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By ESPN Staff
Dec 24, 2007

White Christmas

It was a foggy old night on the backroads of Kent, in south east England. Along the country lane down which I was driving, the visibility was down to fifty metres. With no street lights, it was tricky to see where I was going, but a glance at the instrument panel told me that the first half was coming to an end; I refer to El Clásico, a game that has rarely been played at this stage of the season, just before the winter break.

The village that loomed up in the distance had three pubs, in one of which I'd been told I might find a screen showing the game on Sky. Sure enough, on entering the pub and being ushered into a backroom by my English mate from Santander, also back in the UK for Christmas, I was greeted by the news that Madrid were winning 1-0, courtesy of a goal by Baptista.

How strange to be watching this game in England. Since moving to Spain eighteen years ago, I think it's the first time that I've watched the game from foreign shores. Stranger still to be the only people in the pub watching. The TV room was tucked away in a far corner, but no-one seemed to be remotely interested. Sky's commentary and presentation were fine, but I wondered how many pubs across England were demonstrating the same lack of interest in watching this game - arguably still Europe's biggest fixture.

I'll assume that we were the exception, because it was a gripping match, nothing like last season's goal-fest but interesting nonetheless in its demonstration of where these two sides stand, at the moment.

The game and the result reflected the opposing states of mind of these two rivals with alacrity, with Barcelona unsure of their approach, their present and their future, and Real Madrid playing to a pre-set game plan which functioned perfectly.

And now the league closes down for a fortnight and Madrid sit pretty at the top, seven points clear - not an unassailable lead, but a substantial one nonetheless, after only seventeen games. At this time last year, Madrid were also being written off, only to stage a remarkable comeback, so all is not over yet for Barça, but there were little signs of life from the home team, and little sign of optimism from their strangely subdued support.

Barça had apparently huffed and puffed in the first half, but Ronaldinho, surprisingly included in the starting line-up, made his main contribution to proceedings by fluffing a clear-cut chance, just minutes before his buddy Baptista scored the winner for the visitors.

After that, Madrid were enormously superior, the first time that one has been able to report that for a long time. They looked solid at the back, with Pepe again dominant, quick to break forward, and efficiently balanced in midfield. Barça looked like a side without a game plan, occasionally threatening through flashes of individual inspiration from Iniesta mainly, but Diarra snuffed out Xavi by harrying him mercilessly, and without Deco there was no-one else to orchestrate.

Schuster had done his homework, and decided to stop Barça from making those lethal connections in which they specialise, between their offensive midfielders and their attacking line. Time and time again their final pass broke down in the face of Madrid's greater work-rate at the back and the vertical speed of their counter-attacks. In truth it could have been 0-3 by the end.

This may prove to be a significant result in the history of Spanish football, for various reasons.

First and foremost, it confirms the shift in power, back from the east coast to the centre. Madrid finally seem to have calmed down and got their act together, and are looking the ruthlessly efficient if not the exciting side that Schuster promised. But they're not merely the pragmatic outfit of last year with a bit of flair thrown in. There's a real steel to the squad now, with interesting alternatives showing up all the time. Take any three from Gago, Guti, Sneijder and Diarra, and you have a decent midfield - not a wholly convincing one, but enough to scare the rest of La Liga.

There's an interesting combination of the combative, the organiser and the inspired, whereas up front the ever-reliable Van Nistelrooy looks comfy with Baptista, Raúl, Robinho or Higuian to play off. Baptista's return to the fold has given Madrid greater physical presence in the upper third of the pitch, which combines nicely with Robinho's more unpredictable fare.

Secondly, Barça seemed curiously subdued, as if they almost accepted their place as second best. Since Rijkaard announced that he was not staying beyond this season, some spark seems to have gone from the side. It didn't help that Messi was injured, but Eto'o, so often the scourge of Madrid, seemed unable to find the space he wanted up front and kept dropping off too deep where he is nowhere near as threatening.

If Madrid retain their title, they will look back to this game as the turning point of this current period, as the confirmation of their return to the top of the tree. For all their pleasure at regaining the title last season, there remained a feeling that Barcelona had thrown it away, as opposed to Madrid winning it.

Now they just look the better side, full-stop. They have got rid of the more problematic elements in their dressing-room, and Raúl, their king of kings, has slotted back into a less spectacular but paternalistic role, chivvying the rest on and lending a hand where necessary.

It has been an unlikely resuscitation, as useful to Madrid as Ronaldinho's behaviour has been destabilising to Barcelona. And most significantly of all perhaps, Madrid's post-galáctico period is bearing fruit, returning the club to its more traditional shape of work-fuelled solidarity, whilst Barcelona, incapable of reading the runes, have fallen foul of exactly the same over-reaching ambition that so sullied the Bernabéu, in the end.

The egos have taken over the Camp Nou, and although the squad is bursting with an unfeasible amount of talent, something is awry at the heart of proceedings. It might have taken this game to show Laporta that he needs to take out the broom. There's still time to turn the season around, but not too much.

After the big game, the second live match featured Athletic Bilbao and Murcia, a game that ended 1-1 but which was more significant for the amount of names the commentator managed to mispronounce than for the football itself. Exteberría gives English commentators nightmares, if not opposing defences these days. Murcia deserved to win, and can begin their Christmas break with some satisfaction.

As we watched the game, a chap from the huddle at the bar walked past and stopped to watch the screen, on his way to the toilet. 'Who's that, Sunderland?' he asked. I explained that it was Bilbao. 'They got their colours from Sunderland though' the man assured me, which was in fact correct. Even in a fog-bound Kentish village, trivia reigns supreme, and knowledge of La Liga is spreading.

'Did Madrid win?' he then asked. When I told him they had, he remarked 'It's all over then, bar the shouting'. I'm not so sure about that, but Barcelona will be hoping that the new year can bring them some fresh ideas and better vibrations, or the gentleman's statement may not be far off the mark.


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