Friday, December 16, 2011

A classic Clásico: Luck or talent?

At the end, when Fernández Borbolán blew the final whistle, things were put right again. Or so we told ourselves, hoarse and happy, the victors of another Clásico. There were no Madrid fans waiting to challenge Barça’s win as a scandalous refereeing debacle or indictment of the entire European footballing system. In fact, there was no one, at least no one in the bar this writer was in, who even suggested that the match was anything other than a wonderful display and a just scoreline.
And it was certainly both. Yes Madrid had clear chances, but scuffed their lines. Barça too scuffed some lines, however, and then rode its talent to the finish line while Madrid seemed to collapse in slow motion as the exertion of their first 70 minutes took its toll. The winner was the correct one on the night and now the league is fully in play again, with Barça provisionally top. The prevailing mood, however, suggests that Barça will overcome a three point deficit when the squad returns from the FIFA Club World Cup in Japan.
There is nothing assured in this world and cules would be wise to remember there are still 66 points in play over the coming months, but they should also rejoice in the beauty and effectiveness of this “Pep Team,” of this wonderful generation of players that is making such an impact on a global level. 1-3 may not have the resonance of 5-0 or even 2-6, but the impact of this latest result may turn out to be as important to the leagues in which those other, more famous, scorelines took place.
What’s more, whatever Mourinho has to say on the matter, luck had little to do with it. He’s right that there is always a bit of luck in sports, but Dani Alves is certainly correct when he stated in a press conference that “We beat them because we were better.” The statistics suggest as much, if that’s your preferred method of understanding games: 62% possession, 7 shots on target to 5, only 13 fouls committed to Madrid’s 22. To speak of luck would entice most sane humans to point out Benzema’s goal involved a good deal of “luck” as well.
It wasn’t all one-sided. There was danger, of course, and at 1-0, Cristiano Ronaldo had the chance to put the merengues up two. Yet only minutes after Karim Benzema’s goal, Iker Casillas had put out a hand and deflected a sure Lionel Messi goal at the very last instant. That had, of course, come from a slip in defence by Sergio Ramos, so it would have been a “lucky” goal anyway. The miss of the match and easily Madrid’s best manufactured chance was Ronaldo’s headed effort that went wide of the goal when it should have easily beaten Valdes. Only a couple of minutes later, Fabregas scored Barça’s third and then Xavi, the author of the second goal through a wicked deflection off Marcelo, missed an open header that should have made it 4.
That’s the thing: most teams miss chances over the course of a match. Efficiency is often key to winning big matches and failing to convert your chances can see you caught in the end. Just ask Chelsea in 2009. Yet class can also tell and it did on Saturday night. Barcelona started a somewhat predictable line-up and despite slipping into a deficit within 30 seconds of the kickoff, was able to wrest control of the match. Quickly enough, everything seemed to fall into the old pattern of Barça dominating and Madrid chasing, whatever the scoreboard said.
If talent rises to the top, then it was Andres Iniesta who rode the upward momentum the most. For this writer, he was the man of the match without a second thought. He exerted more and more control over the match, his creativity coming to the fore and forcing Madrid to leave more and more space in the back in order to shut him down. He rainbowed Sami Khedira and juked the entire back line before forcing a good kick save from Casillas. The rings he ran around several of the players must have left stains they were so nasty. Guardiola once said that Xavi would retire him, but that Iniesta would retire them both; that he said that when Iniesta was 14 shows the eye for talent Pep has, but it also speaks to the immense quality that Don Andres brings to the squad.
Lost in the whole game was a little Argentine named Lionel Messi, who quietly had another good match, but didn’t score so everyone thinks he wasn’t on song. He got the assist on Sánchez’s goal and ran the break that led to Cesc’s goal (though the whole move was started by Cesc himself). Sánchez too was bigger than his goal, creating confusion in Madrid’s back line and disrupting their counterattacks. By the end of the match, Dani Alves was so advanced that his average position ended at midfield alongside Xavi and Cesc.
The team is already in Japan, having celebrated their victory by hopping a 13 hour flight to Tokyo. On Thursday comes the semi-final of the Club World Cup against Qatari club Al-Sadd, so the team has no time to rest on its laurels. There’s always more to be won under Guardiola and this writer certainly can’t wait to see those matches. For now, though, it’s time to watch the Clásico’s highlights yet again.


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