Following a two-nil loss at the Bernabéu, Barcelona center-back Gerard Pique still claimed it was one of the worst Madrid sides he’d faced in his career. Given Real Madrid outplayed Barcelona for large stretches of the match, Pique’s comments raised quite a few eyebrows across the football world.
By Greg McKay
It wasn’t the Madrid team that seemed particularly weakened but the rivalry itself that was the most lackluster it has been in recent memory. What should have been a high stakes encounter with poll position in La Liga up for grabs was a rather subdued affair by derby standards, lacking the quality, bite and star power fans have come to expect from Barcelona versus Real Madrid.
Though the technical ability on the field was at its usual high level, the match lacked the finer qualities that have been on display in previous El Clásico matches. There were not any notable moments of such sublime skill that onlookers were left speechless at the audacity of the players.
Of course there were brilliant touches and passes here and there, with Karim Benzema in particular displaying in his hold up play why he is still one of the best number nines on the planet. But for a neutral fan, watching the hotly anticipated match was like tasting High Life when you are expecting champagne.
Barcelona, a team with some truly world class players in de Jong and Griezmann, were far too deferential to Messi in the final third. The free flowing attacking football that had defined Barcelona for so many years was nowhere to be seen.
Zidane, to his credit, seems to recognize he doesn’t have the same world beaters in Ronaldo and Bale from his previous stint leading Real Madrid. Instead, he has fostered a real collective spirit about the team that gets results without being overly reliant on any one player.
More importantly for a high profile derby match, the game lacked any of the spiciness of previous games between Barcelona and Real Madrid. It used to be the case that fans got the impression that the players on the two teams really didn’t like each other all that much.
While La Liga will never be accused of being an overly physical league, the El Clásico games were always full of heavy challenges and plenty of the darker arts of football.
The closest things came to blows on Sunday were some handbags between Jordi Alba and Carvajal. It’s not that fans want to see dangerous tackles or injuries, but in a derby match there should be a certain degree of animosity that suggests players know what is at stake for supporters.
Last, with the departure of Ronaldo from Real Madrid there is a certain lack of star power in one of world football’s biggest rivalries. Now, there are plenty of world class players sprinkled throughout the rosters of Real Madrid and Barcelona.
But, there isn’t the otherworldly battle between Messi and Ronaldo that defined the rivalry for the past decade. Instead, we are left with a Barcelona team still forcing play through a Lionel Messi who is entering the later stages of his career and a Real Madrid team that gets by more with collective effort than on the shoulders of Ronaldo.
To a certain degree, football fans have been spoiled by the recent history of El Clásico. For a period, the rivalry featured two clubs near the height of their historic powers, chock-full of quality from top to bottom, massive star power and a sense of bitterness between the men on the pitch.
The clubs may be entering a period of a less ferocious rivalry, one focused on who can more quickly recover from the inevitable loss of their singular talents to get back to dominating European club football once again.