Messi deals with Madrid yet again as Barcelona look impregnable

first_imgLeo Messi ended the clásico in a state of undress again but it was Real Madrid who had been stripped bare. At the very end of the last Madrid-Barça, Messi stood to the left of the goal at the north end of the Santiago Bernabéu, shirt off and held up for all to see; at the very end of the latest Madrid-Barça, exactly eight months later and a little over eight metres away, he lay on the grass to the right of the goal at the north end of the Santiago Bernabéu, boot off and abandoned, unseen at first. Then, as now, Barcelona had just scored the third, only now he had given it instead of getting it: another visit, another victory, and maybe this time a title too. If then there was hope, ultimately unfulfilled, this time there is expectation. Alarm bells are ringing at Ipurua, but don’t worry: that’s good. A factory siren still greets every goal and they’ve been getting quite a few of them lately. They stuffed four past Girona and finish the year in seventh just three points off a European place. Real Madrid European club football Share on LinkedIn Read more “We’re not running out of gas,” Marcelino insisted, but inside Valencia they know that they need reinforcements this winter. And they knew that even before they were beaten 1-0 by Villarreal, falling to their third defeat in four having been unbeaten until then. The Fiver: the Guardian’s take on the world of football Topics Share on Pinterest Happy Christmas from everyone here. And from Fuenlabrada. Oh, and from Sporting and Oviedo. Much, much better: Happy Christmas from Villarreal and Bacca and Bakambu! It is rather easier to know what to say to this, and it rhymes with “duck cough”. The Atlético Madrid president, Enrique Cerezo, says: “Football should lose feeling.” Share via Email Barcelonacenter_img Share on Twitter A gigantic banner had welcomed the players on to the pitch dreaming of a “White Christmas” but those celebrating it were mostly wearing red and blue. Messi was wearing red and blue and, it was now revealed, white. In the last minute, he ran at Marcelo. The challenge saw him lose his boot but not his balance and, dashing to the line, sports sock exposed, the Brazilian tumbling behind him, he pulled it back for Vidal, slipping to the floor as he went. As Vidal’s shot squirmed under Keylor Navas and over the line, he got up and ran to the scorer, leaping into his arms. Camera shutters clicked and when their pictures were developed handy circles superimposed over his sock showed everyone what they had missed. Ivan Rakitic arrived with the boot and as they broke Sergio Busquets drew near and, grinning, had a word in his ear. Merry Christmas, perhaps? The goal ended the game, and maybe the league. Barcelona had just beaten Madrid 3-0; for the first time in their history they had taken three points at the Bernabéu for a third season in a row, aggregate score 10-2. The most successful year in Real Madrid’s history – their fifth title, the Club World Cup, was briefly offered to supporters before the game – closed with them all but handing back the league they won in May. “It hurts,” Zinedine Zidane said. “But,” he insisted, “Madrid never surrender, no matter what. People can think the league is over but I don’t think so and the opposition coach doesn’t think so either.” Ernesto Valverde didn’t – or he didn’t say so, anyway – yet as Zidane suspected, almost everyone else did and not without reason. High in the north stand, a few hundred Barcelona fans waved and sang “Goodbye to the league, goodbye.” A chant of “Campeones” followed. Elsewhere in the stadium, they streamed for the exits, making their way out into the sunshine in silence. What noise there was came in the form of whistles. Soon Barcelona’s players were boarding planes at Barajas, heading home happy for their holidays. Valverde insisted “we’re not even at halfway yet”, but his team are already winter champions – an honorary ‘title’ handed to the team top at halfway when 19 games have been played and everyone has faced everyone once – and, as Marca’s front page put it, “virtually summer champions too”.“Barcelona have gone,” AS’s cover said. Mundo Deportivo called it “Bestial”, a 14 making up the I and the A to indicate the points gap between the two sides. Sport called them the “future champions”, its front page going for a simple: “Merry Christmas!” Victory also took Barcelona nine points clear of Atlético and 11 points ahead of Valencia, both of whom were beaten this weekend. “It’s difficult,” Marcelo conceded. Sergio Ramos admitted: “We have to be realistic, it’s very complicated.” Even if Madrid win their game in hand – against Leganés in February – and every other game too, Barcelona would still have to lose four times for them to win the league. So far this season, they have not lost one. The last time Barcelona were beaten was the last time they came here. It was the Spanish Super Cup and it was August. Neymar had just gone, and mentally they looked gone too. Gerard Piqué ended that game sitting on the bench verbally “shitting on the bitch” and muttering: “these guys are leading us a dance”; he ended this one heading up the pitch, looking for a goal of his own. That was him forcing the last corner. By then, Barcelona dominated entirely, having slowly taken control as if by stealth, and he felt superior; back in August he had admitted that for the first time in nine years he felt “inferior” to Madrid. Since that night, Barcelona have played 25 games, 17 in the league, and have not lost, a resurrection quietly led by their new manager, who has guided them from crisis to the top of the table, unbeaten at Valencia, Atlético and Madrid, virtual champions at Christmas. Things change fast. “It’s a lesson to us all,” Valverde said, nailing it as he does so often. There was a warning there – “the advantage can be gone in a flash,” he said – and a nod not just to his own team’s turnaround but Madrid’s too, urging caution and respect, a hint of Mr Wolf in his words. If it has happened once, twice, it can happen a third time. Madrid won it all: European and domestic champions for the first time in 59 years, the talk was not just of having finally returned to the summit, winning a second league title in eight years and adding the European Cup, but staying there, a new era all of their own. And now this: the league almost relinquished before the winter’s even out. “You lot have become too used to a good thing; this is sport, you can lose,” Marcelo said, while Ramos insisted that the clásico defeat could not wipe out 2017: “Anyone who thinks this is a failure should look at the stats,” he said. Yet defeat was a damaging one, places had been changed. “Back then people said they were sunk, tomorrow it’s us that will be ‘sunk’,” Zidane said. “There will be hostias,” he added. The hostia is the body of Christ, wafer-thin, the holy host, the consecrated bread, but it has multiple-meaning here, many of them sweary. It’s also a blow, a punch, a beating, a kicking and he was right: the kicking was coming. When Karim Benzema departed he was whistled, one radio commentator declaring playing with him akin to playing with 10, and by then they really were playing with 10 of course after Dani Carvajal’s superb one-handed save from Paulinho. Cristiano Ronaldo swung at his side’s best chance and missed the ball entirely. Sergio Ramos had hit out at Luis Suárez, and while he claimed that “in Catalonia they’ll say I should go to jail, like Carles Puigdemont”, who is not actually in jail but in Belgium, there were complaints from the capital too. And there was criticism of the way Madrid took a step back in the second half, even if Valverde insisted: “I don’t think that was a conscious decision.” By the end most agreed that Navas had been Madrid’s best player. Barcelona won 3-0 and ultimately it could have been much more. “Madrid throw in the towel,” said the cover of AS. “Madrid hand over the league,” ran Marca’s website. The talk before the game was whether Barcelona would give Madrid, the recently crowned world champions, a pasillo, a guard of honour, standing back and applauding them on to the field, letting them pass, as they had done in 2008. In the end, for all the polls and the faux anger and the furious mass debates, they didn’t. In the end, the critics said, it was Madrid who gave Barcelona a pasillo: standing back and letting them go, offering them an avenue through which to pass. “The pasillo was from Madrid,” said AS; “Pasillo for Barcelona,” said Marca. Above all, the hostias were Zidane’s. “That’s football; I accept that,” he said, “I don’t regret anything and I won’t ever change.” This time, he had: his decision to leave out Isco, arguably their best player in 2017, and play Mateo Kovacic instead, was at the heart of the analyses and the attacks. “Zidane confuses Madrid,” wrote Javier Sillés in AS. “Zidane hands Barcelona a pasillo,” said El Mundo. The cover of Marca sent him to the naughty step – the “thinking corner”, as it’s called in Spain, where he was told to contemplate what he had done. What he had done is employ Kovacic in a specific role with a dual function designed to stop Barcelona playing. A loose element, separate from the structure of the rest of the midfield, his job was to press Sergio Busquets, preventing Barcelona from bringing the ball out, and also then drop in and pick up Leo Messi – like a double man-marking job, one after the other and one ahead of the other. As the game progressed, and the balance tilted, as Barcelona edged their way up the pitch, the focus became more Messi than Busquets. By the time the second half began, the shift seemed definitive. And when the opening goal came, on 54 minutes, the idea was exposed as if the whole plan was portrayed in one picture, that single moment, flaws and folly laid bare. When Barcelona got the second 10 minutes later, Carvajal sent off just as Zidane was about to send Bale and Asensio on, Messi smashing in the penalty, bowing, blowing a kiss, and standing before the north end, arms outstretched, it was over. Then, eventually, Vidal rounded it off. But it had begun with Busquets, though. And with Kovacic. A drag-back, a Cruyff turn, and Busquets eased away from Toni Kroos, pulse barely registering. Unusually, Casemiro was ahead of the ball (normally he is behind it), knowing that Kovacic was behind him. Here came the ball out from the back that Madrid feared, the exit that exposed them. That left the other element that concerned them: Messi. Busquets cut out Luka Modric with the kind of pass with which Modric cuts out others, sending Rakitic running through the middle. Others ran too, Piqué included, too many of Madrid’s players not included. Kovacic was the only one in Rakitic’s path but instead of stepping towards him, he moved towards Messi, heading away from the ball, so the Croatian went on alone and unattended, almost unable to believe it. He reached the edge of the area and played the ball to Sergi Roberto who, first time, threaded it across to where Luis Suárez was arriving and he hit it under Navas. And there it was: the pasillo they talked about, provided by Zidane and Kovacic. Which meant that there, too, were hostias. It was easy. It might also have been a little unfair. For much of the first half, the plan had worked. Certainly, the clásico did not entirely delegitimise it. Nor, though, did it entirely legitimise it. In the opening 45 minutes, Madrid had more of the possession, created a couple of decent chances – Ronaldo missed one entirely, Marc-André Ter Stegen saved another with his foot and Benzema hit the post – and largely denied Barcelona a way out. Equally, while the heart of the media analyses was Messi – perhaps limited by the perspective offered by TV? – it was more when the focus tilted towards him and away from Busquets that flaws in Madrid’s gameplan were exposed, although given the energy needed to execute it, perhaps that was always likely to be the way. And to start with, it had the desired effect. “We found it difficult to find a way out; they went virtually man to man on us and we were forced to go long,” Valverde admitted. The thing is, that’s something his team’s prepared to do; they’re also prepared to risk playing through pressure, the reward for which is increasingly a player in possession, pitch ahead of him. Sometimes, it is just a case of having the patience to wait for that moment. Resistance is a quality Barcelona have developed, discipline too. Compact, organised, even in the first half the best two chances were perhaps theirs – both for Paulinho – and slowly they took control. By the second half, that control was complete. If they have not always convinced this season, here they did, possession theirs, opportunities too. By the end it was 3-0 and not just against any team, against Real Madrid – without Neymar, without Dembele, without Coutinho and without Samuel Umtiti too.Go through the team and it is impossible to find a player who didn’t play well. Iniesta glided, described as the Mona Lisa in El País; Vermaelen quietly did everything right; no one went past Piqué and no one was fouled by Piqué, either; Alba occupied a wing alone, again, and sent a backheel through Modric’s legs; Ter Stegen stood tall and strong; every decision Sergi Roberto takes is the correct one, executed cleanly and quickly; Suárez scored one and provided a wonderful pass that should have led to another; Paulinho has something no one else does, “surprise” according to Valverde. He meant on the pitch, but there are plenty off it surprised too. And Busquets’s cool clip over Carvajal might even be better than his part in the opening goal, the perfect illustration of how inviting pressure is not as suicidal as it can seem. When it comes to breaking the press, no one does it better and when Busquets plays, Barcelona play. There’s a reason Zidane wanted to stop him. There’s a reason, above all, why he wanted to stop Messi playing, even to the point of sacrificing his most creative player: he is very, very good at football and just about every part of football. The plan might not have worked, but that’s not to say the idea was necessarily wrong; certainly not to say it was impossible to understand. In the aftermath of the clásico, the day that Barcelona took a huge step towards another league title – their ninth in the 13 years since Messi has been a starter – much of the criticism focussed on the idea that Zidane was afraid of Messi. And there may be something in that, but there is also an obvious response: “Well, yeah. Wouldn’t you be?”In their match report, AS made the baffling claim that Barcelona “didn’t need Messi to beat Madrid”. Given what Zidane did, that would be wrong even if Messi had done nothing all game, just his presence conditioning the clásico, but Messi didn’t do nothing. In fact, he did pretty much everything. Watching it back, the variety and sheer number of things he does is extraordinary. Even in the first half an hour or so, when space was denied and Madrid’s plan appeared to be working, even when a case could be made for suggesting that he was under control and Modric was arguably the man who most impressed, Messi provided the two best chances for Paulinho, the first from an absurdly good pass. And then, step by step, he took to the stage, until there he was standing at the north end of the stadium with his team-mates, victorious again. The stats bear out the sensations, even though they can’t explain everything, even though they can’t measure the timing, the decision-making, the control, the effect on all those around him. According to Who Scored, Messi had 81 touches, more than any Madrid player and second only to Busquets; he completed six dribbles, three times more than all the Madrid players put together, and played more passes than any Madrid player except Modric, completing 88% of them. He made three tackles; only Toni Kroos and Busquets made more. He made nine key passes, more than twice as many as any other player, and created more chances than anyone had made in any game this season. Against Real Madrid. At the Bernabéu. On the day they man-marked him. Which is why even when Messi didn’t do anything, he was decisive. The breakthrough came when Barcelona, for once, didn’t look for him – because Madrid did. And while it would be a push to credit him for that, there’s something in it. Then he scored the penalty to make it 2-0. Sure, it’s only a penalty but that’s his 54th goal in 2017 (only Harry Kane, one behind, can catch him now) and the man who scored a clásico hat-trick at 19 has got more goals in this fixture than anyone else. Besides, Messi’s passes made the penalty in the first place. Look, too, at the other chances made, the quality not just the quantity of his delivery, his vision: no easy through ball into space, simple cut back, or set-play swung into the box here; these are something else. His pass to Paulinho is fantastic, that Messi ball which one opposition manager admitted they all know is coming but don’t know when and can’t stop it. The pass to Andre Gomes leaves him clean through but he hits it over. The pass to Semedo is wonderful, but Navas saves. And the pass to Suárez is brilliant, but eventually, via another pass, Carvajal saves.And, then, at the end of it all, when the ball was about to go out – maybe it does? – and the clock was ticking down on the last clásico of 2017, Leo Messi sprinted across, slid in to stop it, turned, ran behind Asensio, received the pass, dashed beyond Marcelo and found Vidal for the third goal, leaving his boot behind and leaving Real Madrid behind too. Results and Talking PointsLevante 0-0 Leganés Getafe 2-0 Las Palmas Real Sociedad 3-1 Sevilla Eibar 4-1 Girona Alavés 1-0 Málaga Betis 0-2 Athletic Espanyol 1-0 Atlético Madrid 0-3 Barcelona Valencia 0-1 Villarreal Deportivo 1-3 Celta Alavés are out of the relegation zone! Which is why it was a bit weird to see Munir apologising when he scored the goal that lifted them up to 17th, but he wanted to say sorry for making them suffer with all the chances he had missed before. When he eventually volleyed in the winner in a huge match against Málaga, they didn’t care any more. That’s three wins out of four under new manager Abelardo – and the one they didn’t win was a 1-0 defeat at the Wanda. blogposts Share on Messenger And what a way to go. Adiós, Carlos Vela, the foreign player who has made the second most appearances in the club’s history and who scored on his last game for Real Sociedad. Share on Facebook Before the Galician derby, Luisinho claimed that Deportivo de La Coruña were the “big team” in the region, given their history. Meanwhile, Celta’s captain is Hugo Mallo, a local boy and a man who has a bit of form when it comes to winding up Depor. So when Celta won 3-1, with two of the goals scored by his best mate Iago Aspas, it was no surprise that he gave some back. “Someone should tell Luisinho that you don’t talk in the press, you talk on the pitch,” he said. “It’s true that Deportivo were big but if they still were now Luisinho wouldn’t be playing for them.” As for Aspas, who has scored more goals in 2017 than anyone else in Spain except Messi and Suárez, the first in the derby celebrated by standing still before the Depor fans, soaking it all up with his hand on the Celta badge, the second a belting free-kick, he could not resist having a go too: “I don’t know if he has been hiding in a coffin for the last four years because there have been eight derbies and Depor only won one.” Luisinho responded: “It’s easy to talk now. You can see what cowards their players are. Deportivo is the best team in Galicia, a big team in Spain and what I said is no lie. I know it annoys them, but that’s a fact. A few days after he returned from prostate cancer surgery and even fewer days before Christmas, Sevilla sacked Eduardo Berizzo. And, well, it’s not easy to know what to say to that really. Share on WhatsApp Six years under Simeone, and Atlético are better than ever. That’s what the stats say about 2017, anyway. And yet they’re out of the Champions League of course – and on Friday night Atlético were atlético’d, caught by a late winner at Espanyol, scored by Sergio García. Who’s still around, and still got something, that’s for sure. La Liga Reuse this contentlast_img

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