Well, the first post-Mourinho Classico has come and gone, and it was a game with little to complain about. Tactical surprises from both sides, though by far the more dramatic coming from Mourinho’s replacement. Tata Martino had previewed Fabregas’s role as a false nine in last weekend’s game against Osasuna, though there it was disguised amongst resting players rather than in between Neymar and Messi, freeing up Iniesta and Xavi to take up their traditional midfield positions. Carlo Ancelotti, though, was the one who went “strikerless,” giving Gareth Bale his Classico debut at the top of a 4-3-3, ensuring that the hard-working Ángel Di María stayed in the starting XI. In fact, Ancelotti went a step further by including a fifth defender in his midfield three; but the real surprise, was that Sergio Ramos rather than Pepe was the one who moved up.
We also got a game of two halves. Barcelona looked the better team in the first half despite a sluggish start from Messi, Neymar looking particularly dangerous as his team’s attack came mostly down his left flank. The second half, though, showed a re-energized Real Madrid from the outset, with Ancelotti’s key substitutions–Illarramendi for Ramos at 55′, and Benzema for Bale at 61′–looking sharp enough to raise questions about his starting line-up. His third substitution, the young Jesé Rodriguez, scored Madrid’s only goal off a lovely feed from Ronaldo (on a play started by the sharp-looking Benzema). But Martino’s substitutions, too, showed. Alexis Sánchez scored a lovely, impertinent winner, and Alex Song looked as competent as he ever has in a Barcelona jersey, with Martino introducing him as part of a shift to a 4-2-3-1 rather than asking him to recreate Busquets’s brilliance in Barcelona’s typical 4-3-3.
We even had a healthy touch of controversy, compliments of referee Alberto Undiano Mallenco. Credit him with consistency, as his reputation for letting teams play was certainly on display in this game. His non-call on Mascherano’s clear foul on Ronaldo in the penalty box was difficult to justify, and in a 2-1 game particularly momentous. But Ramos’s two forearm shivers of Neymar at the opening of the match underlined that Madrid, too, benefitted from the referee’s leniency.
So much to enjoy. And yet . . .
Since I’ve previously written in praise of Mourinho’s tactical acumen, I should probably add that I was also among those who felt that his poisoning of an already volatile rivalry was probably bad for Spanish soccer. Even so, I have to confess that something was missing from yesterday’s game. I wish I could put my finger on it.