I’m a passionate fan—I love Real Madrid deeply, I watch every game, and I count some of Madrid’s victories among the best moments of my life. I remember every second of Madrid’s 1-0 win in 1996 against Juventus in the final of the Champions League. I remember waving a flag on my balcony after Mijatovic scored. I remember walking to the Cibeles with my dad at one in the morning. I was nine years old.
So you can imagine what the past few clásicos have been like for me: los blancos have been repeatedly humiliated by Barcelona over the last two years. Each time I watched Barça’s players celebrate while Iker Casillas looked around in disgust I felt a knife jab a little deeper into my gut.
But this year was going to be different. In the off-season, Florentino—an antihero executive—brought the greatest antihero coach, with arguably the best tactical mind on the planet to the Bernabéu. He brought in a group of excellent young players that I have no doubt will become an amazing nucleus to build around. Madrid was suddenly the youngest team in the Liga BBVA—words that I didn’t ever think I would write.
José Mourinho’s first few games were a bit rocky—Madrid drew 0-0 twice in three games, and only managed one goal—but then came the explosion. 5-1, 6-1, the goals were pouring in like rain.
Suddenly, this downtrodden team looked, well, good. With Mesut Özil and Ángel di María running lightning fast breaks, and Cristiano Ronaldo scoring at a record pace, we finally had something to be proud about in Madrid. When the familiar chorus sang the Champions League anthem before the Milan game in October, I looked at the young faces clad in white, and I smiled. This team was inspiring, fast-paced, vertical—everything that I remember about the great Real Madrid teams of my youth.
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Of course, we should have seen this coming. As Mourinho said, “Real Madrid is not a finished product.” The team still needed time to gel, but we were too caught up in the Real Moudrid to listen. I arrogantly claimed that this team should be considered the frontrunners for the Champions League; I wrote articles saying things like “we’re back!” and “hello Europe, this is Madrid calling, please leave the light on for us at the final in the spring!”
Well, maybe Real Madrid is on its way back. But after getting trounced by Barça in the Nou Camp, it looks like los vikingos have a long, long way to go. It didn’t matter that Mourinho was sitting on the bench—it was as if the entire last few months had never happened, and Manuel Pellegrini was back in the dugout.
This isn’t to say that the first few months of the season weren’t fantastic; just that the clásico broke the spell that Mourinho’s arrival and Madrid’s subsequent brilliance had cast over us madridistas. Even Eduardo Inda, editor-in-chief of the unabashedly madridista Spanish sports daily Marca, criticized Mourinho. “If you don’t run or pressure the ball, you will never beat Barcelona,” he said. Compared to his normal Mourinho infatuated rants, this was the equivalent of throwing a brick through a window on Real Madrid’s team bus. Well, almost.
So what can we learn from the game itself? A few key things:
(1) When he’s playing well, Sergio Ramos is one of the best right backs in the world. When he’s not, he’s one of the absolute worst. He played terribly against Barcelona, and David Villa sliced him to pieces.
(2) Even San Iker can make mistakes. If he hangs on to Villa’s shot, then the second goal never happens, and Madrid very possibly goes into the dressing room down 1-0 (or 1-1 if they get the call on the Valdes penalty).
(3) Despite how good he has looked over the past couple of months, Marcelo still has a lot of maturing to do if he is going to be a great player. He was embarrassed in this match by Xavi (understandable, kind of) and by Pedro (not understandable at all). Mourinho really needs to help him with his defense if he’s going to play left back for Madrid in the future.
(4) The same goes for Özil. He was embarrassed by Sergio Busquets, and was totally lost for the whole first half. He didn’t orchestrate any incredible counters, run with the ball at pace, or even make a single half-decent progressive pass. To be fair, it’s not like Lass was any better in the second half.
(5) Di María needs to stay. The kid is pure dynamite, and should be the frontrunner for the remaining midfield spot once Kaká comes back.
(6) Benzema: what can I say about this guy? I’m still convinced he’s going to be good, but for some reason he’s playing better off the bench this season. Unfortunately, with rumors of Madrid buying Adebayor or Mireiles swirling around, he could have his work cut out for him soon enough.
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(7) CR7 needs help! He needs a central creative player to really be himself. Without Özil playing the way he can, Cristiano disappears intermittently, and only reappears to take long shots.
Overall, the game was a disaster; from Iker on up, every single player played worse than anything we’ve seen so far this year. I could spend a couple paragraphs moaning about the refereeing—which vacillated between phenomenal (some good calls on tricky offside rulings) and awful (blowing the obvious CR7/Valdes penalty)—but I won’t. Barcelona outplayed Madrid and deserved to win.
It pains me to write that last sentence. But it’s true.
Does this mean that suddenly Real Madrid is a terrible team? That we have nothing to play for, that Barça will run away with every title this year? Not so fast. Just because we had our fantasy bubble burst doesn’t mean that we should give up. Real Madrid still has the youngest team in the Liga BBVA. Mesut Özil, Ángel di María, Gonzalo Higuaín, Karim Benzema, Sami Khedira and Sergio Canales are all astoundingly good players—albeit inconsistent. Iker Casillas—who is, against all odds, mortal—is still the best keeper in the world. And José Mourinho, no matter what criticisms Barça fans, UEFA, or any other commentators hurl at him, is still the best coach in the world.
So fine, be angry, be depressed, go into media blackout. But more than anything, remember that this team isn’t finished yet. Remember that Madrid is a work in process, that this team has unlimited potential. Remember that we still have Kaká coming back from injury, that these players have known each other for a little over three months. Remember not to write us off, because this group of players, with this coach, still has everything to accomplish.
Even in this, one of the darkest hours of madridismo, there is still hope. I’ve said it all year, and I’ll say it again: be patient. This team, this coach, this administration, can and will do amazing things. Just give them time. Hala Madrid.
For more Real Madrid coverage, check out Gabe's blog, download his podcast on iTunes, and follow him as he chronicles Real Madrid's 2010-2011 season on B/R. A por ellos!