What perhaps made this Clásico so peculiar was the fact that it wasn’t that classic after all. Apart from the end that is, a climactic finale to an uncharacteristically anticlimactic occasion, deservedly ending in a draw and keeping the status quo in the league table. No change. Six points between rivals at the top and the head-to-head tie breaker remains in balance. The affair, timid in long stretches, might have been a very forgettable chapter between Spain’s big two if it wasn’t for yet another trademark Sergio Ramos late equalizer. In many eyes it’s odd that the achievement of a draw, a share of the spoils, is what made this match memorable in the end. It’s more the fashion in which it happened than anything else. Realizing I haven’t exactly advertised the rest of this analysis appetizingly, I’ll try to salvage it by saying this - the intrigue of how the match became the unprofitable encounter that unfolded is worth the while. Trust me on this one.
In any tightly contested match, commentators often fall into the trap of a familiar cliché “this game could be determined by a mistake.” The Clásico at the Camp Nou, however, was determined by two mistakes, two silly fouls conceded in areas of no immediate danger. Luis Enrique claims he told Arda Turan “not to foul” but the former Atlético de Madrid man did anyway on the far touchline two minutes from time and the resulting free kick silenced almost a hundred thousand spectators. Rafa Varane also leaned in late on Neymar in the corner when the ball had gone to engage the Barcelona set piece that opened the scoring shortly after half, a needless but clear foul not terribly unlike Javier Mascherano’s tackle on Lucas Vazquez that should have been a penalty in the first three minutes of the match.
What’s as puzzling as it is frustrating from Real Madrid point of view is the concession from a wide set piece whipped into the penalty area when they have such a clear height advantage on set pieces, attacking and defending. That’s why Luis Enrique will have told Arda Turan not to foul. Graham Hunter, in his match report for ESPNFC, goes into detail to describe how much time and effort goes into Barcelona’s set piece composition on the training ground. Nevertheless, it’s not something Zinedine Zidane would have been overly worried about heading into the match and will now be disappointed to have conceded in that fashion. Yet, Barcelona’s last two Clásico goals have come from set piece headers. One will remember Gerard Pique opened the scoring from a corner last April in Barcelona’s 1-2 loss… not exactly the Barcelona way we’ve become accustomed to seeing.
It’d be unfair to say that when Luis Suárez sprung away from Lucas Vazquez and pipped in front of Varane to steer in Neymar’s cross, it was against the run of play. The second half, like much of the match, hadn’t yet settled into a rhythm at that point. And though it was the visitors may have had the better of the game in the first half, the Barcelona goal triggered a stirring 20 minutes where the hosts looked… do I dare say more like Barcelona? Maybe it was the introduction of Andrés Iniesta shortly after the goal, who was superb on his return from injury, or maybe not. But Barcelona started to take on a form less like Luis Enrique’s Barcelona and increasingly like the Barcelona of seasons previous. The blaugrana brought the tempo of the match down to a stroll. The distances of their passing were fractioned whereas the number of passes attempted increased. And it was in this composure that Barca lured a now frustrated Madrid into conceding quality opportunities.
It was somewhat surprising how little clear opportunities Barcelona actually manufactured. According to WhoScored.com, they only managed two efforts on target in 90 minutes. Yet although they created fewer chances than Madrid, they created better quality chances, all of which came in the 15-20 minutes after the goal – the Neymar blast over the bar from eight yards, the Iniesta shot that deflected into the side netting off Dani Carvajal’s block, and the shot Lionel Messi dragged wide after a sublime through ball from Iniesta. What’s curious is that the best chances were created in a manner of tactical approach that is exactly what Luis Enrique has been evolving his team away from and more toward a direct, more incisive approach. It’s something to think about.
Now, normally it wouldn’t have been so extraordinary that the team that scores rides a wave of momentum following their goal. Having said that, I think the audience was expecting a similar reaction from Real Madrid as the one from last season’s Nou Camp fixture in which Real responded with goals from Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo to win with a man down following Sergio Ramos’ expulsion. The difference between the two is that Barcelona’s goal seemed to have really discouraged Real Madrid, who up until that point must have felt fairly comfortable and pleased with their performance. This time it took them much longer than expected to rebound.
The overall flow of match was disjointed and bizarrely modest for the Clásico. Certainly, neither team went into the match with the intention of being shy but the table positions lodged in the minds of players and managers alike definitely had a tactical/mental role to play. Real Madrid were entering the fixture away from home with their largest La Liga advantage since post-Clásico 2012 and they seemed hyperaware of it. Lose and they would allow the six point lead to be cut back to three and then Barcelona are in touching distance with the head-to-head advantage. Barcelona on the other hand had no margin for error. A loss would have meant they all but forfeited their title defense to their rivals, falling nine points behind AND handing over that head-to-head. It was like boxing at arm’s length.
Sergio Ramos. It had to be Ramos didn’t it? Champions League final against Atleti, check. Super Cup final against Sevilla, check. Now Nou Camp against Barcelona, check. The lore of Sergio Ramos’ last gasp equalizers continues. We’ve already talked about Madrid’s advantage on set pieces but how does Sergio Ramos, arguably Real Madrid’s best header of the ball, end up that free at the near post in the 90th minute? That’s the question I’d ask first while reviewing the match footage if I was Luis Enrique. Not so much height advantage as it was poor defending on Barcelona's part. Regardless, it’s another personal trophy for Sergio Ramos who posted a picture of the goal to his social media with the caption “The harder I work, the luckier I get,” a provocative little jab for his detractors. That is the Madrid man’s fourth career goal against Barcelona.
As for the man of the match, it’s primarily an easy task to pick out the standout in a relatively disappointing game. But there has been some debate, as there is in all things Clásico. WhoScored.com picked Ramos, who they rated 7.8, but that’s clearly decided through a statistical algorithm. A human being’s interpretation will be more subjective. Graham Hunter went for Iniesta, penning yesterday “There cannot have been many matches where a player who comes on with just 30 minutes left absolutely steals the man of the match award...” But for my money it was Luka Modrić. He’s so integral to the way Madrid plays. Moreover, so well-rounded and orchestrating that even when the match is a bit of a disappointment, you can at least say “well at least we got to watch Luka today.” Yesterday was no exception. Not to go back to stats but I remember seeing at halftime that he’d only misplaced a single pass in act one. Not bad given the occasion.
Now, to get hung up on refereeing would be a mistake but it’s one of the few times where the referee needed time for his nerves to settle. We often talk about players who start the game poorly and improve as the game grows, but Clos Gomez looked to suffer from that same condition. When Mascherano leaned across Lucas Vazquez and upended him in the penalty area only moments into the match, the official filled his shorts. I’m not quite sure anyone was ready for such a crucial decision to be made so quickly, especially the referee. Hence the no whistle. Mascherano, again, was involved in a breaching shirt pull on Cristiano Ronaldo in the first half, again in the box, that went unseen or ignored. Officiating in this particular fixture will always be under the harshest scrutiny but when it’s all said and done, I wouldn’t be surprised if Mr. Gomez has a Merry Christmas/Thank you card in his mailbox sometime this week, return address: Javier Mascherano. On the other hand, there were half shouts for handball penalties on Carvajal, Ramos, and Ivan Rakitić that would have all been harsh had they been given. So as aforementioned, Gomes improved with time.
Obviously disappointed to have conceded so late, Barcelona’s Gerard Pique brought up a very good point when it was all done and dusted in post-match comment. Real Madrid still have to go away to some of the more difficult venues in Spain where Barcelona have already been. It’s a daunting list: Celta Vigo, Valencia, Sporting Gijón, Athletic Club, and the very formidable Sánchez Pizjuán of Sevilla in ten days’ time. Six points can disappear very quickly in such grounds.
In closing, a shy Clásico that ends in a draw in early December and preserves the standings in the league can seem lacking in the promised importance, but chances are the opposite will prove true for the return leg at the Santiago Bernabéu. A late first Clásico means the one that follows will be right at the end of the season, a game with the highest of stakes in all likelihood. What’s forgettable now may prove to be all-important come May.