As far as Clasicos go, Saturday’s was something of a nothingburger. It wasn’t a bad game per se, it just wasn’t the titanic battle of juggernauts to which we’ve become accustomed. It didn’t feel very classic, with Real Madrid coming close in the first half, and Barcelona sneaking three goals in the second to win 3-0.
The two rivals played a game that was tight for a half, back-and-forth after the break and wide-open late on. It felt like three different Clasicos rolled into one. Yet it also felt like any other game. It didn’t sparkle. And it didn’t thrill. Neither team was particularly memorable in its performance, in spite of the not inconsiderable stakes. Real badly needed a win to get back into the title race. Barca could all but claim the title before Christmas, barring a colossal collapse.
Barca now leads second-place Atletico Madrid by nine points and fourth-place Real by 14 points. It seems but a matter of formality for Barca to reclaim the Spanish title, after Real interrupted a string of two-straight Catalan championships last season.
But the game, in its relative flatness – again, compared to the heights of recent Clasicos – reflected two teams that are searching. Barca’s win was convincing, in the end. Even though Real edged the first half, Luis Suarez’s finish on a counter, Lionel Messi’s penalty kick and Aleix Vidal’s injury-time salt in the wound left little doubt. Yet Barca had to play in a fashion unconventional to its historical strengths and traditions.
Barca largely played on the counterattack. Because new manager Ernesto Valverde appears to be a pragmatist before all else, but also because Barca currently lacks the ability to dominate the two-time defending European champions on possession. Or at the very least lacks the conviction that it can.
There’s a distinct sense about this team that it’s coming down from the highs of the dynasty dating back to the 2008-09 season. Messi, Suarez and Gerard Pique have all turned 30. Sergio Busquets will this summer. Javier Mascherano is rumored to be leaving in the winter transfer window and is no longer a starter anyhow. Andres Iniesta is 33 and has been on the injury list four times already this season.
Neymar’s summer departure hurt for all manner of reasons – sporting, commercial, image, PR, replaceability – but it stung in particular because it happened after he’d finally lightened the attacking load on Messi, and shortly before Suarez lost a step. That further burdens the Argentine superstar. At an age when his responsibilities in the pedestrian games should be diminishing, he no longer has his two scintillating deputies to distract defenders.
It feels incongruous to speak of decline when Barca is steaming towards a fourth title in five years, has yet to lose a league game, and has scored 45 goals in 17 matches while conceding just seven. Yet it seems inevitable that it’s all going to come apart.
Barca remains the world’s most influential club. Yet its identity seems to be eroding in the midst of an emotional battle for Catalonia to finally win its independence from Spain. While the club endorsed, through its president, the recent referendum that claimed sovereignty but was brutally suppressed by the capital, many no longer see Barca as a symbol and tool of regional pride.
We’ve been hearing the complaint for years: Go to a game at the Camp Nou and you’ll find yourself surrounded not so much by Catalans as by fellow tourists. That’s probably an exaggeration, but it nonetheless speaks to the commercialized image of the club. Barca is a magnificently successful business, but it’s apparently no longer a vehicle for independence.
If Barca isn’t yet in decline but seems destined to be, Real has begun to slip. Yet that, too, is a jarring conclusion to come to when you consider that it has won the Champions League three of the last four years. It’s the first team to win the competition back-to-back years in the format adopted a quarter century ago. In fact, Real’s capture of the Club World Cup a week earlier made it five trophies in 2017 alone.
But Cristiano Ronaldo seems to finally be slowing a little. In the league, at least. He has a mere four goals and two assists just before the half-way point of the season. Real, meanwhile, has now lost three games and tied four, an unimaginable spillage of points at this stage. Strangely, that decline doesn’t hold true in Europe, where Zinedine Zidane’s men glided into the knockout stage yet again, while Ronaldo scored a staggering nine goals – one in each group stage match, becoming the first man to ever do so.
A look at Real’s roster leaves much the same impression as Barca’s. Ronaldo is a month and a half from his 33rd birthday. Sergio Ramos is 31. Luka Modric is 32 and has apparently made noises about leaving after the season. Karim Benzema is 30 and has not been an efficient striker for some time. Some of the other key players like Marcelo and Gareth Bale are 29 and 28, respectively. It’s little wonder that one report had club president Florentino Perez meeting with the father of Neymar, of all people, about a possible summer recruitment.
When Real hammered Barca 5-1 on aggregate in the Supercopa de Espana to open the season, it seemed that the balance of power had finally shifted. Real, after all, had a young core of Spanish players apparently ready to take over from the veterans. But they haven’t. Either because Zidane doesn’t trust them to or because they’re not good enough.
So Barca, which has no apparent successors lined up, remains on top. For now. It drove home the point in a Clasico that will be memorable only for its final score, rather than the quality of the play.
The next Clasico is slated for May 6, but it doesn’t promise to be much better.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.