Madrid are on the bonfire. With their new sporting project handed over to a supposedly renaissance-style coach who was supposed to bring the side into modernity, they were battered by a Barcelona team who were better from top to bottom. It was a thrashing of the level of those other historic victories that, every so often, are pulled out of the video library at the Camp Nou when Barça need to reaffirm their faith in themselves or raise their spirits. Madrid, with a politically inspired line-up that was unfair to Carvajal and Isco, at the very least, had no plan, no footballers and were abandoned by their leading stars and, finally, by the public, who also raged against the president, ultimately responsible for the collapse. In the white hankies there were tears of impotence and grief. It was a structural, heartrending defeat, and one that will have consequences, opening up a breach of as yet unknown dimensions that goes far beyond the league table.
This Madrid side, that often confuses balance with chloroform, has lost its predatory instinct. It’s no longer in their DNA. Thus, the initial all-out assault, with high pressure and the aim of stealing the ball and the wits of Barcelona, pegging them back, lasted all of five minutes. Madrid’s desire to ferociously seek out their rivals, as quickly as possible, appeared to be less a plan and more of a wild occurrence. Once the initial storm was over, Barcelona shut down a Madrid side made up of players who were pleasing to the fans and the presidential box, but maybe less so to the coach.
First of all Madrid lost the ball, then they shrank back against a Barça who were ‘bartoling’ (‘bartolear’ in Spanish, a verb used by Di Stéfano to explain how you could lounge about on the ball), then they lost sight of Sergi Roberto, whose movement went unwatched, and finally they ended up in the abyss, against a well-drilled rival, who bossed them in terms of pace, precision, chances and goals.
From back to front, Madrid ended up offering nothing, hastening towards the ridiculous. With no Casemiro acting as sheriff, Modric and Kroos couldn’t stop their adversaries, who were dominating the midfield, nor were the pair able to lay the foundations of anything going forward. Ramos was unable to read Sergi Roberto’s manoeuvre for the first goal that left Varane facing two, before Suárez, a striker of volcanic origin, showed no mercy with the outside of his foot. The Madrid captain was struggling, overwhelmed by Barcelona’s pressure, and he went in recklessly for more than one challenge. Varane wasn’t able to calm things down and Marcelo was left bewildered by the comings and goings of Sergi Roberto, who Luis Enrique had entrusted with a starting spot, correctly as was proved. Madrid’s disappointment was most audibly heard over Danilo, emblem of the new era which has yet to win over the fans.
And so Madrid struggled, while Barcelona drove a wedge between them and their fans, and their attack. James was saved by effort but was lacking in precision, Cristiano is still suffering the toxic effects of the change of position from which he’s yet to recover and Benzema and Bale wandered around in limbo. The Welshman, who was going to be a refined player, is deteriorating at a rapid rate, with no fire, no enthusiasm, no position, no soul. And Benzema, who suffered injury, interrogation and threats of exclusion from the national side in the past week, returned with that absent air that so enrages the Bernabéu. Benítez has asked him for 25 goals, but first he needs to get his head right.
On the other side of the world, facing a sleep-walking Madrid, Barça went along making the most of their advantage. “Messi is overrated”, joked a Barça fan. And the fact is it was Busquets, the player Del Bosque would have wanted to be and now Luis Enrique, who controlled the show; Iniesta created the play, both short and long; Dani Alves was back to the good times and Suárez and Neymar were what was expected of them. With team moves they reduced Madrid to rubble and scored two goals, the second with Neymar in an offside position “by two centimetres” as Guardiola would say, and with Navas not at his finest. Just before the break Marcelo cleared a Suárez shot off the line and the Bernabéu was a bonfire, with shouts of “Florentino resign” and a major pañolado, a hankie-waving. The fans felt they were on the edge of another Waterloo, of the scale of the 0-5 or the 2-6.
The crisis cabinet in the dressing room fixed little. Benítez didn’t change his side and the second half’s opening push, with venomous shots from Marcelo and James with no reward, was followed by a work of art from Iniesta and Neymar which made it 0-3, with a run and brutal shot from Iniesta set-up by a back-heel from the Brazilian. At this point Messi joined the party and Isco the funeral. The Madrid player was applauded by the fans, but it seemed less an act of faith in him and more a punishment for Benítez. Borbalán missed a penalty from Ramos on Suárez and another for a Piqué handball. The style of the game changed, but not its direction. In a crazy exchange of blows, Barcelona were also the better side, going from thrust to thrust without losing the ball and enjoying themselves as they danced before a Madrid side that were beaten, captive, disarmed and desolate. Cristiano added to his slump, missing in a one-on-one against Bravo and with a direct header and Suárez topped off Real’s disaster with a neat chip against Navas with Messi already simply enjoying himself. Isco’s almighty kick at Neymar which got him a red card made the diagnosis even worse. Luis Enrique couldn’t believe it when Munir missed an easy chance for the fifth. He could see himself at Cruyff’s level. Barça left with a six-point advantage, but to Madrid it looks like they are on Mars.