Real Madrid won the Copa del Rey with a goal that will be as unforgettable as Cristiano’s in 2011. The difference is that a single photo can’t capture it. It’ll have to be a video that shows how Bale ran from the half-way line, avoided Bartra by taking his run alongside the Barcelona bench and outside the pitch, to return, get back the advantage he’d lost and then slide a shot through the legs of the keeper. Just now and for a few days don’t be surprised if you dream of centaurs.
That was the 84th minute, but the final had had great moments before that, when Bartra levelled the match with a header (67’), an unexpected equaliser, unrelated to what was going on. Football is unfathomable. The child-defender rescued Barcelona through pure resistance to defeat, something none of his veteran teammates had shown. First of all he’d burnt Casillas’ gloves with a stinging shot. Then he beat him with an excellent header. He’s no memories and no complexes. Excuse us if we’ve judged him for his baby face, we’ll never ask him again to grow a moustache (though it wouldn’t go amiss).
Bartra saved Barcelona’s dignity, and they could have forced extra-time in the last minute. But Neymar tripped up on the post. Wait, allow me to correct that, he tripped up on Casillas. In that last piece of play Iker once again showed he’s charmed. Even the keeper admitted his good fortune, having trapped the ball he went back and thanked the post with a friendly tap.
It’s easy to say so now, but Madrid always had a clearer plan. It’s a team on the go, anxious for glory, everything to win, the new kid on the block. Barça, on the other hand, are galloping backwards, in the sunset, dignified, but tired. They still have talent, that never fully goes, but they’ve lost their joy. The advantage of being together for so long has turned into an inconvenience. It’s as if the team is suffering the seven year itch marriages go through, when the partners know the end of every joke. They’ve seen each other so much, they barely recognise each other. No better example than Messi, a shadow during the final. Almost an imposter.
It’s not so strange. With Barça we’ve gone beyond the happy ending of love stories. We’ve seen what happens after the kiss, or in these terms, 16 trophies. The reality is crude: persisting is the end of it. If the protagonist of the Titanic hadn’t ended up frozen in the cold water he’d have finished up like Homer Simpson, fat and divorced from the adorable old lady. There’s nothing nice about drawing back the curtain.
After six minutes, Madrid had had two chances at goal, both from Bale. Two counterattacks, naturally. The first, a diagonal shot, went wide, with more effort than placement. In the second, his shot was blocked by Mascherano.
Pretty soon Madrid had scored, and they did it in style, because they scored and left a notch on Barcelona’s post: that’s where the phrase “to mark”, to score, comes from, because back in pre-history when there was no scoreboard, they scored the post. It was a splendid counter-attack, impossible to advance so far with so few touches: Isco, Benzema and Bale. Di María, finally, beat Pinto with an obviously scuffed shot that was eminently stoppable.
Madrid sat back and cultivated the counter-attacks like someone who cultivates bonsais. With lots of care and attention. At the same time, they gave away space and ball. What might have been a terrible risk in other times was barely an inconvenience tonight. Although Ancelotti doesn’t practice it, the defence has a shiny Italian polish to it. Di María’s stuff is well known. He’s a good footballer who loves running, something as strange as a leading lady who likes cooking.
Barcelona, in spite of their ailments, didn’t wait to attack Madrid’s goal. They held the ball and dominated the possession. They got up regularly to the front of the box, unrolled the map and tried to find the route through, always guided by Iniesta. They found them down both wings. The problem was that they were playing for a centre-forward they didn’t have, because they decided one day it wasn’t necessary, or because they put Messi off; someone believed the happiness would last for ever. The fact is that Alba, Neymar and Alves tried to head home, always from a position of inferiority, the crosses that flew in from the wings. There was something heroic in the endeavour, but also something pathetic.
Madrid were always closer to scoring and the goal was always closer to Bale. He hit the post, brushed the crossbar and had one crossed off by Mateu, who elegantly favourited the home side, if we treat Barça as such, coming as they do from closer.
Bartra’s goal we’ve mentioned: football and youth, a marvellous combination. Barça’s history deserved it. The ending though followed the merits of the game. Madrid had done more and nobody had pushed harder than Bale, a thoroughbred who’ll run even faster after today, because any remaining weight has been lifted from his shoulders.