Nine weeks into the season, it wasn't clear who La Liga's biggest teams were. Ten weeks into the season, it still might not be
Many a true word said in jest. "Yes," Tata Martino replied and then a smile stretched across his face. "Well, I'm not going to claim that Alex Song is a creative No10". A grin, the hint of a laugh, knowing giggles from the back of the room. It was a little under an hour after the first clásico of the season, the first clásico of a new era, and Barcelona had beaten Real Madrid 2-1. In the 77th minute, Martino had taken off Andrés Iniesta and replaced him with Song with the score at 1-0. "Was that change," the manager was asked, the word almost sticking in his inquisitor's throat " ... was that change ... defensive?" "Yes," Martino said. "And I would do it again."
There was something different about this Barça-Madrid, something that made it feel like a new chapter*, like the story had shifted. To where exactly, we didn't yet know. After 17 clásicos in three years, games seemingly every day, everyone had waited eight months for this one. The ballboy had gone the previous year, now the translator had too; that particular rivalry departing with them, the rivalry momentarily orphaned. For the first time in a decade, both teams had new managers. Cristiano Ronaldo and Leo Messi were still there of course, but they had new stars too. On Saturday morning, Marca's front page ran photographs of Gareth Bale and Neymar – total price: €159m – alongside the headline: "Priceless."
The rivalry felt like it was stuck in suspended animation. Although there had been a little crossfire already, it stood in a kind of limbo. Where were these teams headed? When Carlo Ancelotti had arrived at Madrid, he might as well have worn a name badge that said: "Not José Mourinho." When Martino arrived at Barcelona, he might as well have worn a name badge that said: "Being Pep Guardiola." Just not quite. There was expectation but it was tentative: their identities were still to be forged and this was the game that might do so. Nothing leaves a mark like the clásico. Nine weeks into the season, it still wasn't clear who, or what, Spain's biggest teams were.
Ten weeks into the season, it might not be either. Someone had turned the noise down and the lights up: there was less of the edge, the sniping and stirring, and the kick-off was at 6pm. Daylight wrested drama from the stage. On the corner of Travessera de les Corts, a couple walked by to the sound of whistles: he in Barcelona's yellow and red Catalan shirt, she in Madrid's white. In the 17th minute and 14th second, the chants for independence began again and almost exactly a minute later, just as the chants gave way to applause, Neymar scored. The ball hit the net as the clock showed 18:12. And with tiresome predictability at the end of it all, the supporting role became the central actor again when the referee denied Real Madrid a penalty.
As usual, those that 'don't talk about the referee' talked about the referee and those that 'always talk about the referee' decided that this time they wouldn't talk about the referee. Ronaldo was booked for calling him "a fucking coward"; Madrid's own match report spat out every word bitterly, calling it "unjust and indignant". Afterwards Marcelo insisted: "It's always the same."
But it was not the same. It was not the weekend's best game or the league's best performance: you had to look to Atlético or Villarreal for that. For the 14th game in a row, both Barcelona and Real Madrid scored, but this was the first time in six visits to the Camp Nou that Ronaldo did not score. Messi didn't score either; he will have to wait to overtake Alfredo Di Stéfano's record. The opening line in the match report in El País ran: "The clásico is no longer the clásico." The editorial in AS lamented a love lost: "Two or three years ago I dreamed of watching them in the Champions League final and they seemed unstoppable. Last year they were not as good. This summer, we thought ... but, no."
There were more questions than answers. Ancelotti's team selection and formation surprised, a 4-3-3 with Sergio Ramos in midfield and, at the beginning, Bale as the central striker in a three. Madrid didn't really recover, they did not really perform, until they shifted to something a little more natural, with Asier Illarramendi and Karim Benzema on, while Isco remained on the bench.
Patience is a virtue but few appear willing to give Ancelotti the time. Ten weeks into the season his approach, always presented as a kind of counter-weight to Mourinho, is yet to be defined: El País calculated 42 changes across the 13 matches so far. He has talked about a 4-4-2 but it doesn't always looks like one; he has talked about Ronaldo as the main striker, but that's only really the case if you count his position as the place he finishes up, rather than the place he starts. Here, it was different again. On the face of it, there was some logic to the shift: speed on the counter is the way to open up Barcelona. But few were prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt … at least until this morning when Marca suddenly did a U-turn, splashing its cover with a huge "Keep calm".
Who knows? The plan might even have worked but this time, Barcelona were different. This season, they are different. A little more "anarchic" in Cesc Fábregas's words, a little more direct, a little less controlled. The pressure starts deeper, they wait more, and at times the formation has even looked suspiciously like 4-4-2: on Saturday night, Neymar was on the left, Messi on the right and no one between them, Cesc scurrying into that space. They have still looked vulnerable at the back, alarmingly so, just as they have for the last 18 months, but the debate has not really focused on that.
Against Rayo Vallecano Barcelona "lost" possession for the first time in five years and the debate began. "We had 66%, like last season," Martino protested, noting the one thing he believes he really lacks: the right passport. "I understand that when a team has verged on footballing excellence that kind of question will always be talked about, all the more so when the coach is not Dutch or home-grown."
The problem is that Martino was supposed to be a continuation; he arrived declaring himself "enamoured" of Barcelona's style. He revealed that he had spoken to sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta for a long time on the phone: "I imagine he wanted to make sure there would be respect for the way they played already," Martino said. On Saturday, his side controlled the first half, albeit from a deeper position and with less edge, less pace, less precision in the passing. In the second, they dropped further, the passing lost its accuracy, and Victor Valdés looked long, not short. Messi rarely appeared, exiled back on the right, the wing he departed the day Barcelona beat Madrid 6-2.
Madrid had more of the ball in the second 45 minutes and a couple of good chances too. The penalty decision could well have been decisive. By the end, Barcelona had had 54% of the possession. A figure which, for them, is strikingly low: it was 67% last year and during one clásico the season before it reached 73%.
"Barcelona have become a speculative team; not the side the world fell in love with," Angel Cappa, the former Real Madrid coach complained on Saturday night. "They've lost that greatness," wrote Roberto Palomar in Marca, "this game would have been better without coaches." "Asking if Barcelona will one day return to the excellence that saw them conquer Rome and London is like asking if the Sagrada Família will ever be finished," La Vanguardia noted. "It's possible, but it's difficult too." "We felt comfortable," said Fábregas, "but maybe we did drop too much." Xavi added: "We weren't brilliant, but we were the better team and winning while you look for your best form gives you confidence."
And that's the thing. It also may not be coincidence. In the 77th minute, Martino took off Iniesta and put on Song. He later said that when Barcelona play well it is "because the players are great players" and that he tries not to intervene. Now, he did: he admitted that he wanted to get control back of the midfield. "Yes, it was defensive." Football manager in tries-to-win-football-match shame. In the 78th, Neymar's ball found Alexis Sánchez, who had come on for Fábregas, shortly before and he scored a brilliant chip, known in Spanish as a Vaseline. It was the decisive goal.
Five clásicos later, Barcelona finally won one. Ten games into the season, they are unbeaten, having equalled the best-ever start to a season. "Take that!" shouted Sport. Barcelona had stuck it up Madrid … as the cover of the Catalan daily El9 put it, "with Vaseline."
* And not just because it might literally be another chapter … ahem, cough, cough, etc and so on …
• Oliver Torres got his first ever start for Atlético Madrid's first team … and scored after 13 seconds. David Villa got two, Diego Costa got his 11th of the season, his highest ever league total just 10 games in, and Gabi got the fifth in the 93rd minute with the last kick of the game. Atlético are just one point behind Barcelona and five ahead of Madrid but when the inevitable "do you still think you can't win the league?" question was asked, Diego Simeone changed the subject, rambling on about the substitutions he'd made instead. He did call his team "brilliant" though. Ten different players have now scored for Atléti this season.
• As for Betis, they're in the relegation zone but coach Pepe Mel is not going anywhere. He called a press conference on Monday that smelled like a resignation but then announced: "I won't be deserting: that would be a coward's act."
• BOOM! Goal of the week, not for the first time, might just have been scored by Ebert for Valladolid ...
• … Only Gio Dos Santos might have got one as good. He scored two, one in the 48th the other in the 84th and the latter was an absolute beauty. "There were moments of grandísimo football," the Villarreal coach Marcelino beamed after his side hammered Valencia 4-1.
• Rakitic. Again.
• Ten games, no wins and 23 goals conceded. Almería are in big, big trouble. And yet they really, honestly, aren't that bad … not normally at least: this weekend they were beaten 3-0 by Real Sociedad.
• Referee del Cerro Grande's official report from Elche-Granada notes that he asked the stadium announcer to tell fans to stop making monkey chants at Nyom in the 89th minute. They did so and, the referee wrote, the chants were not repeated for the "rest of the game." Which was obviously only a few minutes. Elche's federation of supporters clubs made a statement saying that they reject the chants, regret that some fans did so and lament the "negative impression" that gives of them.
Results: Rayo 0-3 Valladolid, Málaga 0-5 Celta, Barcelona 2-1 Madrid, Elche 0-1 Granada, Levante 3-0 Espanyol, Sevilla 2-1 Osasuna, Villarreal 4-1 Valencia, Real Sociedad 3-0 Almería, Atlético 5-0 Betis. Monday night: Getafe-Athletic … well, it is Athletic …