You can forgive a Real Madrid fan for being less than enthusiastic. Yesterday’s game had moments of dazzling skill, a breakneck pace, and suspense. Neither team grabbed the game by the neck until the last half-hour. Still, some questionable refereeing marred an otherwise splendid game of soccer.
First, the big story: the so-so refereeing. Three penalties were called, one for Madrid, two for Barcelona. For conspiracy theorists, this simple math, two-to-one, proves that some Opus Dei conglomerate wants Madrid to lose. The reality is just a ref overwhelmed by the occasion. Ronaldo was fouled by Dani Alves and it prevented a shot on goal, but he clearly clipped him just outside the box. The obvious talking point is “video replay”, but, more importantly, no player gets fouled while running and drops immediately. Basic common sense would have allowed the ref to whistle a dangerous free-kick.
The first Barcelona penalty was clear as day: Sergio Ramos clipped Neymar’s legs in the box when he was clear on goal. However, I’m not sure it was a red card. Pepe was reasonably close to the action and, importantly, Ramos clipped the Brazilian’s legs due to a nice cut, not a desperate sliding tackle. Perhaps a yellow card would have been fairer. The second Barca penalty was relatively weak. Andres Iniesta, standing still, attempted a self-pass in the box way beyond his reach and ran into Dani Carvajal. For almost any other player, it’s not a penalty kick. In 9 out of 10 games, it’s not a penalty. But, it is what it is.
The best part about the game was both manager’s commitment to attacking soccer. In the first match, Carlo fielded three central defenders (he slotted Sergio Ramos as a nominal holding midfielder in front of Pepe and Varane). This game, he fielded his normal triangle of Modric, Di Maria and Xabi Alonso with the BBC up top. Martino played a very vertical Barca with Cesc dropping deep and Neymar and Messi constantly stretching the defense. Barca’s possession game never materialized and they failed to counter-press well, but were lethal on the counter. They also took their chances very well.
Madrid fans will rue the three golden chances missed by Karim Benzema, even if the Frenchman bagged a very nice brace. Gareth Bale had a game to forget, and one has to wonder if Di Maria would have done better on the wing if Sammy Khedira was fit enough to play holding mid. Still, for the first time in ages, Madrid attempted to overwhelm Barca by positive play. Even a goal down to Iniesta’s lovely seventh minute strike, the team surged forward and was filled with self-belief. If not for the Sergio Ramos red card, they could very well have held or extended their deserved 3-2 lead.
Ergo, Barca fans can be delighted, neutrals won’t feel slighted, and Madrid can hold their heads up high. One gets the feeling that Barca gets up for big games, but lacks the consistency and class of yesteryear. This could be one of those years where Madrid wins La Liga even though they go o-for’s in Clasicos.