El Gran Classico
By Tim Evershed
Although Barcelona entered the match on a fifteen match unbeaten run, there was no shotage of confidence from the locals in the Estadio Santiago Bernabeau. There were smiles all round as I weaved through the crowds, got myself a beer and found my seat. The sunshine on the pitch was definitely reflected by the mood of the home fans. Engaging those around me with my pidgin Spanish, I was given bold predictions of 3-1, 3-0 and even 4-1 all in favour of 'Los Merengues'. Opinion was firmly fixed that Zidane is the best player in the world and if Ronaldo wasn't on hand to score the goals, Santiago Solari would be, the Catalans were merely there to make up the numbers. I was also warned by neighbours behind, one of whom appeared to be the fattest man in the ground, the other the oldest, not to stand up as they couldn't be bothered to and I'd only be blocking their view - not quite the passion I'd been expecting at 'El Gran Classico'. At the other end of the ground, the Ultra Surs made up for my neighbours laziness with a constant barrage of noise and colour.
Although Salgado's run and cross provided Solari with the the first chance of the match as early as the second minute, the two teams cancelled each other out for much of the first-half, as typified by the battle between old Juventus team mates Zidane and Davids. The two sides sparred for the most of the opening half an hour, with a lot of possession footbll, some good passing being broken up by the occasional robust challenge as both sides were unable to create any clear chances.
As the half wore on, it was Madrid that took the ascendancy and 'Los Merengues' were left wondering quite how they didn't take a lead into half-time after a crazy few moments when the Barca goal led a distinctly charmed life. In the thirty-seventh minute, the otherwise outstanding Valdez spilled a rasping Zidane shot into the path of Raul and was forced to make a miraculous save from the Madrid striker, however he could only deflect the ball to Roberto Carlos, who could hardly believe it when Puyol headed his shot off the goal line! A couple of minutes later a Beckham free-kick caused mayhem, Raul was thwarted by a combination of Valdez and the crossbar, before the Barca keeper made a fantastic from Figo, who was so convinced the ball had crossed the line, he talked his way into his first unecessary yellow card of the evening. Barcelona went into the break visibly releived that the score remained 0-0.
The second-half began as the first had ended and despite continued resistance from Barca led by the solid Puyol a Madrid goal appeared only a matter of time. Eight minutes into the half, Zidane and Figo were each denied by a fantastic double save from Valdez. The Barca keeper was helpless though as Carlos laid off the resulting Beckham corner to Solari, who finished brilliantly from the edge of the box. Pandemonium ensued as the tension of so many near misses came spilling out, even the oldest man in the stadium managed to struggle out of his seat and join in the celebrations. Rijkaard responded immediately with a double substitution, and as Real Madrid old boy Luis Enrique entered the fray, the atmosphere turned from joy to hate amid accusations about the midfielder's mother and her 'professional background'! The change proved inspired though as within five minutes, van Brockhorst sprang the Madrid offside trap, cooly lobbed Casillas and Kluivert nodded into the unguarded goal.
Barcelona were now firmly in the ascendancy with Davids and Ronaldinho combining well in midfield, to eclipse Beckham and Zidane. Barcelona collectively and Ronaldinho individually were proving difficult to dispossess of the ball and Madrid's frustration bolied over in the shape of a ludicrous challenge by Figo on Puyol. There were few complaints as the Portuguese superstar left the field while the central defender lay receiving treatment. Barcelona immediately began making their man advantage count, the Catalans having more and more of the ball and Ronaldinho running the Real defence ragged, he mesmerised Carlos and Bravo before crossing to Kluivert who just failed to get over the ball and sent his header over the bar. The Brazilian couldn't be held for long and with time running out his exquisite touch found Xavi whose brilliant volley over Casillas was the winner. Barcelona could have had more in the closing minutes, as the Madrelinos exited in their hundreds but Ronaldinho and Motta were wasteful in front of goal.
It was a famous victory for Barca, their first in Madrid since 1997. Although the win was built on the solid defence of Puyol, the amazing goalkeeping of Valdez and the midfield control of Davids, with several other Barca stars providing good support, it was Ronaldinho who took man of the match honours. His control of the ball is instant and complete, he can hold the ball up using suprising strength and the full expanse of the pitch giving his teammates valuable time to join attacks. His dribbling will cause more than one Madrid defender to be having nightmares for a while, along with imaginative and pinpoint passing which provided some of the game's highlights, as well as the winner.
As for the members of 'Los Galacticos', they were collectively a disappointment. Ronaldo's reputation as Real's talisman was confirmed as once again they have lost a big match while he was missing. David Beckham had a few bright moments but was below his best. It probably wasn't easy for him to concentrate fully with Posh watching from the stands and Sarah Marbeck gazing down like Big Brother from the big screen! A couple of ridiculously exaggerated dives and a lot of fuss checking his studs in a pathetic attempt to excuse his wayward free-kick were his most memorable moments. Kind of ironic that he should confirm his role as king of the empty gesture in front of Victoria - wonder if she picked up on that, though? Roberto Carlos hit the advertising hoardings with amazing power a couple of times and generally enhanced his reputation as the most overrated player in world football, although who actually does rate him remains a mystery to me! Zidane played well but faded in the second-half, and his substitution signalled the end of Madrid's resistance as Davids and Ronaldinho took over the midfield. Figo was the one 'galactico' who was truly living up to billing, as he caused his old club a lot of problems, however two pointless but deserved bookings saw him depart the action and help decide the game's destiny, for that he was as culpable as Madrids's lack of defence for their loss.