By Sam Lee
We said it could be a game that defines a footballing generation, and it just might have been. The current Barcelona side have volunteered themselves as one of the best ever to pull on the famous blue and red shirt, or any shirt for that matter, with a 5-0 victory that needs to be seen to be believed.
It was a night where everything went right for Barca. Nobody had a bad game, in fact, most players played at a level that most others could scarcely imagine. Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi pulled the strings as Madrid were ruthlessly swept aside with a deadly precision. Pedro and David Villa got themselves goals and tormented the usually impressive Sergio Ramos and Marcelo, while Sergio Busquets was imperious in his deep-lying role and Carles Puyol followed Ronaldo around like Mary’s little lamb, only he was nowhere near as soft and cuddly.
Jose Mourinho, famed for his tactical nous and ability to set up an impervious defensive unit, played an ambitious line-up that looked a mistake almost immediately. Many expected a tight, cagey game that would give Madrid every chance of getting a result, but it was the polar opposite.
Mourinho may have had too much faith in his side. After all, this was a team that was top of the league after breaking all sorts of records, they were joint top scorers, they had the tightest defense. Note the past tense.
If everything went right for Barca, everything went wrong for Madrid. The same side who had torn apart so many teams so far this season were utterly nullified barring a 10-minute spell before half time, with the score already at 2-0. Spanish papers had rumoured in the build up to the game that Mesut Ozil may be dropped in favour of the more defensive-minded Lassana Diarra. He wasn’t, but he probably should have been. Mourinho recognised his mistake and made the change at half time after Ozil had barely had a kick, mired in the swamp of Barcelona’s World Cup winners.
His team-mates didn’t fare much better. Angel Di Maria’s impact was limited; even his corners failed to beat the first man. Xabi Alonso failed to complete half of his passes, his uncharacteristic display did nothing to settle partner Sami Khedira as the game passed him by. Karim Benzema, brought in to replace the injured Gonzalo Higuain, barely had a sniff and Cristiano Ronaldo, while undoubtedly Madrid’s most threatening attacking outlet, was restricted to long-range efforts in the first half, and absolutely nothing in the second.
It was billed as Messi versus Ronaldo, the two best players in world football. If there was any doubt who is the better player, there can no longer be any. Messi may not have scored, but he made Madrid dance to his tune and decided the game with pin-point through balls to Villa. But even he was overshadowed by the magnificent team performance, and, many would argue, Xavi, without whom there may not have been one. Aside from opening the scoring, he dictated Barca’s tempo and rhythm as he so often does, and he ensured his team-mates were with him.
Usually reserved for the end of games when a win is assured, the cries of ‘ole!’ from the crowd could be heard from start to finish. 17 minutes into the match Barca effortlessly played the ball around their opponents accompanied by the familiar cheer from the stands. 60 seconds and 21 consecutive passes later, Pedro had turned home Villa’s cross at the far post to double their lead. A brilliant goal that was made to look unnervingly easy.
It was a performance of utter perfection from Barcelona, and it could have led to far more than the five goals. After a quick-fire Villa double made it 4-0, they played the ball around Madrid with ease. Mourinho knew the game was up long before.
“When they scored the third, the game was over. I knew we had no chance. We felt impotent,” he said after the game. The coach, who is accustomed to coming out fighting after a defeat, spoke frankly and honestly afterwards, a sign in itself that this was a Barcelona performance to behold.
“But it is not difficult for me to swallow. What’s difficult to swallow is when you lose a game because you have hit the post or the referee has been bad. I have left here in that state before with Chelsea and Inter Milan but that was not the case tonight. It is easy for me to take because it is fair.”
After the worst defeat in his managerial career (no team had previously scored more than three goals past one of his sides, let alone five), he also admitted his Madrid’s shortcomings.
“We played very, very badly and they were fantastic. We gifted them two goals that were bordering on the ridiculous. It is our own fault.”
If Mourinho was calm, his players weren’t. The frustration grew with every flick and first-time pass and indiscipline quickly set in. Ronaldo shoved Pep Guardiola on the touchline, admittedly after the Barca coach failed to give him the ball, while eight Madrid players were booked. In the dying seconds, after Jeffren had turned home Bojan’s cross for 5-0, Sergio Ramos kicked out at Lionel Messi just as Diarra launched a lunge of his own. The wild tackles sparked a 22-man brawl, in which Ramos continued his rampage by shoving Puyol to the ground and performing a sort of one-inch punch on Xavi’s face as the midfielder, who had already been substituted, remonstrated with any white-shirted player in the vicinity. The full back was sent off and became the most dismissed player in the club’s history, despite only being 24 years old and having signed five years ago.
It was a scene of chaos that was so striking because everywhere you looked there were old friends, friends who had lifted the World Cup together just four months ago, shoving, threatening and pushing each other. 10 of the Spain starting line-up that beat Holland in July were all fighting each other. Madness had descended.
Seconds later, the referee, who deserves a special mention for contributing to the quality of the game by allowing it to flow and urging overreacting players to get to their feet, blew the the full time whistle to seal a result that will be remembered and talked about for years, generations even.
With the win, Barcelona have leap-frogged Madrid and now sit two points clear at the top of La Liga, and have essentially sealed the head-to-head aggregate score that will be used if both teams finish the season level on points. Mourinho had said earlier this season that it would be ‘very difficult’ to win the league if teams go to the Nou Camp and roll over. It will be even harder now that his side is one of them.