The ball dropped in a long, long arch, Dani Alves’ pass falling behind Pepe. Luis Suárez brought it down soft-footed, nudging it in front of him with his first touch; with his second, he rolled it one way as Iker Casillas rolled the other. The ball hit the net while Suárez kissed his wrist, turned and raced towards the corner flag, skidding on his knees and disappearing somewhere beneath a mass of Barcelona players.
There was still over half an hour to go, and the chase was on for a third Barça goal that would level the head-to-head goal difference, a chase that Barcelona coach Luis Enrique admitted created conflicting emotions, simultaneously seeking control and seeking chances, but Barcelona had just won the match and possibly the title. Four points behind eight games ago, they’re now four points ahead.
There are 10 games to go and Barcelona play Valencia, Sevilla and Espanyol in a row, but Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti admitted “it’s more difficult for us now”. El Mundo Deportivo described Suarez’s strike as “the goal that could be worth a league”; Sport called it “the goal that’s half a league”.
Scene from a B movie
Writing in Marca, Roberto Palomar likened it to the scene from a B movie in which a bunch of henchmen tell the bad guy: “Don’t worry, boss, he ain’t coming out of that explosion alive,” only for the hero to dust himself down and wreak bloody revenge. “Madrid pardoned them … and paid for it,” ran AS’s cover, whereas Salvador Sostres employed typical tact and tastefulness, writing: “If Barcelona are Catalonia’s army, Madrid were [Franco’s] tanks rolling down the Diagonal.”
Barcelona had survived and emerged victorious. But it was not the fact that they had won that was striking so much as the way they won, the confirmation of a trend. If there was something sectlike about Barcelona before, some are losing their religion. Losing the ball too, their most treasured possession: Madrid’s possession reached 50% at one point and finished on 48%, more than in any Clásico over the last five years.
Barcelona had sought control but lived in chaos; in fact, they had embraced it. They had counter-attacked again, their style shifting: the team that was defined by its midfielders is now more readily identified by its forwards. The goals had come via a header from a set-play and a long ball over the top.
A brilliant long ball from Dani Alves, but a long ball nonetheless. Mathieu’s header was the ninth that Madrid have conceded this season; Barcelona have conceded just one, roles reversed. According to football statistician Alexis Tamargo, this was the first time since the pre-Pep Guardiola era that Madrid started a Clásico with more Spaniards than Barcelona.
“Barcelona won the way Madrid used to win, with the same cruelty,” insisted El Mundo, which didn’t say that then. “I never imagined I would see Barcelona win like this,” wrote Emilio Pèrez de Rozas in El Periûdico. Afterwards, Luis Enrique was asked whether Madrid are more like Barcelona were than Barcelona are.
The debate continues, and at times it is nasty, self-destructive and self-interested. Santi Nolla, a man whose bitterness towards Guardiola is breathtaking and who never knowingly passes up the opportunity to stick the knife in, welcomed the change, pointedly describing this as a performance to “overcome the nostalgia”. The paper he edits, El Mundo Deportivo, led on: “Faith, character and punch.”
“Football is not only possession,” Javier Mascherano insisted afterwards. It was a striking remark, breaking from the normal line, but the crucial word was “only”. The debate is presented in absolutes that are not always absolute, but the shift is significant.
Luis Enrique said: “You have to have [different] resources; that’s very important. Our aim is to have the ball, to create chances and to defend a long way from our goal but your opponent plays too and we have to interpret what we need in a game. We scored from a set play [as well as a long pass], and that’s gratifying for all of us.”
Johan Cruyff’s bad milk
The man who scored the winner perhaps represents the change better than anyone. Johan Cruyff explained that he signed Hristo Stoichkov because he wanted some mala leche, or bad milk, in his team. Barcelona were just too nice. Samuel Eto’o had that too and this year one Barcelona director made a similar analysis of the current side. So too did Luis Enrique. Faith, character, punch.
On Sunday Suarez scored his eighth goal in nine games; he has 14 overall this season, 11 of them in 2015. He is a hybrid, describing himself in his autobiography as a combination of Uruguayan and Dutch styles. But it is personality that defines him best. “He’s not just an old-style striker; he can also combine with his team-mates, he reads the game well and he doesn’t need many touches to score,” Luis Enrique said. “He also has the physique which is good for us and the character which is useful for a team like us …”
There was a pause before the Barcelona manager added: “… which is colder.”
Far from La Masia, Suárez began on a strip of rough concrete frequented by rough characters that they called the callejûn, with goals painted into the walls and a women’s prison at one end. “I never thought I’d play in a game like this,” he said on the eve of his first Clásico at the Camp Nou. – © Guardian News & Media Ltd, 2015