Barcelona Makes Real Look Second Best
By ROB HUGHES
Published: April 11, 2010
The hour is midnight, but Madrid is not about to sleep anytime soon. Its team, Real, has just been outplayed and outclassed by Barcelona in Madrid’s own cathedral to sport, the Bernabéu.
The 2-0 score line does not settle the Spanish league title, because each team has seven games yet to play. But, with goals from Lionel Messi and Pedro Rodríguez on Saturday, each of them created by the master passer, Xavi Hernández, this was indeed a defining night, another one in Barcelona’s omnipotent season.
The defeat ended Madrid’s run of 15 consecutive league victories. It ended Real’s perfect record of 12 Liga victories on its home turf. It ended the myth that, by spending €259 million, or about $398 million, Real Madrid could eclipse what Barcelona has created over decades of diligent schooling.
Pep Guardiola, player turned coach of this new Barça, summed it up in his prematch address to reporters in the Spanish capital. He said he had told his players they would have to treat this match as a cup final because “we are talking about playing against the second-best team in the world.”
We know enough about Guardiola by now not to read arrogance into that statement. That his Barcelona squad is the best on earth is a matter of record. It is the current Spanish, European and world champion.
But, possibly unwittingly, Guardiola had laid on the line to his players what was at stake in the Bernabéu.
The day before that team briefing, Guardiola had attended a ceremony in Barcelona at which Johan Cruyff, his mentor, was made honorary president of F.C. Barcelona. This ritual mirrored Real’s appointment some years back of its former captain, Alfredo di Stéfano, as life president.
So each of the great rivals has ceremonially acknowledged that playing ideals, and any grandeur they have, comes from players. Madrid’s happens to be an Argentine, now 83 years old, while Cruyff is Dutch and 62.
They are men of different generations. While di Stéfano’s leadership in the 1950s laid the foundations of Real’s European success, what Cruyff gave Barça as a player and as coach is still at the core of the club’s philosophy today.
“Johan came along and revolutionized everything,” Joan Laporta, the Barcelona president, said. “The modern day Barça started with him, he brought us a style of soccer we love, he is the creator of the way we express ourselves.”
Cruyff’s style, his belief that the coach, or creator of an ethos, must have influence from the first team to the 8-year-old recruits has caused some conflicts down the years. But we see its fruits now. We see its expression in a squad handled by Guardiola, who came through those junior ranks and who, winning all before him in his first two seasons as coach, started the match Saturday at the Bernabéu with seven players reared through the Barcelona academy and finished it with eight.
The coach cannot score the goals. He has men who can. Messi, inevitably, scored the first. Pedro, a boy from Tenerife but a youth of Barça’s teaching, scored the second.
Madrid was finished. The presence of Cristiano Ronaldo, Gonzalo Higuaín, Karim Benzema and all its other expensive purchases could do nothing to deny which is the better team.
Manuel Pellegrini, Madrid’s latest coach, admitted that, though his players must not give up until the end of the title chase, they were defeated by a better team.
The comparisons were painful for the 80,000 Madridistas whichever way they looked. Barcelona, while never at its flowing best, had too much movement, too many talents, too much teamwork for the home side.
Messi, without being at his best, again scored the goal that set his team’s confidence soaring. His exchange of passes with Xavi, his control of the ball on his chest and then his sudden change of direction on the ground, foxed Raúl Albiol, who expected Messi to shoot with his left foot whereas he scored with the right.
Similarly, Pedro, at 22, is the same age and a similar height and weight to Messi — yet a newcomer to the first team this season, scored with his left foot. Pedro’s dominant foot is his right.
This is a trait of those raised in Barcelona’s academy. A boy may favor one foot when he arrives, but he is very soon taught to practice until he masters all the skills with the other foot.
Messi’s tally is now 40 goals, and 10 assists, from 44 matches this season. Pedro’s contribution, 18 goals in all competitions, is so good that even without the injured Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the coach could leave Thierry Henry, Andres Iniesta and Bojan Krkic on the bench.
Yet Guardiola is in cooperation with players he helped bring through the Barcelona ranks. For the encounter Saturday, Guardiola experimented tactically. He moved Daniel Alves from right back to right wing, placing central defender Carles Puyol behind him. Several times, the players came to the touchline to converse with their coach. At halftime, team positions were switched around.
Alves reverted to right back, Puyol moved to the left and Maxwell advanced from left back to left wing.
All the while, the immovable source of what makes Barça tick, Xavi, wove his stealthy, cunning, unerringly accurate passes. He set up Messi with a chip that would have made any golfer at the Master’s proud. He released Pedro with almost a casual pass along the ground.
He was superior to Madrid’s Xabi Alonso in the creative role. Messi was more superstar than Ronaldo. Even goalie Victor Valdes proved, this night, more difficult to beat than Spain’s No.1, Iker Casillas.
The pain might not be over. Barcelona plans a return to the Bernabéu next month, when Madrid’s fine stadium hosts the Champions League final. Winning that, again, would just rub Catalan salt in Madrid’s wound.