Monday 22 January 2018

Sons of the system have mastered the perfect game

Tommy Conlon

They say that while Barcelona's players partied in the finest clubs on Monday night, new T-shirts were being pressed by the truckload.

And the printed legend was simple. The manufacturers just stuck to the facts: Camp Nou, 29/11/2010. 5-0. Nothing more needed to be said. They didn't even have to name the teams.

DVDs of the game were also being rush-released and it would only have taken a small amount of imagination to come up with the perfect soundtrack: Freddie Mercury, Montserrat Caballe and their operatic homage to the capital of Catalonia. Barcelona! Barcelona! Barcelona!

One could also envisage in that euphoric city a thousand triumphalist bars where men stood on chairs and declared: General Franco, Julio Iglesias, Rafa Nadal, Placido Domingo, Antonio Banderas, Sergio Garcia, Penelope Cruz -- your boys took a hell of a beating tonight. Your boys took a hell of a beating tonight.

It couldn't have been a better night, for it was the night of the manita -- the little hand, the full deck, a goal for each finger. Four goals would've been marvellous but five was beautiful. No words were needed now because they had the symbol that said everything: a raised hand, with the fingers spread wide. It's a Spanish thing, apparently. At full-time the players did it, and many in the 100,000 crowd did it too. Some newspapers the next morning simply put a hand on the front page instead of an action photo. The cartoonist with Sport told his readers that "instead of drawing, I have decided to scan my hand", and that's exactly what he did.

It was the result out of a dream for followers of Barcelona. They had beaten Real Madrid 5-0; they had outclassed them to the point of humiliation. They wouldn't need the benefit of hindsight to appreciate its historic nature. They knew at the final whistle that it would go into the records books as one of the landmark games in the story of that rivalry. They knew that it would be remembered for generations to come.

On every level, it was just about perfect. Real had been unbeaten all season; they were top of La Liga; they had conceded just six league goals; and they were managed by a man who had long ago become a hate figure in the city. Only seven months earlier, Jose Mourinho had pranced onto the Camp Nou pitch as manager of the Inter Milan side that had lost 1-0 on the night but had won 3-2 on aggregate in their Champions League semi-final. Barcelona were the European champions and Inter had dethroned them and now Mourinho was taunting their fans with his celebrations.

On Monday night, he'd stood on the touchline and watched as the first Barcelona goal was scored, and then the second. He sat in the dugout for the second half as the looming defeat turned into a rout. The Barca fans took exquisite pleasure in his deepening discomfort. "Come out the dugout!" they chanted, "Jose, come out the dugout!"

And the Barca players took exquisite pleasure in their work too, for they never let up as they hacked Madrid to pieces with their incomparable passing game. Once again, they owned the ball, completing 636 passes to Madrid's 279. Once again, the troika of Messi, Xavi and Iniesta ran the show. They were untouchable, often literally so. Xavi, the midfield grandmaster, completed 114 of 117 passes. In the build-up to the second goal, they stitched together 21 passes in 57 seconds, the ball untouched by an opponent, as if there wasn't an opponent on the field at all.

Afterwards their coach dedicated the win to Johan Cruyff. The great man, along with his assistant Carles Rexach, had planted this style of play at the club during his glorious managerial reign in the early 1990s. This team was the culmination of that vision. Cruyff and Rexach were the men, said Pep Guardiola, "who started us like this, laying down the approach we consider non-negotiable." The Barcelona academy schools all its players in the possession game. We are, said Xavi afterwards, "sons of the system."

With an hour gone in the Clasico on Monday night, Barcelona were four up. "Goals fall at Camp Nou," wrote Ramon Besa in El

Pais, "like autumn leaves: naturally, beautifully and serenely." "They could have played with two balls," wrote Roberto Palomar, "and Barcelona would have controlled both."

In their previous league match they had dismantled Almeria 8-0. But this wasn't a basement side they were playing, it was Real Madrid, a team with nearly €300 million worth of talent on the field. And in the end, Barcelona were toying with them. Madrid's players spent the night chasing a ball that kept disappearing just as they thought they had it. They were tackling air.

Barca didn't just have the ball on a string, they had their opponents on a string too, manipulating their movement, luring them in, turning them this way and that, running them into the ground.

In a sequence around the 70th minute, they reeled off, in succession, a dummy, a flick, a nutmeg and a backheel, to a chorus of olés from the crowd. Then, just for good measure, they strung together another dozen passes -- and all of it near the left touchline, under the nose of Mourinho.

On this night of nights, Guardiola's final instruction to his players was to celebrate until dawn.

Sunday Independent

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