Football is a game of balance. The pitch is divided in equal halves; teams of equal number attack and defend in a positional tug of war, which returns to the centre after every goal. At the end of a match one team wins, one loses (or if not, then they share the points). In order to play there is a basic physical requirement to keep upright (or as Ray Wilkins succinctly puts it: ‘Stay on Your Feet!’), without which the game becomes meaningless. Last night’s Champion’s League semi-final between Barcelona and Real Madrid was a game that reminds us of balance; that ‘for every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction’. For every scintillating match that can be played, there is always an abomination waiting around the corner.
In November, Barcelona produced a breath-taking performance of skill and guile, to thoroughly embarrass their rivals 5-0. It was reported with a hushed reverie; journalists and fans alike quickly out-superlatived themselves in its description. It was even preserved in incredible animation by Richard Swarbrick. It was a tremendous game and a virtuoso team performance, but it also created an imbalance which was rectified in part last night.
In place of incisive creativity, came cautious control. Days rolled by as the ball metronomically swung across the blaugrana back line, without advancing ten yards. Madrid for their part appeared in a stupor; shuffling horizontally with only a passing interest in following the ball. It took mavericks like Xavi or Villa to brazenly attack with any purpose; only to be met with spoiling fouls and gestures for yellow cards. Sometimes, as Pedro proved, it wasn’t even necessary to have the ball at your feet to fall over in spectacular fashion.
Such theatrics may serve to even out Barcelona’s claim to the moral high ground to a more satisfying degree. Pride in the technical ability of the La Masia production line is tempered by the hilarious, ham-acting bred there. Over the last few years it has been easy for Barcelona fans to gloat and preen, watching one of the best domestic sides of the modern era. Today, the eulogizing of the club philosophy – més que un club – must find room to include the barks and yelps of every over-acted tackle.
For a team to boast such talent, yet waste it rolling on the ground and clutching their faces, insults everyone. As Pedro and Busquets lay prone once more, Carles Puyol’s cringing was almost palpable. As their first reaction is to collapse, it is Puyol’s last. It was also intriguing to watch Messi. Marginalized for much of the game, due to the containment possession his side deployed, he was allowed few forays near the Madrid goal. But when Affelay was introduced late on, Messi suddenly perked up, apparently happy to finally have someone to play with. Moments later Affelay supplied the cross for Messi to score the first. Shackles removed, it wasn’t long before he decided to provide his own homage to equilibrium, gliding through five of the Madrid rearguard for his second. No crumpling to the ground in mock agony, just composure of physical body and skill.
And so there is a sense of trepidation ahead of the final El Clásico next week. Which way will the scales tip? Can we expect Madrid to swing the pendulum back towards them with a powerful attacking game, or Barcelona to emphasize their technical superiority? With stakes so high, we may endure another poisonous soap opera. This season we have witnessed the best and worst of this fixture and have to accept that with one, comes the other. Such are the rewards of watching football; the sublime can occur amongst absurdity.
picture by MAMJODH on flickr.