This week's pulsating Clasico derby between Real Madrid and Barcelona was one of the greatest games seen in top-level football in recent years. But more than that, it was a sign that, driven by two stars from opposite sides of one of the sport's fiercest rivalries, one South American team nation will be a force to be reckoned with in Brazil 2014.
From almost the very first minute, Argentine talent was a key factor in the action-packed Clasico. Unsurprisingly, it was Lionel Messi who led the way for Albiceleste fans.
It was the Rosario native’s intricate pass that split open the Madrid back line after just six minutes, allowing Andres Iniesta to smash home Barcelona’s opener at the Santiago Bernabeu. But another famous son of Argentina’s third-biggest city was determined to show his worth.
Having had to work so hard to secure his place in the Madrid first XI, a task made no easier by the record signing of Gareth Bale at the start of the season, Angel Di Maria has finally succeeded in convincing the Merengue faithful that he is a top-class footballer. He might not electrify the home crowd to quite the same extent as the bombastic Welshman, but he is arguably a more effective player in the distinctive white of the Spanish capital club.
A perfectly placed cross following Iniesta’s opener found Karim Benzema’s head, and in the blink of an eye Madrid equalized. The next time Di Maria found himself in possession in Barca's final third the outcome was almost identical: a cross intricately placed, Benzema in position, a volley and a goal. Those two superb assists took the former Benfica man's Primera Division tally to 10 for the season.
But the night really belonged to Leo. A low shot driven past Diego Lopez on the brink of half-time marked the Argentine out as the Clasico's all-time top scorer, a tremendous achievement for the man who seems to be continually breaking records. And two more goals were to come, both impeccably converted from the penalty spot, as Barcelona obtained a 4-3 triumph that breathes new life into their title challenge.
Whoever came out on top, the result was a clear victory for Argentine football. Let us not forget either that the Barcelona coach is one Gerardo Martino, plucked from the local leagues on the strength of his fantastic work with Newell’s Old Boys. Despite never having managed in Europe the former Paraguay national coach has taken effortlessly to Spanish football, adapting well to his new surroundings.
And where exactly does Martino call home, out of curiosity? Of course, just like the stars of Sunday night’s gripping festivities on the pitch, nowhere else but the “Cradle of the Argentine Flag,” Rosario.
Players such as Messi and Di Maria—and let us not forget Javier Mascherano, a mainstay in the Barcelona set-up—deserve all the acclaim they receive, both in and out of Argentina. Equally, the fact that both Martino and Diego Simeone, whose Atletico Madrid now lead La Liga, are at the helm of Spanish and European powerhouses speaks volumes about the state of Argentine coaching at the present time.
Simeone and Martino may well receive their opportunity to direct Argentina in World Cups to come. But for the present, the country is behind Alejandro Sabella to end a 28-year drought and deliver the third trophy for the football-mad nation.
With stars like Messi and Di Maria in such electric form, that does not seem an outrageous idea at all.
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