Barcelona’s fate was in their own hands, which as it turned out was the worst place it could possibly be. Saturday’s story was the story of the season in Spain: everything changed to stay the same, the table remaining unmoved. Another dead ball, another defender leaping to score, another victory coming for Real Madrid, this time in the city derby – the game the front pages had declared “half the league” only that was not the half of it. Pepe’s header would have been an appropriate way to win their first title in five years but that was not the end and nor even was Antoine Griezmann’s equaliser. Sandro Ramírez’s goal 535km away might have been, though. Or Jony’s. Or Neymar’s red card.
Pepe had long since departed what was likely to be his last game for Madrid to a standing ovation, a hero with one goal and two broken ribs. There were five minutes to go at the Santiago Bernabéu, Madrid were leading 1-0 and it seemed to be all over. Standing on the touchline ready to come on was Alessio Cerci, the man who has not played a minute, whose only headlines came when he preferred pushing a pram round Gran Vía to watching his team-mates and whose name fans chanted against Bayer Leverkusen, pleading with Diego Simeone to bring him on – just for a laugh. But he did not get on then and he did not get on now. All he got was a good view of the goal that momentarily changed everything before he was sent to sit down again.
Ángel Correa slipped a lovely pass into Griezmann and he slipped in the knife, letting the ball run just far enough to evade Keylor Navas and finishing left-footed. He stood before the south end, doing that wiggly hands by his ears thing and pointing at the tape round his ankle – Mia, plus a heart, it displayed, his daughter, one that day – while high in the corner at the other end, a couple of hundred Atlético fans went wild. The rest of the stadium fell silent. At the whistle, Simeone celebrated, shaking his fists wildly before he raced down the tunnel. For the fourth year in a row, Atlético left the Bernabéu unbeaten; there’s always something special about the derby and he probably thought that he had just denied his rivals a title his side has won as many times in the past eight years as they have.
Madrid thought so, too; perhaps more significantly, so did Barcelona.
Cristiano Ronaldo chewed his lip, eyes lost, slowly, unbuttoning his shirt.
Marcelo was gesticulating to Casemiro, furious it had slipped through their fingers. He talked about “errors that can’t happen again”. Again? They could hardly afford for them to happen then, or so they thought. Yes, it was still in their hands but it was now in Barcelona’s hands, too. The gap at the top was three points, with the clásico to come in a fortnight. “I’m disappointed,” Zinedine Zidane said, quietly. Then he added: “But this doesn’t change anything.” Most disagreed; it changed everything. Outside the Bernabéu the streets were strangely silent in the sunshine. It was dark by the time they were revived.
All Barcelona had to do was win the next seven games and they would win the league, no matter what Madrid did. They could even win their next one. It was 5.57pm when Griezmann stood there in front of the south stand; four hours and 10 minutes later to the south, the Rosaleda roared as Neymar trudged towards the touchline, shaking his head, pausing to applaud the fourth official as he disappeared down the tunnel. In bars, restaurants and homes across Madrid they were applauding, too. Barcelona were 1-0 down, defeat closing in, their rivals’ lead remained.
The opening goal had been scored by a former Barcelona player, Sandro, his ninth of the season – in the Barcelona squad, only Leo Messi and Luis Suárez have more than him, while Paco Alcácer has only three – and he did celebrate it. So did Madrid fans. Now they were celebrating again.
There were still 25 minutes left, it is true, but Barcelona were down to 10 men and it was not like a draw was much good to them, while the sarcastic clapping as Neymar left probably means an extra game ban, too – and that means the clásico. And as Barcelona pushed, they were caught once more, Jony making it 2-0 in the last minute.
So it turned out that Zidane was right; Saturday didn’t change anything. If it did, things actually got better for Madrid. “We have lost two points,” Zidane said but by the end of the night they had won one and moved another week closer to the finish line. ~Ito became ~azo, from little to large: Madrid’s puntito, their little point, was a puntazo, a big point, because Barcelona’s three points in Málaga became no points at all. They had handed Barcelona the chance and Barcelona had handed it straight back again.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way but perhaps this was not such a surprise – and not only because that wily temptress of fate Sport had played yet another blinder, leading Saturday’s paper with “today could be a great day”. There is a phrase for this kind of thing, a kind of Spanish chicken counting: they had sold the skin before they had hunted the bear, yet again. They should have known that this was a serious grizzly they were dealing with and if they didn’t they could have asked Suárez: Málaga are the only first division team he hasn’t scored against and they have a bit of a thing about Barcelona. When Suárez’s chance came in the first half, Carlos Kameni was there, just as he had been there with a ludicrous save in the last minute when they drew 0-0 at the Camp Nou – the first time Barcelona had failed to score in 637 days, since the last time they had faced Kameni.
Not that it was about Kameni this time, at least not only. Málaga’s manager, Míchel González, who had said before the game that his team were in a moment that was “bollock-like”, which means good, having been “liberated” by a victory in midweek, claimed afterwards: “We were better than them in everything.”
Míchel is the club’s third manager of the season, after Juande Ramos and Clever Marcelo “Gato” Romero Silva, “Mr Cat” as the club’s owner Sheikh al-Thani called him, before he looked him up on Wikipedia to find out who he was. He is also, of course, the man who came through the Real Madrid youth system and formed part of the legendary Quinta del Buitre side who won five leagues in a row, playing for the first team for 14 years. “Madrid are going to win the league, independently of this result,” he insisted. “A great club with a lead this big doesn’t make enough mistakes to lose it but I think they were on track already.” They are now – and the gratitude was overflowing. “Míchel does Madrid a big favour,” AS’s cover read; Marca ran with: “Míchel hands Madrid the league on a plate.”
Míchel had; Barcelona had, too. There is a horrible gory mess at the end of their leg right now; on Saturday they did not so much shoot themselves in the foot as blow the bloody thing off – and that’s a recurring theme. Ivan Rakitic and Gerard Piqué were suspended, having sought cards that earned them suspensions and allowed them to reach the clásico clean; Andrés Iniesta and Sergi Roberto started on the bench, sent on to try to rescue them at the start of the second half; Javier Mascherano started at right-back, with Jérémy Mathieu at centre-back; and André Gomes – a talented player who has looked baffling lost almost all season – began in the middle. Barcelona didn’t perform, again – and “again” really is the word.
In the end, Neymar came up against one wall too many and walked.
This was Barcelona’s fourth defeat of the season: they have been beaten by Alavés, Celta, Deportivo and Málaga, none of whom are in the top nine. Opportunities come but they invariably go. The last time Barça faced Málaga, that, too, was supposed to be a decisive weekend for them, the chance to go top – and they did not take it. El Mundo Deportivo had called it “Operation Leader”, while sport had gone for “Up for the leadership” but they had instead slipped further behind. They have now lost two of the last three games away and three of 11 in all competitions. They scored six against PSG and three days later could not beat Depor .
At the start of the season, Barcelona made five signings, only one of which (Samuel Umtiti) was expected to be a starter. The idea was to add strength throughout the squad, providing cover, but it hasn’t worked. Rotations have been applied unevenly – the front three and Sergio Busquets rarely rest – and in risky games, usually away. This league season will indeed be defined by depth, almost more so than by the starting XIs – but it is Madrid who have it, not Barcelona, they who can assimilate absence. They know that now, so, while there was a Champions League quarter-final to come four days later, the lineup was still striking. “This was an opportunity lost,” Luis Enrique admitted afterwards but it was hard to avoid the sensation that it had not been approached as one. Handed the chance, it was a surprise to see him hold back and his players appearing to do the same. “We lacked freshness,” Mascherano said. Defeat followed.
The ingredients were there, so maybe unexpected was maybe not the word for this defeat. There were others, that’s for sure. “Barcelona commit suicide,” ran the headline in AS. The match report that followed, written by Santi Giménez, contained 597 words. Here are just some of them: “unacceptable”, “inexcusable”, “thrown down the drain”, “horrible”, “calamity”, “execrable,” “absurd”, “useless”, “bad joke” and “lamentable”.
El Mundo Deportivo called it a “hammer blow”. Sport ran with “unforgiveable”. Inside, they asked: “Why do you do this to us?”
Madrid didn’t mind; their silence was broken, the smile returned. “What eggs, Málaga!” Isco cheered. Sergio Ramos, who is presumably inviting his team-mates round in alphabetical order, spent Sunday with Lucas Vázquez and Luka Modric, celebrating “results that make you happy”. It was back in their hands, more than ever. Not over but a step closer. After defeat in Málaga, Luis Enrique was asked if Barcelona had to win at the Bernabéu to win the league now. “No,” he said, “we have to win every game.” And even that may not be enough now.
Results and talking points
• Monchi, who announced his departure 10 days ago, bade farewell to Sevilla in Antonio Puerta’s shirt and with trophies on plinths on the pitch, bending down to kiss the grass as the Sánchez Pizjuán stood to applaud. On the screen they showed footage of him playing, back when he was, in his own words, “the last monkey”, and before he became what the gigantic banner unfurled outside declared him. Spread across the pavement in front of the main stand, it read: “Eternal glory to a Sevilla legend.”
• It was good that Sevilla’s fans came early for the homage, too, or else they might have missed some of the match, and it all happened early on. There were five goals in the first 32 minutes, although they did have to wait until the 88th for the best of them all, a crazy beautiful goal in which some ludicrously lovely touches lead to Wissam Ben Yedder making it 4-2 against Depor.
• On the edge of Europe? Not any more.
In Europe now. True, Real Sociedad play on Monday but Eibar beat Celta 2-0 away, the second neatly taken by the brilliant Pedro Leon, and are now sixth.
• Speaking of Europe, Friday feels like a long time ago now but it was hugely significant, Villarreal defeating Athletic 3-1 at the Madrigal, where Aduriz hit the post twice and Víctor Ruiz hit Iñaki Williams even harder and somehow managed to complain about the card. Where, most importantly, Villarreal took an early lead and then got two more, from Cédric Bakambu and Adrián after Aymeric Laporte had equalised. Fran Escribá’s side are fifth.
• Class. “Our second goal, which was offside, did them a lot of damage,” Quique Setién admitted after Las Palmas defeated Real Betis 4-1 in the Canaries, Jonathan Viera getting the best of the goals. Betis, whose fans are chanting for Víctor to go, could yet find themselves in trouble, Joaquín insisting: “We have to clench our arses.” Or they could if it wasn’t for the fact that for that to happen Osasuna, Granada or Sporting would have to catch them – and there’s been little sign of them doing so.
Every week, there’s a big game at the bottom, the hint that something might happen, but somehow every week it doesn’t. The bottom three have been the bottom three since week nine. Come week 38, most expected them to still be.
Yet nor do all the others take a decisive step out of there: Valencia, who should never have been there, have. Málaga have, too. But Depor and Leganés, five and six points ahead of Sporting respectively, still haven’t quite pulled away entirely, looking nervously over their shoulders. Sporting play on Monday in San Sebastián.
• Leganés lost at the weekend. Which is not a surprise on the face of it – they haven’t won away in 12, after all – only they were in the lead and it was against Osasuna, long since gone. Sergio León scored twice, the second a belter, as Osasuna won their first home game of the season. And, get this, they have now won two in a row. At least their fans are getting to enjoy life a little.
• Granada lost again and their fans tuned on Ezequiel Ponce after he scored and celebrated it by raising a finger to his lips. “Lucas, take him off!” they chanted. “It was a lack of respect and inopportune,” Lucas Alcaraz agreed. He added: “We’ll keep fighting for as long as there is life left in us,” but their vital signs a fading fast.
• Voro, the match-day delegate and a man no one seriously thinks is managerial material, now has the sixth best win ratio of any coach in the league. His Valencia team have also just scored the longest goal of the season – 38 passes before the finish.
Results Villarreal 3–1 Athletic, Espanyol 1–0 Alavés, Real Madrid 1–1 Atlético, Sevilla 4–2 Deportivo, Málaga 2–0 Barcelona, Granada 1–3 Valencia, Celta 0–2 Eibar, Osasuna 2–1 Leganés, Las Palmas 4–1 Betis. Tonight Real Sociedad-Sporting.