Having watched and re-watched last Sunday’s Clásico, then caught the highlights, and consumed all available written analysis of the bludgeoning of the Blancos, I’ve had a number of idle thoughts bouncing around my head. First and foremost: watching Barcelona –sans Lionel Messi, bear in mind – absolutely shred a quality opponent (nominally, at the moment, though there’s no denying that Real Madrid remain flush with talent) was fun – and I giddy, feels-like-you’re-doing-something-wrong fun – in a way that a game hasn’t been for some time. Not since, what, the 5-0 against Sevilla in the Copa del Rey final? The 6-1 against PSG? The 4-0 at the Bernabéu three years ago? Regardless, it was a welcome shot of euphoria. Beyond the giddiness, a few other takeaways from last weekend’s showdown at Camp Nou…
Not long ago, in this very locale, I penned what can only be described as the opening to the eulogy of Luis Suárez’s career. I bemoaned his alarming inefficiency in front of goal in recent campaigns, questioned his still-lofty standing in the Barcelona pecking order, and went as far as to suggest that maybe, just maybe, a fading superstar that was not best buds with Leo Messi would not be afforded quite so many opportunities to recapture past glories.
Naturally, all of 10 days later, Suárez takes to the field and bangs in a hat-trick in a Barcelona romp. That it happened isn’t altogether shocking. Suárez is still going to get his goals. However, that this went down not against Huesca, Rayo Vallecano or Eibar, but against the eternal rival – well, some dudes in their shirts, anyway – in the first Messi-/Cristiano-less Clásico in over a decade is noteworthy. Between working the husk of Sergio Ramos like a speed bag, unleashing that missile of a flat-footed header and smoothly flicking his third – Barça’s fourth – over a demoralized Thibaut Courtois, it was a masterclass in turning back the clock.
Don’t get me wrong, the underlying principles on which those detractions were based still hold. Suárez has, in fact, missed on all of those scoring opportunities in recent seasons. He has been a frequent source of frustration among cules the world over. And yes, one of these days Barça will do well to consider its future at the #9 position. All of that aside, for at least one glorious performance, the less-than-flattering Carmelo Anthony comparison was premature.
Te veo, Luisito.
Real Madrid is a shell of its former self
Seldom does so talented a team return 14 of its top 15 players in terms of minutes played, its second-through-eleventh goalscorers, eight Ballon D’Or short-listers, and the World Cup’s Most Outstanding Player, and yet feel so profoundly different.
It’s impossible to ignore the absence of Cristiano. It’s been evident since the first half of the UEFA Super Cup against Atlético Madrid in August – Real Madrid feels undeniably, disorientingly less grand. This is now a group of excellent individuals missing a superstar binding, a much better (though only marginally less depressing) post-Kobe Lakers.
On the pitch, 41 goals across 40 La Liga and Champions League games are not going to score themselves. Equally palpable, however, is the absence of his presence. It’s like returning to the all-too-familiar setting of a long-running TV show, but without a trace of the iconic lead character. Love him or (in all likelihood) hate him, more than any other player going, Cristiano’s mere involvement jolts and elevates any contest, transforming otherwise unremarkable games into genuine events.
And, on Sunday night, in one of club football’s preeminent events, los Blancos encountered a Barcelona side that was itself scuffling in the league, and playing without a legend of its own, and they simply did not want any part of it. Prior to a solid 10-minute stretch to open the second half, Madrid got in 45 minutes of relatively low-impact cardio. They then followed that brief upswing with a more concerted effort in attack, but one that left them completely outmanned in defense, and begging to be battered by a side determined to prove its worth in Messi’s absence. Thibaut Courtois struggled with the boundaries of the playing surface. Raphael Varane saw blaugrana and reverted to his Levante form. Nacho saw fit to surrender all real estate on his flank to Jordi Alba. And Sergio Ramos… hoo boy.
Philippe Coutinho and Arthur are the understated big-game stars that Barça’s been seeking
For a club to land one of Xavi and Andrés Iniesta at any point in its history is a glorious anomaly. To have both for, essentially, the entirety of their careers is to hit the greatest of cosmic jackpots. It’s completely understandable to hope for a speedy return to those headiest of days, but we really should relax with any Xavi / Iniesta talk when discussing Coutinho and Arthur.
That being said, when asked to step into a void left by a pair of generational icons, the duo has performed admirably in the (thus far admittedly few) big games in which they’ve taken part since joining FC Barcelona. This isn’t so much numbers-based – though Coutinho did pounce ruthlessly on Hugo Lloris’s early blunder in the Champions League at Wembley and, on Sunday, capitalized beautifully on a gaping hole in the Madrid box to slot home the game’s opening goal – but a qualitative assessment of their acclimation to being premier playmakers at Barcelona.
If there is a comparison to be drawn between these relative newcomers and their legendary predecessors, it’s in the composure and calm they impart on games of this magnitude. Whether in the Champions League, El Clásico or, in Coutinho’s case, the World Cup, there is an inherent trustworthiness, both in terms of decision-making and almost terrifyingly patient ball control in the face of intense pressure, sending multiple top-class defenders packing with little more than a shimmy and a pirouette around a stationary ball. The sample is small and the lights will get brighter, but every indication is that the stage is not going to overwhelm either Brazilian playmaker.
Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto were absolutely phenomenal against Madrid, and are central to this Barcelona playing like Barcelona
A transitional vibe has permeated the last couple of seasons at Camp Nou. As with so many existential questions, we can trace this back to the departures of Xavi and Andrés Iniesta. The effects have been mitigated and masked by the continued presence of Messi, Suárez, Sergio Busquets and Gerard Pique at the team’s core, but the work of two less name-brand stars, Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto, has been vital in keeping the Blaugrana on track. Alba is the spiritual successor to Dani Alves, marauding down the flank and partnering spectacularly with Messi. Roberto, meanwhile, the last great alumni of La Masia to feature for Barça in some time, is the consummate professional, shifting selflessly between midfield and right back, his versatility on call based on the needs of the team, with little in the way of fanfare (#6 against PSG excepted).
On Sunday night, the pair was monumental, each controlling a flank, exploiting the considerable space afforded them by their counterparts, and watching that effort translate onto the state sheet. They combined for 11 interceptions, 3 tackles and numerous partial and full-fledged scoring chances, which ultimately resulted in assists on three of Barcelona’s four open-play goals. Ten minutes in, it was Alba tearing down the left on the counter and beautifully setting up Coutinho with an empty(ish) net at which to shoot. Then, late in the second half, it was Sergi Roberto, connecting twice in eight minutes with Luis Suárez to put the game out of reach.
Arthur and Philippe Coutinho have done brilliantly in interpreting the roles they’ve been given since their arrival at Barcelona, fitting nicely into the “Barça way”. Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto, meanwhile, consistently use their talents to similar effect and, so often, are among the central reasons that Barcelona continues to look like Barcelona.
Now, as much fun as it is to snicker at the struggles of the Bernabéu outfit…
Nope. That’s it. That’s as far as I could get. No tengo nada. Snicker away!