds of last Tuesday's 3-1 Copa del Rey semi-final defeat in the Camp Nou. But the wound continues to gape, and the ease with which Madrid won the game (with a little help from referee Perez Lasa and a second half entrance from CR7), exploiting once again Barcelona's defensive fragility, may contribute in the medium-term to a rather deflated feel to the rest of the season for the league leaders - given that the title has been virtually conceded to them already by their rivals.
Second-placed Atletico host Barcelona in the second week of May, with four games left to play of the season. The Catalans may be undergoing a mini-crisis, but it's difficult to see them conceding enough points over the next few weeks to seriously make that game the season's decider. Either side of the Milan game they entertain bottom club Deportivo and then Rayo - the latter a plucky team this season but defensively generous enough to provide some balm for Barcelona's current toothache.
We were talking about Barcelona's problems last week, so I don't wish to go on too much about this issue, apart from confirming the obvious fact that something is temporarily awry in the engine-room. But as a fellow football parent pointed out to me at the half-time café chat at my son's match on Saturday (which unfortunately coincided with part of the Clásico ), it's impossible for any team to sustain such a rhythm and such a high standard over an entire season. In purely human terms, there has to be a bajón (drop), as the Spanish call it, in the dynamic of any team's playing patterns, and Barcelona simply peaked early. They peaked to such an extent that they left all rivals trailing in their wake, with a record-breaking run that defied most journalists' adjectival repertoires, but now they're feeling the inevitable pinch - not helped by the absence of their manager and some unfortunate behaviour on the part of some of their players, lending a lie to Xavi's famously catty remark last season that his team 'know how to lose'. No Spanish team knows how to lose. It's part of the country's mind-set. Xavi's mistake was in his suggestion that Barcelona were above all that.
They certainly had cause for complaint at the end of the game at the Bernabeu, but it was rather amusing that the player furthest from the incident, Victor Valdes, was the one who decided to accuse the referee of short-sightedness, or, as he told the official several times to his face, "no tienes vergüenza" ("you have no shame") - a phrase of which the Spanish are particularly fond and one which illustrates the quaintly conservative sub-stratum of its society, despite the usual surface noise. Valdes' extraordinary rant, which earned him a post-whistle red card that will probably see Mr Pinto between the sticks for the next five games, contained not a single swear word, with the whole text lovingly deciphered by Marca TV's team of lip-readers and played throughout Sunday in a sort of non-stop cacophony of schadenfreude - as if it were proof not only of Barcelona's loss of form but also of their loss of dignity.
This was true to some extent, but hey, it was a penalty. Sergio Ramos clearly catches Adriano on the knee, and if it wasn't a penalty then Perez Lasa was obliged to book the Barcelona player for diving. It was poor refereeing, and will only contribute to this season's theory (yawn) that the refs are back on Madrid's side. Jose Mourinho was looking fairly amused by it all, as well he might. He'll figure that it's somebody else's turn to take the rap. If his team can pull off a favourable result in Manchester on Tuesday night, you just never know. The chant at the Bernabeu might turn to "Mourinho quedate!" ("Mourinho stay!"). He won't, of course, but whatever happens for the rest of this season, he will at least be able to say that in the end, he turned the Barcelona problem around, and released Real Madrid from the depths of their own azulgrana-induced psychosis.
The statistics are becoming of interest. In five days, Barcelona have lost as many times to Madrid as they did in the entire Pep period, a record which consisted of nine wins, four draws and two defeats. This season has actually seen six Clásicos in three different competitions, and Barcelona have only beaten Madrid once. The last time Madrid won two on the trot was back in Bernd Schuster's time, in the 2007-2008 season. Mourinho's period at the helm will most likely still conclude in negative figures for him, since we must assume that this was his last Clásico (barring a possible Champions League pairing), meaning that his 17 games here against his former employers pan out as five wins, six draws and six defeats. Whether he's happy with that I don't know. You'd have to ask him. But Barcelona will want to forget this week. The psychological damage that it has inflicted will only be measurable in terms of how they perform against Milan, not against poor Deportivo - although the struggling Galicians might well help to boost their confidence.
Whatever, I don't personally buy into the theory that the Catalans are on a downward slide. They haven't forgotten how to play overnight. I wouldn't count them out of the Champions League just yet, and for all the talk of Messi's loss of form, he still managed to score at the Bernabeu, equalling in the act the far from insignificant record held by Alfredo di Stéfano for the record number of Clásico goals scored over an entire career (18). You get the distinct feeling that he will add a few more before he retires.
After the obvious Clásico musings, Betis are worthy of mention for several reasons. I just saw them play out a wonderful 3-3 draw with Real Sociedad in Anoeta, and you could see why both sides are beginning to believe in their possibilities for a Champions League berth next season. Betis went 2-0 up just after the break to a daft goal, and although they were refreshingly attack-minded for parts of the first half they could have been 3-0 down quite easily by the time they managed to score on an isolated break. Sociedad turned around the 2-0 deficit in the space of ten minutes to lead 3-2, only to concede again to an excellent goal by Dorlan Pabon, and the match was a great advertisement for the 'other league' below the big two or three. And although I might be accused of a lack of objectivity, I think that Real Sociedad are currently playing the best football in the whole of La Liga. Some of their attacking play is quite stunning at the moment, and they always look as though they can score a hatful.
Betis too played their part, and after looking a bit on the lucky side at the start of the season it's now clear why they are doing well. Like Sociedad, they have speedy and intelligent attackers who go for the throat as soon as an opportunity presents itself. Jorge Molina and Ruben Castro are a handful, Pabon looks an interesting prospect, Joel Campbell is a constant menace and Benat in midfield just wants the ball all the time. They're slightly shakier at the back, but you have to admire their approach. Their manager, Pep Mel, is also admired by the city of San Sebastián, and was applauded onto the pitch. This curious but warming gesture was in return for his statement in Sociedad's defence several weeks ago, when the media was full of (unfounded) rumours about doping at the club a few years ago. Mel was the only manager in the entire top flight to speak out in Sociedad's defence, stating that they were an exemplary club and that the rumours were surely a fabrication.
I'm flying down to Seville on Friday night and should be there just in time for the night match that Betis are playing against Osasuna. I've no problem seeing them twice in six days after such an entertaining match on Sunday, and although I've wandered around the Benito Villamarin before, I've never actually seen a game there. Apparently it's pretty special, so all being well, I'll try to give you the low-down next Monday.