Real Madrid in from the dog house at last
Spain’s World Cup-winning team threatened to implode after a new level of regional hatred was introduced by Jose Mourinho, Real Madrid’s incendiary new coach. Former Real President Florentino Perez had returned in 2009, assuming he could once again buy glory as in 2002, but the game had somewhat changed. He spent €94 million on Cristiano Ronaldo and frittered away €65 million on a finished Kaka, the third and first most expensive transfers in history within days of each other. A world in financial crisis recoiled at such figures and in 2010 the outlay proved ineffective, Real shockingly losing to Lyon in the second round as always, for the sixth time in a row a non-factor in the Champions League. So, having bought the best players, Perez went for the best manager for season 2011, the man whose touch up to now had always turned to gold.
Early in the year the Champions League was graced by young winger Gareth Bale’s legendary two performances for Tottenham against European Champions Internazionale. By the end of the season Barcelona and Real Madrid were the only items on the menu. Mourinho’s first match against the team of the era in November resulted in a humiliating 0-5 defeat, defender Gerard Pique, home grown of course, taking the opportunity to wave the ‘five’ hand, a reminder of the insult that Johan Cruyff had engendered with a 5-0 win over Real in the 70s.
Four Clásicos in three weeks decide the season
As the season’s end approached it became obvious that Barca and Real would end up contesting every tournament against each other. Messi and Ronaldo were scoring goals at a rate never seen before – Ronaldo would score eleven goals in the last four league matches to crack 40 for the first time in La Liga history, and Messi was not far behind. They ended up playing each other four times in three weeks, in the league, the Copa del Rey final (finally won by Real in a very defensive manner, after Barca had beaten them five times in a row going back to 2008), leading up to the main dish, the two Champions League semi-finals.
Much like Spain-Holland, a fixture (or four) that promised the greatest that football could offer devolved into the opposite. Mourinho began talking conspiracies, an exasperated Guardiola sarcastically called him the “fucking master”, which his players all applauded, and by the third match – the Champions League semi – everyone hated everyone.
After seventy-six minutes of Real playing a hugely defensive match at home, both teams yapping like dogs and idiot Pepe receiving his usual red card, Barca’s unknown Dutch winger Ibrahim Affelay got around his marker Marcelo and put the ball in for a flying Messi tap-in. He had saved the sport from itself yet again, but ten minutes later he left jaws dropped everywhere when he received the ball in midfield, skirted around four defenders and rolled a slow ball, perfectly angled past Casillas. Leo Messi. Wow.
By the time of the fourth match everyone was just glad it was all over, although Higuain’s goal that could have sparked a comeback was ineptly disallowed, Ronaldo bizarrely punished for a foul after he’d been bodychecked to the ground by Pique.
That of course set everyone off again: Mourinho, but more surprisingly Real’s Xabi Alonso, who had previously been a paragon of dignity for Liverpool but perhaps betrayed his Basque roots by crossing to Real Madrid. Xabi Alonso had bitten the bullet two years ago knowing from his and Cesc’s experience on the bench in 2008 that he had to play in Spain to be a starter for Spain. He became a quick enemy to the Barcelona players, his Spain teammates, to the point that years later they no longer spoke to one another, the seed almost certainly sown in these inflammatory matches in 2011.
The final was no contest, perhaps the perfect demonstration of Barcelona’s ability summed up in one match, but Manchester United – for whom a thirty-eight year old Giggs had starred with assist after assist – were their usual paper tiger selves against the very best, as in 2009 showing none of the conviction of an Inter or a Chelsea in trying to compete with and test Barcelona. Still, their lying down provided the awesome spectacle of Barcelona doing whatever they wanted. Xavi and Co had won the year’s major trophy for the fourth year in a row. Barca took a step to regaining the class they had lost in the clásicos and last season’s Sprinkler-gate by allowing peripheral French left-back Eric Abidal, who had been battling extra-ordinary health issues, to accept the trophy as Barcelona’s ‘captain’.
They were a classic team. Victor Valdes was the home-grown goalkeeper. Brazilian nominal right-back Dani Alves was a carbon copy of Roberto Carlos. Mr Barcelona, central defender Puyol, was the one who was occasionally left to rescue the team when everyone else had gone forward to attack. His much needed grrrrr prevented Barca from sliding into a kind of all-midfield, artsy mush. In 2009 he was complimented by two emerging defenders who would both be in place alongside Puyol for Spain to win the World Cup. Gerard Pique was the twin central defender that Puyol needed, who would see his focus eventually wander without Puyol to keep him in check on and off the field. (Pique, on field, after one of Puyol’s later frequent injury layoffs: “Puyi, I’ve missed you, it’s so great having you back!” Puyol: “Shut the hell up and concentrate.”)
A defensive mid also arrived on scene that year, home grown like Pique, who with his classical Spaniard looks became the perfect partner for both the defence behind him and Xavi and Iniesta ahead of him in midfield. Sergio Busquets would later be fingered as the player who left unchecked would always start Barca’s attacks with his simple passes and link play. Xavi and Iniesta worked their usual stuff ahead of him. The front trio varied year by year, but in 2011 featured Pedro on the left, Messi in the middle and Villa sometimes settled on the right, each well suited to those positions.
It was the peak.