Luis Suarez stepped up, setting himself as his team’s number two in Lionel Messi’s absence, and singlehandedly defeated an inert Real Madrid at the Camp Nou.
Beautiful goals abounded as the opener from Phillipe Coutinho (11th) off a perfect cross from Jordi Alba and Suarez’s second (75th), a lofted header off a Sergi Roberto aerial pass, were pure artwork. Similarly, Barca’s first half control of the match, often maintaining a 70%-30% possession differential, was mesmerizing.
Yet, when you boiled it all down to its essence, it was a match that served as a microcosm of most of the Clasicos of the past decade, with a focused and cohesive Cule side playing a collection of untethered Merengues who seemed to only go through their paces for long stretches of the match.
To get the controversy over with early let’s point out that two penalties occurred and only the one favoring Barcelona was called and that one was called by VAR eons after the play in question, and the two after it, had concluded. Luis Suarez committed a straight red card foul on Nacho that received only a yellow and the Catalan penchant for immediate fouling after the loss of possession went unchallenged by the ref. Perhaps the fact that the tactic was somewhat subdued in this match allowed him to feel he had cover.
But the crux of the match, as has often been the case in this rivalry, was the mindset of each team. The Blaugranes always play as if the world would end if they lost to Madrid and the Real players always play as if it would be nice to get the three points. Furthermore, the hosts always play for history and to inflict psychological damage, while the visitors always play their arch-rivals even until the match seems decided and then they let their guard down. Thus, in a match at the Camp Nou in which Barcelona led by 3-1 at the 82rd minute, it was the home team looking to score and converting at the 83rd and 87th.
The line-ups for the match reflected the juggling necessary to replace the missing Messi and the injured Dani Carvajal but also spoke of the coaches’ predilections as Rafinha started and Ousmane Dembele came in at the 74th minute while Karim Benzema started and Asensio missed the first 75 minutes of the match. Barca coach, Ernesto Valverde, must have been happy with his choices while Madrid’s Julen Lopetegui should be packing his bags.
The telling point of the telecast Papa watched was the on-screen reaction of Real Madrid President, Florentino Perez, surprisingly sitting in the stands right next to his opposite, Josep Maria Bartomeu, when two second half plays concluded. The first was Benzema’s unopposed shot from inside the box that missed the frame and the second was Arturo Vidal’s goal, headed unmarked from inside Thibaut Courtois’ box. The rueful resignation said it all. One can only wonder how long Perez will continue to demand Benzema’s presence and if he has any second thoughts about his chosen summer shenanigans.
Whatever else ensues this year, it seems unlikely that the turmoil ahead for the Madrid side will allow them to recover in time to make a meaningful run at any trophy this year, while the Catalans seem poised to win another domestic double and maybe meet some Italian Piedmont side in the Champions League next year.