The El Clasico football game between Real Madrid and Barcelona is, by common consent, one of the most exciting and passionate sporting events in the world; however, the title of this piece is a cliché, and not only that but one of the most obvious and casually over-utilized ones in the armory of stock phrases used by football sports writers. Football often refers to itself as “the beautiful game”. However, the sobriquet is only really used by people within football and is only a subjective opinion. After watching the most recent El Clasico confrontation in The Local, this writer believes a strong case was made for that hyperbolic statement.
The game was beautiful.
The Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid is synonymous with glory. To play there at all is an achievement, to feature in a game like El Clasico is an undeniably glorious thing to do. Finish on the winning side and you are automatically entitled to trail clouds of the stuff.
Many sports stadiums in the world call themselves the “venue of legends” or the “theatre of dreams” and they trade on the myth that we are only too willing to swallow, even though we know that reality does not always match up to our expectations. The Santiago Bernabeu can certainly make a claim to be one of the most exciting sports venues in the world. Similar to many other sporting venues there are dull games as well as exciting ones, humdrum games as well as scintillating ones, and any number of occasions where the magnitude of the event manifests itself negatively in a pragmatic approach to winning or a constraining fear of losing.
We all have a loose approximation of the ingredients our ideal game should contain -two good teams for a start, a close game and a plot with so many twists and turns; even Sherlock Holmes would find himself confused; heap on top, liberal helpings of bravado and panache; the deserving winners just shading the unlucky losers by virtue of producing spectacular scores at crucial moments; these scores to be audacious in their inception or breathtaking in their execution; preferably both, so we can mentally re-live them for years to come; however, this agenda owes more to school- yard fiction and a viewing through idealistic eyes than to real life. Part of the attraction of watching a great sporting event is the excuse it allows us for childlike optimism, but most grown-ups realize that some games can rarely live up to such expectations.
This year’s El Clasico between Real Madrid and Barcelona did. It was sensational from start to finish, arguably the best of all time, certainly the most memorable in this writers lifetime. Previous El Clasico games have made strong claims to be better, some may have produced more goals and some may have had more controversial moments but they have also contained a high number of basic mistakes. No such thing in the recent encounter.
What a scrap this was, a toe to toe heavyweight hammerfest of such commitment that to turn away, even fleetingly, was to miss something astonishing. Boasting four goals of such subliminal quality, the action spun, fizzled and sizzled; an endless roller-coaster of action and emotion. To sit in The Local recently during the most recent El Clasico was to experience and observe the entire range of sporting emotions.
The quality of football was something to behold. Some of the passes were delivered with such jaw-dropping precision; they render any further descriptive words superfluous. However, here goes. One cross-field pass in particular from Marcelo was so sharp you could shave with it. And it was delivered from fully 50 yards distance, bounced once, before arriving at the cultured left foot of Cristiano Renaldo; the Portuguese striker did not break stride while bringing the ball under control. Some passes were threaded through the defensive screens with such precision they would leave a Yale mathematician, skilled in the art of triangles and trigonometry, struggling to work out all the angles. One notable pass from Alcacer, cut out Lionel Messi, found Rakitic and was so sumptuous in its quality that it unfolded like a red carpet from one side of the field to the other.
Anybody who missed the game can be forgiven for assuming that both teams had left their goal keepers at home. Far from it! Both men had outstanding games. “Barca’s” Marc-Andre ter Stegen and Real’s Keylor Navas made a series of fine saves to keep the score down. Ter Stegen was equal to efforts from Ronaldo and Karim Benzema in the first half, before Paco Alcacer, Gerard Pique and Luis Suarez were all denied by Navas after the break. Ter Stegen made 12 saves in total, and he was on the winning team, the most by a Barcelona keeper in La Liga since the 2003-04 season, but had little chance with either Casemiro’s opener or Rodriguez’s late leveler.
Barcelona won the laurels with a 3-2 victory. However, there was much, much more to it than that. The Catalonians blew the title race wide open with this stunning victory and the identity of the match- winner was no surprise whatsoever; Lionel Messi.
Casemiro scored first for the hosts before Messi and Ivan Rakitic put Barcelona in front and Sergio Ramos was shown a red card for a wild lunge. Substitute James Rodriguez thought he had earned Madrid a point late on. But Messi, who scored his first with a superb scything run and finish, fired in from the edge of the area to win it for Barcelona. Both Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo had earlier missed good opportunities to give their sides the lead, with the Argentinian international poking wide of an open goal before the break and the Real Madrid forward slicing over in the second half. Real – who have a game in hand on Barcelona – also felt they should have had a penalty when Ronaldo was clipped by Samuel Umtiti after only two minutes.
Down to 10 men after Ramos’ sending off and having pulled level with five minutes to spare, Real Madrid looked intent on a winner that would have effectively put the title beyond Barcelona. That left the space for the visitors to break away and score themselves. It was Messi who had the final word in the proceedings.
The Argentine ace netted twice, including the winner with just 12 seconds of stoppage time remaining, to allow his team to leapfrog the hosts at the top of the table – even though the title is still under Real’s control at the time of writing because they have a game in hand. It wasn’t just Messi’s goals which made this a special performance, because he was more or less unstoppable all night.
In fact, the only way that Real Madrid could stop him was by fouling him, with Sergio Ramos earning a straight red card for a wild two-footed lunge while Casemiro was a little lucky to escape dismissal for repeated fouls and Mateo Kovacic also earned a yellow card for fouling the Argentine.
Despite forcing his opponents into such desperate measures, Messi still managed six shots on goal, four of which were on target – more than any other player. He also embarked upon seven dribbles, again higher than anyone else, and his 72 touches of the ball were more than any Real player (Dani Carvajal had 71).
Messi’s final act was a goal of such stunning quality as to leave this writer, and many other witnesses, speechless. The cross came to him about 16 yards from the goal, he had already changed the angle and speed of his run twice to create the space he needed; the left foot strike was so clinical and precise as to have a heart surgeon gasping. It was noticeable that Messi never looked at the goal, or the opposition, when he struck the ball. He just knew where it was going. The player was given a yellow card in those dying seconds for removing his shirt during the scoring celebrations; the only surprising aspect about that event was the absence of a red cape and a large S on his chest.
Messi’s dramatic late strike at the Bernabeu was not only a special moment because it was a Clasico match-winner, it also marked his 500th senior goal in Barcelona colours – and helped reassert his status as the world’s best. He has reached that figure in just 577 games, and amazingly he has been going along at a rate of more than a goal per game. Is Messi best player ever to have played the game? There is a very strong argument to be made in that direction.
Yes! It was a beautiful game.