Thanks to the luck of the Copa del Rey draw, this season could potentially have even more matches between Barcelona and Real Madrid. I think by this point everyone who is not Graham Hunter is suffering from Clásico fatigue *(can something really be a classic if it happens so regularly?), and I imagine the biggest sufferers of all are the Madridistas.
For the third time this season at the Bernabeu, the fans of Real Madrid watched their team go up a goal. And for the third time this season, they watched their team squander the lead. The first time ended in a draw, the last two resulted in Barcelona wins. The Madrid are finally fed up (sort of), they whistled their team off the field. It’s not surprising really; since Jose Mourinho, the Great Merengue Hope took over, Real Madrid’s record against Barcelona has been one win, three draws, and five losses (and in fairness, two of those draws meant absolutely nothing because Barcelona won the round on aggregate). Since Pep Guardiola took over, his record against Madrid has been nine wins, three draws, and one loss. At the Bernabeu, Guardiola’s record is five wins, two draws, no losses. (The one loss came at the Mestalla in Valencia in last year’s Copa del Rey final.) Only Johan Cruyff beat Madrid that many times, and the Dutch legend did it over a much longer period of time.
Despite the short-sightedness of the football media**, which tends to see the present as the always, much can change in the course of a season. Madrid is still leading the La Liga table by five points, and there is no reason to think they will or will not win the league. Furthermore, today’s loss can be negated next week at the Camp Nou (no easy feat but not impossible). The real prize, the Champions League, looms large on the horizon, and by no means has a winner been decided there.
Tonight’s victory was both incredibly meaningful and incredibly meaningless in terms of the rivalry. It is meaningless because the win was not comprehensive enough for Barcelona to sit back and relax in the next leg at the Camp Nou. The Copa del Rey is the least important tournament of the European season (not counting the pre-season exhibitions that are the Supercopa and the UEFA Super Cup), and this match was just the quarterfinals. Whoever wins the round still has to play two more, and that is not necessarily a good thing given that the winner will have to continue playing in the Copa del Rey instead of concentrating solely on La Liga and the Champions League.
On the other hand, this win was fraught with meaning, because it solidified the message Barcelona gave to Real Madrid in their match last month: “We own you!” The reason that Madrid have a five point lead in the league table is because Barcelona have been woeful away from home, that is by Barcelona’s own exacting standards. Too many draws. Yet every time Barcelona traveled to the Bernabeu this season, the Blaugrana played their best football in the second half and won. No matter what tactics Madrid tried, it blows up in their collective faces. Last month Madrid tried to take control of the match instead of letting Barcelona do it. Madrid started well, lost badly, and Cristiano Ronaldo became a pariah to the fans. This time Cristiano Ronaldo scored the opening goal while a team of big bruisers (particularly the loathsome thug Pepe) tried to outmuscle Barcelona and cut them down. Barcelona tied the score with a Carles Puyol header off a set piece (set pieces are rare from Barcelona) and then Eric Abidal of all players scored the winner. When Madrid shut down the Blaugrana attack, the defense took up the scoring instead.
(A moment to cherish Carles Puyol. In the last 50 games that he played, Barcelona have lost none of them. In fact, the record is something like 42 wins and 8 draws. It’s pretty incredible. Forget Steven Gerrard, Puyol is the real Captain Fantastic.)
This brings us to the Mourinho factor, or more accurately the lack thereof. Mourinho was brought over from Inter Milan for one reason, to beat Barcelona. Two seasons ago he won the Champions League including a semifinal victory over Barcelona (aided by an Icelandic volcano, an ill-fated bus ride, and a terrible offside call at the Camp Nou). Madrid saw a knight in shining armor, and ignored all the potential pitfalls.
Now it is true that Mourinho has been much more successful than the last three coaches of Madrid, none of whom got so much as a draw against Guardiola’s Barcelona. But in many ways, Mourinho’s humiliation has been worse Unlike his predecessors he faced Barcelona far more than twice a season. At the Camp Nou in 2010, he suffered his worst ever defeat. He destroyed whatever aesthetic style the Madridistas demand from their team, and created a loathed team of bullies. He has created a world in which Madrid concedes it cannot play with Barcelona (a shocking admission from so storied a team), so it have to break the Blaugrana down through dirty play. And then Mourinho has a ready-made excuse for when he loses: the referees and diving. Mourinho is simply not used to being second best, and like any narcissist confronted with the reality that he does not live up to his own hype, he is cracking. So far there have not been calls for him to go, but the criticism has been heavy nonetheless.
Mourinho’s response was fascinating. His team played dirty, yet all 11 players remained on the pitch throughout the 90 minutes. His team suffered no egregious refereeing decisions (and benefitted from a few misses) so he could not blame anyone else. At the post match press conference he stated, “The responsibility is mine, especially when my team loses. Victory has many fathers; defeat only one. I’ve been in football a long time and I understand this. The cup final victory we all celebrated, but in defeat I am the only parent.” On one hand this could be read as Mourinho finally taking some responsibility as manager. On the other hand his words also carry this underlying message: “The coach gets no credit for victory but all the blame for the loss. It’s unfair.” If that were what he really meant, it was a quite an abrogation of his responsibility. Unfortunately, this latter scenario seems more like the Mourinho that the football world has come to know. I claim no neutrality. I despise Mourinho, I want him out of Spain, and I want this Special One nonsense done with for good. I wonder how many more losses to Barcelona it will take before the Madridistas agree with me.
* More ammunition to those who say that La Liga is turning into the Scottish League. Those critics conveniently forget the following the following facts: (1) Barcelona and Madrid are the best teams in the world playing in the top footballing nation in the world while Rangers and Celtic haven’t won anything of note in ages and Scotland’s days as a footballing power were over decades ago. (2) Nevertheless, Rangers and Celtic are not exactly hurting for fans. (3) So long as Barcelona and Madrid compete for the Champions League title every year, the top players will always want to go there no matter how good or how poor the other La Liga teams are. (4) The other La Liga teams are still of very good quality. For all the talk of La Liga becoming a weak league overall, it is the supposedly more equitable EPL that has precipitously dropped off in quality the past couple of years. So much so that mentioning Stoke and Barcelona in the same breath should be made illegal.
** Tomorrow on World Football Daily, the hosts will no doubt gnash their teeth that Madrid lost. The show is getting near impossible for a Barcelona fan to listen to between the Madrid propping and the Barcelona bashing. I am beginning to miss Steven Cohen a lot. For all his shtick, it was nice to have someone on the air who actually like Barcelona.