Saturday, 17 December 2011

Barcelona's Weeping Angels Show Their Nasty Side

By Shane Thomas

The worlds of Doctor Who and el Clasico are ones that seldom collide. But the twain seemed to meet after last weekend's encounter between Real Madrid and Barcelona.

As Real suffered their ninth defeat in the last ten clasicos, I was put in mind of the brilliant episode of Doctor Who, "Blink". The monsters in the aforementioned piece were "The Weeping Angels", benign statues whenever they are looked at, but rapid, ferocious monsters when they could escape the affliction of being gazed upon.

The Doctor gives an impassioned warning to combat these creatures. "Don't turn your back. Don't look away. And don't blink!" After 23 seconds it seemed to work, as Real hunted the ball down from the kick-off, pressuring Victor Valdes into a horrendous error. Before a minute of the match had elapsed, Los Merengues were 1-0 up.

It turned out to be the worst thing that could have happened to Real. They got a little too comfortable, forgetting the monumental focus it takes to beat this Barcelona outfit. Head coach, Pep Guardiola changed tack. Pushing Dani Alves into midfield, and switching captain, Carles Puyol to right-back, his team slowly grabbed control of the game. Just when Madrid looked to have finally found an answer to Barcelona, Guardiola changed the question. The fluid and entertaining football of the Catalans have had many branding them as football's angels. But these angels have a nasty side.

Real Madrid should need no reminding of this, as they were massacred by Barca only a year ago. But Lionel Messi took it upon himself to give the Madridistas a re-education. Picking the ball up on the half-way line, he zipped through three challenges at breakneck speed. Madrid's right-back, Fabio Coentrao allowed himself to be diverted by Messi's spell. It wasn't for long, barely a second, about as long as it takes to blink.

But that's long enough for the Spanish champions. Messi's perceptive pass gave Alexis Sanchez a yard of space past Coentrao, and the scores were level.

While Xavi's fortuitous goal to make the score 2-1 in Barcelona's favour should not be forgotten, Cristiano Ronaldo's inexplicable miss to equalise for Real was just as relevant to the end result. He may be second best to Messi in the pantheon of the game's best players, but one area where he's always been the superior is his aerial threat. So his failure to score with a free header in the second half defies logical reasoning. The only explanation is a simple failure of temperament. His desire to seize the occasion proved too much for him. He blinked.

And within minutes, the Weeping Angels struck again. Counter-attacking with menace, Dani Alves (who was arguably man of the match) burst down the right hand side, and his threatening cross was headed in by Cesc Fabregas at the far post. 3-1 Barcelona. Game over.

But it was the build-up to the goal that revealed all. Coentrao (who had a miserable evening) tried, and failed to win the ball back in midfield. In sheer frustration, he briefly swung his arm in an air punch motion, turning his back on the action.

As The Doctor stated, "Don't turn your back!" While Coentrao was solipsistically stewing, Fabregas stayed focused on the game, raced past the Portugese, and beat him to the ball to seal the match.

This was not a vintage Barcelona performance, full of verve of grace. In a way, this was even more terrifying. They were professional, focused, disciplined, and ultimately ruthless. They preyed on their opponents frailties, and delighted in exposing them to the watching world. Not only is this Catalan team beautiful, but they are also mean. And that's why there's no better side on the planet right now.

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