Leo Messi ended the Clasico in a state of undress again but it was Real Madrid who had been stripped bare. At the very end of the last Madrid-Barca, Messi stood to the left of the goal at the north end of the Santiago Bernabeu, shirt off and held up for all to see; at the very end of the latest Madrid-Barca, exactly eight months later and a little over eight meters away, he lay on the grass to the right of the goal at the north end of the Santiago Bernabéu, boot off and abandoned, unseen at first. Then, as now, Barcelona had just scored the third, only now he had given it instead of getting it: another visit, another victory, and maybe this time a title too. If then there was hope, ultimately unfulfilled, this time there is expectation.
A gigantic banner had welcomed the players onto the pitch dreaming of a “White Christmas” but those celebrating it were mostly wearing red and blue. Messi was wearing red and blue and, it was now revealed, white. In the last minute, he ran at Marcelo. The challenge saw him lose his boot but not his balance and, dashing to the line, sports sock exposed, the Brazilian tumbling behind him, he pulled it back for Vidal, slipping to the floor as he went.
As Vidal’s shot squirmed under Keylor Navas and over the line, he got up and ran to the scorer, leaping into his arms. Camera shutters clicked and when their pictures were developed handy circles superimposed over his sock showed everyone what they’d missed. Ivan Rakitic arrived with the boot and as they broke Sergio Busquets drew near and, grinning, had a word in his ear.
Merry Christmas, perhaps? The goal ended the game, and maybe the league. Barcelona had just beaten Madrid 3-0; for the first time in their history they had taken three points at the Bernabeu for a third season in a row, aggregate score 10-2. The most successful year in Real Madrid’s history – their fifth title, the Club World Cup, was briefly offered to supporters before the game – closed with them all but handing back the league they won in May.
“It hurts,” Zinedine Zidane said. “But,” he insisted, “Madrid never surrender, no matter what. People can think the league is over but I don’t think so and the opposition coach doesn’t think so either.” Ernesto Valverde didn’t – or he didn’t say so, anyway – yet as Zidane suspected, almost everyone else did and not without reason. High in the north stand, a few hundred Barcelona fans waved and sang “Goodbye to the league, goodbye.”
A chant of “Campeones” followed. Elsewhere in the stadium, they streamed for the exits, making their way out into the sunshine in silence. What noise there was came in the form of whistles. Soon Barcelona’s players were boarding planes at Barajas, heading home happy for their holidays. Valverde insisted “we’re not even at half-way yet”, but his team are already winter champions – an honorary ‘title’ handed to the team top at halfway when 19 games have been played and everyone has faced everyone once – and, as Marca’s front page put it, “virtually summer champions too.”
Victory also took Barcelona nine points clear of Atletico and eleven points ahead of Valencia, both of whom were beaten in the weekend. “It’s difficult,” Marcelo conceded. Sergio Ramos admitted: “We have to be realistic, it’s very complicated.”
Even if Madrid win their game in hand – against Leganes in February – and every other game too, Barcelona would still have to lose four times for them to win the league. So far this season, they have not lost one.
The last time Barcelona were beaten was the last time they came here. It was the Spanish Super Cup and it was August. Neymar had just gone, and mentally they looked gone too. Gerard Piqué ended that game sitting on the bench verbally muttering: “these guys are leading us a dance”; he ended this one heading up the pitch, looking for a goal of his own. That was him forcing the last corner.
By then, Barcelona dominated entirely, having slowly taken control as if by stealth, and he felt superior; back in August he had admitted that for the first time in nine years he felt “inferior” to Madrid. Since that night, Barcelona have played 25 games, 17 in the league, and have not lost, a resurrection quietly led by their new manager, who has guided them from crisis to the top of the table, unbeaten at Valencia, Atletico and Madrid, virtual champions at Christmas. Things change fast.
“It’s a lesson to us all,” Valverde said, nailing it as he does so often. There was a warning there - “the advantage can be gone in a flash,” he said - and a nod not just to his own team’s turnaround but Madrid’s too, urging caution and respect, a hint of Mr Wolf in his words. If it has happened once, twice, it can happen a third time.
Madrid won it all: European and domestic champions for the first time in 59 years, the talk was not just of having finally returned to the summit, winning a second league title in eight years and adding the European Cup, but staying there, a new era all of their own. And now this: the league almost relinquished before the winter’s even out.
“You lot have become too used to a good thing; this is sport, you can lose,” Marcelo said, while Ramos insisted that the Cl?sico defeat could not wipe out 2017: “Anyone who thinks this is a failure should look at the stats,” he said.
Yet defeat was a damaging one, places had been changed. “Back then people said they were sunk, tomorrow it’s us that will be ‘sunk’,” Zidane said. “There will be hostias,” he added. The hostia is the body of Christ, wafer-thin, the holy host, the consecrated bread, but it has multiple-meaning here, many of them sweary. It’s also a blow, a punch, a beating, a kicking and he was right: the kicking was coming.
When Karim Benzema departed he was whistled, one radio commentator declaring playing with him akin to playing with 10, and by then they really were playing with 10 of course after Dani Carvajal’s superb one-handed save from Paulinho.
Cristiano Ronaldo swung at his side’s best chance and missed the ball entirely. Sergio Ramos had hit out at Luis Su?rez, and while he claimed that “in Catalonia they’ll say I should go to jail, like Carles Puigdemont”, who is not actually in jail but in Belgium, there were complaints from the capital too. And there was criticism of the way Madrid took at step back in the second half, even if Valverde insisted “I don’t think that was a conscious decision”. By the end most agreed that Navas had been Madrid’s best player. Barcelona won 3-0 and ultimately it could have been much more.
Above all, the hostias were Zidane’s. “That’s football; I accept that,” he said, “I don’t regret anything and I won’t ever change.” This time, he had: his decision to leave out Isco, arguably their best player in 2017, and play Mateo Kovacic instead, was at the heart of the analyses and the attacks.
Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi dribbles past Real Madrid’s Raphael Varane (left) and Nacho as Gareth Bale looks on during the La Liga match at the Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid on Saturday. (Reuters)