By Paul Gardner
Perfection? You’re looking for soccer perfection? Maybe we got as close as we’re likely to get with Barcelona’s win over Real Madrid on Monday. That scoreline, 5-0, is one you don’t see too often in top class soccer these days, so it’s worth noting that the team that was so mercilessly murdered by Barcelona, was Real Madrid ... one of the world’s best teams, a team on which vast amounts of money have been spent, a team that was sitting on top of Spain’s La Liga.
That was before the roof fell in, or the floor gave way, or the thunderbolt struck . . . and a terrifyingly beautiful reality hit home. Barcelona really is out there on its own, playing the game in a way that the soccer gods must be proud of.
Real Madrid was never in this game, not for a moment. The Barca show began at once, a choreography of rapidly moving players and an even more rapidly moving ball to link up all the movement.
The Spanish commentator, trying to name each player, had trouble keeping up with the action as the ball was passed surely and firmly and quickly, left, right, forward, back, sideways with almost insulting ease.
The old song title “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” came to mind as a way to describe the poor Real defenders. For the first eight minutes it was nearly all Barca -- you know, all that short-passing stuff, the sort of thing that gets criticized so often as “pretty” football. In the sixth minute, Lionel Messi -- it had to be him -- showed that there was a sweet danger to all this prettiness when he gently chipped the ball over Iker Casillas’ head, only for it to hit the post and bounce back into play.
No matter -- Barca continued to do the pretty stuff. That is their style. Then came a prolonged period of Barca possession -- nearly 90 seconds, during which over 30 passes were made. It ended with the ball in the Real Madrid goal, put there by Xavi with the neatest of lobs over Casillas.
During all of those 90 seconds of Barca passing, the ball never left the ground. Real had plenty of players back on defense -- virtually everyone really. But such was the rapidity and the canniness and the accuracy of Barcelona’s play that the usual defensive staples -- interception or tackling or fouling -- just didn’t seem possible. Merely trying to keep up with the ball was evidently the biggest of problems.
Another eight minutes of wonderful-to-watch Barcelona domination produced, as it had to do, a second goal. This time, 50 seconds of play produced 21 consecutive passes before Pedro scored. Only one of those 21 passes was an aerial ball.
The beauty of the game was shining clearer and clearer and surely there was even more to come -- if only because Messi had yet to score -- an unusual state of affairs these days.
Messi did not score on this night, but in the second half he tormented the bedraggled Real defense with his trademark tight dribbling and with the sheer brilliance and audacity of his passing. In the 52nd minute he pushed, or stroked, or guided (however it is that he does it) the ball through the Real defenders for Xavi to run on to in the Real penalty area -- but this pass was maybe either a foot or a second short of being perfect -- the move ended with Xavi having to hurry his shot and hitting it wide.
That, it turned out, was simply Messi rehearsing. Two minutes later, perfection arrived as Messi repeated the move and this time David Villa ran onto the inviting pass and drilled the ball past Casillas.
Perfection, yes -- but then how is one to describe Messi’s next contribution, which started with a short dribble from just inside his own half followed by a long pass -- a ground ball -- that ripped through the Real backline like a searing arrow, again it met up with Villa, and again Villa beat Casillas.
Later in the game, Real had the distasteful experience of seeing two young subs, Bojan and Jeffren, combine to make it a 5-0 rout. Even that goal, the work of almost over-eager youngsters, had the Barca stamp on it. The ball never left the ground. In all five goals, only one pass was made in the air, just one. No crosses, no heading of the ball at all. I suppose we shall be hearing a good deal of tactical analysis on what makes Barca such a good team -- you know, why their 4-3-3 was so much better than Real’s 4-2-3-1, and so on.
Which is OK if you like, or trust, that sort of thing. I don’t as it happens. I find it much more relevant to dwell on the skill and artistry of the players, and the fact that Barca makes it a huge point of its game to keep the ball on the ground, and not to indulge in long aerial balls or to ply the opposing goalmouth with high crosses.
In the array of passes that led up to Barcelona’s five goals, there was only one aerial ball. Not a cross, not a long ball for a forward to fight for, or to chase -- but a precise 25-yard pass from Xavi right to the feet of Villa.
That is the style that we saw from Spain in this year’s World Cup. A confident ground game played by highly skilled players that assures not only possession, but enables complicated and daringly incisive passing patterns. That figures, of course, because seven of the Barcelona players were members of that Spanish team.
As for Real Madrid ... there’s nothing really to be said. Yes, Messi did come in for some rough treatment, and, by the end, frustration was evident, resulting in Sergio Ramos getting himself red-carded. The Real players did their best, as you know any Real team is going to do in El Clasico, but they were nowhere near good enough. Yes, they should have had a penalty when goalkeeper Victor Valdes brought down Cristiano Ronaldo, but the way things were going, they would probably have made a mess of it anyway. You can’t expect to win a game when your players can’t get hold of the ball, and Real found that very difficult.
An awful night for Jose Mourinho, but at least he managed to stay quiet, a mere spectator sitting glumly on the bench. He denied that it was a humiliation, but it sure looked like one. It also looked like a superb exhibition of soccer artistry from Barcelona, and -- even for Mourinho -- that’s a more rewarding way of looking at this memorable game.