Here was a ballet dancer, wielding scissors with frightening precision. First Luka Modric, who perfected the art of duking rash challenges in the Croatian league with Dinamo Zagreb, lunged into Lionel Messi with a late tackle on the Argentine’s ankles. The Croatian escaped without a booking. On the touchline Barcelona coach Luis Enrique spread his arms and looked on with a sense of bewilderment.
Then, in the 18th minute, Modric touched Messi lightly on his knee. Here was a prima donna degrading himself to the role of a boorish tackler. He knocked down another player of great finesse. This time Barcelona were awarded a free-kick.
Hardly an epic
El Classico on Saturday was not a paragon of millimitered elite football. These 90 minutes were not a prolonged moment of wonder. Grit, intensity, endeavour and labour were ubiquitous, with neither team dominating.
This was not the beautiful game, but elevated fierceness, punctuated by rough tackles, penalty appeals, little goalmouth action and plenty of interruptions of play. All the pluck had the feeling of a 6th round FA Cup match.
In the first half the balance of power was tilted slightly in Madrid’s favor. Modric’s primordial trait was still pure class, and the midfield maestro orchestrated his team from a deep central pivot role with Isco and Mateo Kovačić higher up. Out of possession, Madrid retreated in numbers, with good defensive application. They were a cohesive unit, Barcelona not so much so.
The hosts bypassed the midfield, where a Iniesta-sized hole gaped, but even the South American triumvirate was peripheral. Andre Gomes was invisible, Ivan Rakitic contributed a little more. Without their number 6, Barcelona were soulless.
At the hour mark, Andres Iniesta, returning from injury, replaced Rakitic. He galvanised the Catalans. Gone was the subdued first-half performance, gone was the fear.
Iniesta was omnipresent, teasing Madrid. He controlled the play, offering vertigo and directness to Barcelona’s game. The South American trident responded well to his presence.
Barcelona’s equilibrium and thrust depend on their captain. He gives them a technical identity. His suave touch allows him to play in a sumptuous fashion, but Iniesta also lets those who surround him play.
In short, he carries Barcelona. At 32, Iniesta is “world heritage”, as FC Barcelona coach Luis Enrique once proclaimed after another mesmerising performance from his captain. He hypnotises both opponents and fans. Unassumingly, he glides across the field to meticulously dissect and demolish opponents with defence-splitting passes, the product of his cerebral vision, split-second decision-making and beguiling perfection in execution.
That pass – magnificent in its pin-point precision – arrived in the 82nd minute. Iniesta carved open the visiting defence with a laser-guided dispatch, but Messi, hesitant for the briefest of moments, inexplicably failed to put his attempt on target.
Iniesta’s through ball demonstrated what Barcelona lack when he doesn’t play. He tried 27 passes after he came on, with 26 successful – a 96.3% success rate. Modric had a successful passing rate of 95.2%, with Isco in third place at 95.1%.
The real action
For a good 20 minutes in the second half, Barcelona were electrifying, showing glimpses of turbo-charged tiki-taka football with the addition of MSN’s dangerous directness. Briefly, Barcelona, guided by Iniesta, were at their best. They were self-assured again, boosted by Luis Suarez’s 52nd minute goal.
In the first half chances had been at a premium – Sergio Roberto fluffed his volley, Raphael Varane’s header was meek, and from a tight angle Ronaldo forced Ter Stegen into a fine save – and so the Uruguayan scored from a set piece.
The confidence of the goal, the game opening up and the presence of Iniesta changed the complexion of the tie. Real Madrid offered minimal threat. Messi should have scored with his gilt-edged chance.
In the entire match, Barcelona had just two attempts on target. The ball belonged to the Catalans and Zidane sensed the danger. He brought on Casemiro, the Brazilian, who has given Madrid much mettle.
In the dying minutes of the game, Madrid’s steeliness and resolve resurfaced. Marcelo was idiotically fouled and, from the ensuing Modric free kick, Ramos, with a penchant for late, dramatic goals, leapt up and equalised with a slick header.
He raced away in celebration, followed by a swat of Real Madrid players. The relief was palpable, because, with the draw, the Galacticos may have taken a decisive step towards the title.