Yes 2007, when Frank Rijkaard, not Pep Guardiola, was at the helm in the Nou Camp, and Fabio Capello, not Jose Mourinho, was on the bench at the Bernabeu. The year when Ronaldinho was the number 10 for the Blaugranes and Messi was making an impressive breakthrough onto the first team. And In Real Madrid, Ruud Van Nistlerooy and Raul were ruling alongside Beckham, riding that "Galacticos" wave. Looking back, it sure does seem like a lifetime ago. But if there’s anything we know about history at all – if we’re not careful – it repeats itself.
So many aspects of this season, especially Real Madrid’s and Barcelona’s current run of form are instant reminders of perhaps one of the closest and most intriguing title races in recent memory.
That season, Barcelona jumped in front early, losing only two games through to match day 17, and leading the league for the majority of the way. To many, Real Madrid was figuring to not even appear a title threat, playing god-awful abysmal futbol, hovering in third and fourth place on the table all year. At one point, they were exactly six points back behind the Blaugranes – deja vu. It looked as if the Catalans would maintain pace with their form and that Sevilla, not Real Madrid, would even contend for the league’s top honor. But those predictions were easily dispelled and oddly enough, after the January break, Barcelona’s run of poor inconsistent play began (as did Sevilla’s).
At that very same time, much to the chagrin of the Blaugranes faithful, Real Madrid's form improved, as Van Nistlerooy, Raul, Robinho and company started catching fire. They gave up early leads, but they came back time and time again to practically steal victories. In a nutshell, Real Madrid was the heart attack inducing side for the second half of that season, whether you were rooting for them or not. It was unreal, unfathomable at times, how they snapped to life late in games and walked off the pitch as victors. Honestly, it was almost sickening.
For the Blaugranes, the inevitable truth arrived in mid-May, as Real Madrid took the league lead for the very first time all season long by defeating Espanyol 4-3, coming back from a 1-3 first half deficit. The very Sunday after that epic Real Madrid-victory, Barcelona once again dropped points in a draw to a struggling lackluster Betis. Even with my limited knowledge of the team’s play, I couldn’t say it was uncharacteristic of Barcelona, because at this point the wheels were beginning to show signs of wobble under Rijkaard’s regime.
But as a result of their head-to-head record, 2-0 and 3-3 in favor of Los Blancos, Real Madrid rested uneasily – for obvious reasons – at the top of the league, with Barcelona in second place. At that point, both teams had exactly four league games remaining, tied at 73 points on the table. On perhaps one of the most importantly crucial days of that late season, the Catalans drew 2-2 against their Barcelona city-rivals, Espanyol. In that game Tamudo and Messi exchanged braces (yes, including the famous/infamous "Messidona" H.O.G. goal), as the rollercoaster of emotions clearly showed on the faces of Juan Laporta and the Barcelona higher-ups, who watched on helplessly from the stands. And on the same night, Diego Milito scored a brace of his own, as Real Zaragosa stunned Real Madrid with a draw of its own, with a score line of 2-2.
By the time the morning papers had gone out, Real Madrid and Barcelona were still deadlocked at 73 points apiece, going into the last match day of the season.
On the final day of La Liga 2007, the Catalans pummeled Gimnastic with a crushing 5-1 victory with goals from Puyol, Messi, Ronaldinho and Zambrotta. Barcelona looked to have the league title in hand, and all they needed was Mallorca to hold Real Madrid to a goal or less. I remember watching both games in split-screen/PIP and thinking, ‘Yes, we’ve got this!’ The tension rose when Jose Antonio Reyes scored to tie Mallorca at the 68”. At that point, Barcelona was cruising 4-0 in their game. Somehow, it was as though it just wasn’t meant to be. Mahamadou Diarra scored the second of Real Madrid’s goals at the 80”. The feeling was gut-wrenching helplessness. I remember the look of dejection on the faces of Ronaldinho and Messi as word came back to their bench and onto the pitch that Real Madrid had just pulled off the improbable. “Crush dreams”: that seemed to be the unwritten motto of Real Madrid that season. As a new fan of the Catalans, the gravity of the outcome did not sink in until almost a month later. I delved into learning more and more about La Liga, the rivalry and its history, and slowly realized what it all meant.
Fast forward to now.
The title race from 2007 is eerily similar to this year’s, especially the role reversal in which Real Madrid and Barcelona now find themselves. Mourinho is much like Capello back then, in that he reverts to the tactics of defensive play (park the bus, if you will) when all else fails. And thus Real Madrid is feeling the pressure amidst an offensive drought, and as a result their poor defensive play is being exposed. Above all else, they are clearly frustrated right now. The Blaugranes recent woes of giving up goals to draw against teams seemed to have passed. Pep Guardiola has shuffled his starting line-up many times over, perhaps to ensure in-house competitiveness between his own players – personally I like the "If your name is not Messi, Xavi, Iniesta or Puyol…" approach. But Barcelona also has key members who have been battling injury and fitness all year, but otherwise, the team has given evidence that they are focused more than ever. They are definitely rejuvenated by their recent results and no doubt inspired by the Messi-milestones this season, and maybe even motivated by Real Madrid’s recent troubles as well. But each team controls its own destiny.
Yes, Los Blancos is leading, but the Blaugranes aren’t just chasing their rivals in a panic. No. It is more the feeling of a controlled rundown. Premeditated and calculated. If you’re a Real Madrid fan, the feeling must be disturbing. It’s very much a kin to the methodical way a pack of wolves will hunt, consistently striking and nipping and seizing chances when their prey take missteps, stalking until it finally dismantles the nervous herd at the moment of truth.
This is truly a survival of the fittest (or a battle of attrition, depending on how you look at it). In professional sports, this stretch in the season is commonly referred to as "the champions’ march to the title" – the instances that are edited into clips and highlights of which championship DVD’s are made. And it rings true for both Real Madrid and Barcelona. It’s so easy to get to the top, but the true test of will and of determination is in finding the resiliency of mental strength to stay there once you arrive, and in the face of unrelenting and tumultuous adversity no less. That defines a champion, whether you’re the contender or the holder. There’s no secret formula, at times you must forget the discussions of tactics, formations, line-ups, or the dissection of latest media sound bites from whom ever.
Sometimes, you just have to throw all that out the window and man-up. This is that moment of truth.
So what does 2007 tell us, in general? Leave nothing to chance. And about Real Madrid and their dwindling lead in La Liga this season? Simple. Absolutely nothing…is…certain, or Barcelona, as they continue in the chase? Anything is possible. Although, you can’t help but be "Peptimistic" with an undeniable force of nature like Messi on the team, where everything seems to be one goal away from imminent.
Only time will tell.