Glory of El Clasico puts Manchester derby in shadows
Published 25/03/2014 | 02:30
Manchester United are hoping to round off their rehabilitation as major players on the world football scene when their noisy, expensive neighbours arrive at Old Trafford tonight.
Maybe Wayne Rooney will knock in another Beckham-esque wonder-goal. Perhaps Ryan Giggs will take another last dip into the old talent reservoir.
But then do they really grasp how far they now have to travel to regain some of their old international prestige?
They certainly would if they'd lifted their heads out of the trenches long enough to see and absorb the meaning of the latest Clasico.
It did, after all, unfurl like a starburst at the Bernabeu on Sunday night. In the lustrous process, United-City was relegated to the foothills of world club football. Indeed only Bayern Munich, and their coach and creator of so much of the Barcelona mystique that resurfaced so exquisitely in Madrid, Pep Guardiola, had reason not to stand befuddled in the resulting glow.
La Liga has three potent Champions League challengers to title-holders Bayern and at least as many reasons to believe that the genius of Spanish football, which has yielded the historic haul of two European Championships and one World Cup in the last six years, is still some way from being played out.
Bayern, it is true, demolished Barca last spring, but though the superlative Lionel Messi is still plainly short of maximum fitness, his latest hat-trick performance insisted that news of his decline has been grossly exaggerated.
Barcelona's 4-3 triumph was shot through with controversy, and the usual boiling animus, but from the moment Andres Iniesta, another masterful player supposedly heading for the wrong side of the mountain, riveted the attention with a superb early strike, there was an overwhelming constant.
It was football that might have been ordained by the gods.
As much as anything, it was a guide to the huge gulf between the pretensions of the Premier League and the enduring achievement of the Spanish game. In the Premier League the boast was that there were four authentic challengers for the title in the most intriguing race in years.
Yet the day before the Madrid fiesta one of those contenders, Arsenal, had to have their pictures turned to the wall. They fell apart under the pressure applied by Jose Mourinho's Chelsea.
In Spain both Real and Barca lag behind the potential usurpers, Atletico Madrid. If the authors of such sublime football at the Bernabeu could not separate themselves from all other rivals in their own land, where did that leave the Premier League's belief that it can still claim to be the world's No 1 league?
It may be financially the best underpinned, but when ever did one of its game's so entrance 500 million world-wide viewers?
If the point needed any fresh emphasis it was surely provided by the relative anonymity of the world's most expensive player, Gareth Bale.
The man who so recently ravaged the Premier League on behalf of Tottenham had his moments, no doubt, but his impact became as pale as his Real shirt when set against the collective rhythm of Barcelona and the extraordinary contributions of Messi and Iniesta as they put their different stamps on all four goals. For Real a large part of their pain in defeat must have come from the fact that two of Bale's team-mates came so close to overshadowing even Messi – and that neither of them was the unusually spasmodic reigning World Player of the Year, Cristiano Ronaldo.
They were Karim Benzema, the scorer of two dazzling goals, and Angel di Maria, the creator of both of them.
If Arsenal's broken manager Arsene Wenger had the nerve to turn on his television on Sunday night his mood could not have been soothed by the performance of the luminous Di Maria.
Wenger paid £40m for the Argentinian's former clubmate Mesut Ozil and has watched him descend from a brilliantly confident start into the crisis of self-belief which cast the first huge question mark over Arsenal's ability to end eight years of futility.
In the most extreme comparison, Di Maria flew at Barcelona with stunning drive and invention. Real's creative force was on fire to such a degree that only supreme effort – and inspiration – could have stifled the flames.
It was forthcoming soon enough. As Barca rebuilt their performance, as their embattled coach Tata Martino seemed ready to burst out of his bedraggled suit, and his normally phlegmatic rival Carlo Ancelotti repeatedly puffed out his cheeks, we had football that purred beyond any reasonable anticipation. This was despite all kinds of tumult which elsewhere might have ended in all levels of disruption right up to riot.
But as Ronaldo stole a penalty, and Sergio Ramos collected still another red card, this one somewhat harsh, there was no dwindling of accomplishment. It was as though, amid all the hair-trigger reflexes and burning sense of injustice, there was a level of intelligence and technique which was beyond any kind of hindrance.
The Premier League can only fantasise about such levels of accomplishment at Old Trafford tonight. Rooney and City's Yaya Toure certainly scored goals at the weekend which are bound to linger in the memory.
However, they were registered against Fulham and West Ham, teams who would surely have been asked for their credentials 10 minutes after showing up at the Bernabeu on Sunday night.
That, anyway, had to be one jaundiced conclusion as the game in Madrid kept pushing up levels of expectation. All of football, at least outside of Munich, had lessons to learn, ambitions to set.
For United, given the best of their tradition, there was an extremely basic one. It was that if you have established a way of playing, and of thinking about what you represent, there can be no pause in your commitment to the highest standards.
There can be no breathers, no transitions. Only an unending duty to prove that you are the best. That was the glory – the relentless glory – of the latest running of El Clasico.