In arguably one of the most anticipated El Clasico matches in recent times, there was a strange moment in the 35th minute at the Santiago Bernabeu on Sunday. Barcelona had won a corner right in front of the main section of the home fans, who were letting Lionel Messi have it with their booing. The game was still 0-0, the match still not under either side’s complete control.
The Barca superstar, however, walked over to take the corner as if it were the final minutes of the match and his side were ahead. It was a quiet, unrushed stroll in the park as he got to the flag and bent over to tie his shoelaces. Cue, more boos from the Madrid faithful. A few more seconds wasted, he bent over again and repositioned the ball. The crowd did their work again.
While the fans were understandably frustrated (and obviously booed the man who has been a thorn in the flesh for Real Madrid many a time), that was the moment it must have hit them: this is not a Barcelona looking to win the match, they would happily return home with a draw.
Till that point of time, the loudest the crowd had been were for booing the referee’s decisions and a rare spell of Barcelona possession. But soon, especially when the second half began, it was almost as if the 80,000-plus people at the stadium realised this Barcelona side was there for the taking. They found their voice, while the players they rooted for found their footing.
And it was the passiveness in that moment by Messi that summed up Barcelona’s approach for most part as Zinedine Zidane’s side arrested a slump to registere a massive La Liga win. It was not the prettiest of football matches for all the talent on display, but it could well be a famous win for Los Blancos if they hold on to their now-reclaimed top spot.
With the rain that was falling intermittently all night, the Madrid weather matched the indecisiveness of the players in the first half. While Messi and Co briefly threatened in the final third with better chances, Real Madrid had plenty of enthusiasm while breaking forward without the necessary quality in the end-product.
In one swift counterattack, the boos for Barcelona’s aimless possession turned into expectant cheers as the Madrid fans egged Vinicius Junior to latch on to a big chance. He was briefly on his bike, looking at a one-on-one situation before deciding to cut the ball back aimlessly. A big section of the crowd collectively yelled, “there’s nobody, there’s nobody!” at the Brazilian winger. Not for the first time in the first half, the mood among Madridistas was one of nervous frustration.
It was therefore, perhaps, fitting that Vinicius Junior brought the roof down (or what was left of it with the renovations underway) when he dinked the ball past Ter Stegen with the help of a deflection from Gerard Pique. The German goalkeeper, who repeatedly denied Madrid at the start of the second half, was finally beaten. While it was well deserved for Real Madrid who had started the second half on fire, the fact that it was Vinicius who gave their team the lead was ironic given how his performance was being perceived by the home team.
From then on, it was a case of holding Barcelona at arm’s length even though Messi threatened with rare flashes of brilliance. Captain Sergio Ramos and midfielder Casemiro where now starting to orchestrate the crowd, pushing them in hopes they would push them back. The fans, many thousands of them aptly covered in white by their ponchos because of the rain, responded in style.
There would be another round of huge cheers at the muggy Bernabeu when Messi was given a yellow card for tackling in frustration. But the loudest roar came deep in injury time when Mariano Diaz converted his first involvement in the game, minutes after coming on, into the second and killing goal.
For Real Madrid, the title race is now back in their own hands. The big banner at the stadium that read Lucharemos Juntos (We Will Fight Togehter) came true on a night when Real Madrid simply could not afford to let Barcelona pull away. It will not go down as the greatest of El Clasicos; but after a tough week, it was a famous win for the famous Spanish club at their very own Santiago Bernabeu.
(This reporter was in Spain on the invitation of La Liga for a press trip)