The countdown to the defining clasico of the season continues.
By Sid Lowe in Madrid
However, the clues were there for anyone who wanted to see them. With Ramos admitting that the psychological cost was becoming a burden, no one seemed to notice that the pressure was on Madrid as well.
They were chasing and chasing and chasing, winning and winning and winning, but, despite that wobble, Barcelona remained one step ahead. And all the while the finishing line got closer. Madrid did all they could, but it just wasn’t enough as Barcelona kept winning. Success was not in Madrid’s hands. Until the clasico.
Madrid versus Barcelona was the opportunity Madrid had been waiting for. They had Barcelona where they wanted them. The Catalans were, gloated one Madrid-supporting columnist, surrounded. Cutting the gap was at last in their hands.
The thing was, extending it was also in Barcelona’s hands. The opportunity Madrid had been waiting for was the opportunity Barcelona had been waiting for as well: the chance to finally put Madrid out of their misery, to come out fighting.
It was as if Spain’s heavyweights were at last climbing into the ring to slug it out, like two fighters who had spent months defeating the rest until they could avoid each other no longer.
And it was to prove a fight too far for Madrid. Just as they got within reach of Barcelona, the Catalans turned and blew them away. Eighteen matches were not enough and, in the 19th, Barcelona – the last side to overcome Madrid – beat them again to climb seven points clear with just three games remaining.
The hour of truth
It may have been kept alive longer than anyone ever expected, but now the championship really was over. On the eve of the game one newspaper had declared it the hour of truth – and the truth was that Barcelona were too good and Juande Ramos admitted: “The reality is that we’re a step below.”
It wasn’t just that Barcelona defeated Real Madrid, it was that they handed out a thrashing to finally end it all and put a definitive stop to the debate and the stirring.
It finished 6-2, with two goals apiece from Leo Messi and Thierry Henry, plus one each for defenders Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique.
It was the first time Barcelona had ever scored six against Madrid and only the second time Madrid had conceded six at home in their entire history. And in truth it could have been 10 and Messi could have got five. He certainly should have finished off a precise, slick end-to-end move that would surely have been the goal of the season. Iker Casillas made seven saves in the first half alone.
Madrid had even taken the lead, Gonzalo Higuain scoring just before the quarter-hour, but they could never handle the touch, movement and interplay of Barcelona. Pep Guardiola switched Messi from the right wing to a withdrawn centre-forward position and, as Christoph Metzelder admitted, Madrid’s centre-backs could not deal with it. “It is not our game to follow a player into midfield,” he said. “And that gave them a huge advantage in terms of controlling the ball.”
“Messi”, declared one Catalan daily, “was Maradona, Cruyff and Best all rolled into one”.
It wasn’t all about Messi though, Madrid couldn’t handle Thierry Henry either as he produced his best performance since moving to Catalonia, constantly getting the better of right-back Sergio Ramos – a victim of his own poor positioning and Madrid’s surprising decision to push their defensive line higher than they had at any time in the previous three months. Henry had already delivered three or four warnings when he escaped the defender yet again to win the free-kick for Barcelona’s first. He got the second himself and, just after Madrid had been given a glimpse of hope with a Sergio Ramos header that made it 2-3, Henry added the fourth.
But it would be unfair to mention just two players. Xavi Hernandez was impeccable, providing four assists; Andres Iniesta offered his usual incision; Yaya Toure made a mockery of suggestions that Fernando Gago could be the new Fernando Redondo; and Samuel Eto’o, out of position, proved to be the perfect foil for his attacking colleagues.
On the night they needed it the most, Barcelona had produced their best performance of the season.
On Catalunya Radio they were being hailed as the “better than the Dream Team”, while Canal Plus’ commentator insisted: “This Barcelona are the best team I have ever seen.”
Madrid’s resistance had been as heroic as it was historic, as unbelievable as it was unexpected. However, this time they had no choice but to do just as the Barca fans had been demanding of them and salute the champions.