At half-time, I had two conflicting feelings with Barcelona up 1-0, in what was turning out to be a thrilling Clasico, on the hill overlooking the Catalan capital.
The first was a feeling of appreciation for Xavi, and the good work he’s done turning around a club that was headed straight for an iceberg.
The Barcelona players were taking the game to their rival with confidence. Pressing with intensity, flying into the tackles, and playing as the protagonist, seemingly unaware and unafraid of the challenging circumstances that had conspired against them.
Gavi was ferocious, and determined to shut down a player in Jude Bellingham who is being lauded as the best in the world.
Xavi was brilliant in deploying a three-man backline to take Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo out of the game, while relying on a double pivot partnership of Gavi and Ilkay Gundogan to shadow and neutralize the British superstar.
With a bit of luck, manufactured from the intensity that Barcelona played with to start the game, the hosts were up and in control at the break.
And yet, in spite of my respect for the Barca boss, and the credit I knew he deserved for getting his team prepared for this challenge, there was a pit in my stomach that something could go wrong quickly. And if it did, that the manager wouldn’t be equipped to respond to it.
This is Real Madrid after all. A team that doesn’t always perform well, but prides itself in a history of getting dramatic results that they don’t necessarily deserve.
Just this season, Bellingham has been the leading man to perform such miracles in key moments for Los Blancos.
But that’s the question we always come back to. Is it a miracle? An injustice? The evil empire simply performing its role as the perfect villain in the heroic story of F.C. Barcelona?
There has to be a reason why this team is able to pull off so many comebacks, and break the hearts of Barca fans over and again.
From the perspective of Carlo Ancelotti, he keeps things simple.
He trusts that his players can fail, but still find a way to turn the momentum in their favor at just the right time.
The diamond formation he’s turned to this season, with two forwards up top, was a genius move that has made Bellingham into a Ballon d’Or candidate. With Karim Benzema gone and Luca Modric on his last legs, Real Madrid needed a new face of the club.
Vinicius Junior is one of the best at his position, but not best suited as the main man to build your team around. Bellingham was always going to be good, but no one expected he could take off quite like he has. He’s like a basketball player that comes through in the clutch, in a close game in the 4th quarter, with time winding down. He pops up and makes the play to win you the game.
But we knew all of this coming into the game. Xavi knew this, and yet he was powerless to stop the prophecy from manifesting yet again.
At half-time, I wanted to yell, this is a trap. You’ve been great, and outplayed your opponent. But they get to make the next move. You have to be ready to counter it.
When Ferran Torres was substituted at the 60 minute mark, it felt ominous. Way too soon to make this move, especially for a player in Robert Lewandowski who was certainly not fully fit. Ferran may not be spectacular, but he is one of the players whose fighting spirit has made a big difference over the past few weeks, and was also being felt in this match.
Bravo for that tackle on Vinicius Junior when the first half was coming to a close. This was a player showing you he understood the no nonsense mission of winning, and not taking any chances.
Sure enough, Lewandowski was rusty and hurting the team with heavy touches and misplaced passes. On the other side of the ball, he wasn’t able to contribute defensively, up and down the field, the way Ferran had.
A few minutes after the substitution, Bellingham smacked home a shocker from distance, and Barcelona lost control.
Xavi’s next move was to pull out Fermin Lopez for Oriol Romeu. Once again, an in game management mistake from the Barca coach.
Fermin was once again was one of the most important players on the field for the Blaugranes. He was threatening in the final third, smooth on the ball, combining very well with team-mates, and giving his trademark work rate, alongside his comrades in arms who were doing the same.
Romeu has had good moments this season, but he has looked shakier as of late. In addition to that, you were disrupting the very good partnership that Gavi was employing alongside Gundogan, by moving the young Spaniard into a new position higher up the field.
The last twenty minutes were Barcelona’s worst of the game, and Real Madrid’s best. And that momentum shift was enough to give the game to your rival, allowing them to open up an important four point lead at the top of the table.
So where does that leave us in the final analysis of the manager?
I thought the 3-4-3 (at least that’s what it looked like to me), was a brilliant call.
Part of why it worked though, is because of the players who were selected from the start. In this one, for me, the changes from Xavi in the second half made the team vulnerable, while taking away the united front of the players who have served them so well in recent weeks.
Maybe I’m too harsh on Xavi. Maybe some will say it was just misfortune, and not to overthink it beyond that.
One thing I appreciate about Xavi is that, over the arch of his tenure, he learns and gets better, while maintaining the constant of being an outstanding motivator, who gets his team believing and fighting, no matter the circumstances.
Now Barcelona will be playing the season from behind.
There’s time for the team to get healthy, steady the ship, and move forward on a winning path.
For now, I remain hopeful and optimistic.
This is a Barcelona team with a warrior spirit. My bet is on them.