Fanalysis in Madrid: Inside the Santiago Bernabeu

Fanalysis was in Madrid for last Sunday’s El Clasico tie between Real Madrid CF and FC Barcelona, and I was lucky enough to be inside the Santiago Bernabeu for what turned out to be a classic tie. Any expectations I had of the game were eradicated and taken to a whole new level, even before arriving in Madrid, for it was an experience that I’ll never forget.

Pre-Match: This isn’t just any old game

I’ve been to many games in different leagues and in different countries, but this game was something else. Before the weekend in Spain, the most important game I’d been to was either the North London derby or an FA Cup Semi-Final, but El Clasico had a different type of feel to it. In the English domestic games I’ve just mentioned, there’s a lot of tension in the air caused by the must-win nature of the game; it’s a fear of failure almost. But for El Clasico, this was a celebration of football, a celebration of two teams containing world-class talent all over the pitch. It’s still a derby, but there’s a friendly atmosphere to it.

You could tell the importance of the game even before entering the city. While sitting in Rome airport waiting for my flight on the Friday afternoon, I saw a sea of people wearing Real Madrid and Barcelona merchandise. Some of them weren’t even going to the game; even feeling the atmosphere of the city on derby day was worth the weekend trip to the Spanish capital. In the days preceding the match and on the morning of the game itself, the Spanish newspapers were only talking about one thing, with six or seven pages of in-depth analysis covering the front pages. The main pre-game debate of El Clasico in the papers was whether Neymar would play or not, with Barcelona appealing his three-game ban for a red card against Malaga a fortnight before, and it was only a few hours before kick-off when it was announced that he would not be taking part. If you’re in Spain and you don’t like football, these days must be the worst as the rest of the current affairs are put on hold for the time being.

After a late lunch consisting of traditional Spanish food, we sampled the atmosphere in at a bar with the overshadowing Santiago Bernabeu stadium ahead of us. The area and streets around the ground were rammed even three hours before the 8.45 local time kick off and it wasn’t long until the team buses started to arrive, which were met with roars or jeers which made you question whether the match had actually started or not. After chatting to some locals about the upcoming game over a few beers, well actually I was lauding over how good Nacho Monreal and El Nino Maravilla (Alexis Sanchez) were following Arsenal’s defeat of Manchester City in the cup semi final that afternoon, we headed towards our place in the stadium, though not before a special Madrid tradition. It’s customary, apparently, that you buy a football scarf before you go to your first Real Madrid game, and you must wear it for every game you go to and never lose it. It sounds standard at first, but becomes a lot more valued when we encountered fans who had kept scarves from the 1970s and were still wearing it to the game that afternoon. Scarf bought, replica shirt on, time for the match.

The Game itself: World Class Personified

Our seats were perfect, right on the half way line – we couldn’t miss a thing. The atmosphere was electric, even for when the players were warming up, and who wouldn’t be excited at the sight of Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Toni Kroos doing shooting practice, while Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets playing keep-ball. The context of the game was simple; Madrid were three points ahead of Barca with a game in hand, so a home win would effectively give the title to Madrid. A win for Barca would take them to the top of the ‘La Liga’ table, and give them the momentum. Minutes before kick-off, the Real Madrid pre-match anthem of ‘Hala Madrid’ was blasted through the speakers, which was supported by fans singing along, and a mosaic behind one of the goals of the Real Madrid badge with the words, ‘The World is Real’ underneath. It was so passionate at stunning that I hadn’t noticed the players come out before kick-off! The game got underway and it was a whirlwind for ninety minutes. Madrid started brightly with Ronaldo and Benzema testing Marc-André Ter Stegen in the Barca net, while Suarez dragged a shot wide early on. Though mid-way through the first half the deadlock was broken, a free kick from the left went to the back post to Sergio Ramos, who hit the post but the rebound fell to Casemiro to tap into an empty net. It was a deserved goal for the midfielder who had started the game brightly. The place erupted, for as it stood, Madrid would have one hand on the league title. The lead, however, lasted only five minutes, with the ball falling to Lionel Messi on the edge of the area following some neat build-up play from the visitors, and the Argentine jinked away from two players to finish low in the net. He made it look so easy; his first goal in 6 Clasico matches. What was interesting in the ground at this point was that it was clear that there were many Barca fans in the Real Madrid sections of the stadium, but there was no violence or bad reactions to this from the home supporters. It shows that there’s a very friendly aspect to this game despite the passion and high stakes on the pitch. Madrid tried to respond, but suffered a setback with Bale having to be substituted due to injury, with Marco Asensio coming on in his place. Real lost a bit of their edge due to the reshuffle and Barca could have turned it around before half time had Messi not converted from a corner which Madrid ‘keeper Keylor Navas didn’t collect.

The second half started and Madrid came out with all guns blazing; they wanted to finish the title race there and then. Kroos and Benzema forced Ter Stegen into some very good reflex saves while Navas did the same to deny Pique, Suarez, Messi and Paco Alcacer. A big chance fell for Ronaldo with a quarter of the game to go, when he skied the ball over from six yards after receiving a cut back from Asensio on the right-hand side. He had an empty net and should have scored. The replays showed that, like last Tuesday night against Bayern Munich, he was offside. The game was already alive and kicking but stepped up another notch in the last fifteen minutes. Despite heavy Madrid pressure, it was the Catalans who got their noses in front after a poor Messi touch on the edge of the area fell to Ivan Rakitic, who fired a left foot shot into the opposite corner from twenty yards. A brilliant effort, worthy of winning any game. It went from bad to worse for the home side, who were reduced to ten men after Ramos hauled down Messi near the half way line as he was trying to break. It looked, at first, like a harsh call, but looking at the replays, it looked like the correct decision. You can’t go in with two feet off the ground like that, and he could have broken Messi’s leg. At that point it could have been game over, with Barca having the extra man meaning more space for Messi and co to penetrate the Madrid defence. However, it didn’t feel at all like Madrid were a man short due to the quality they had in their team, so it was still very much game on. Madrid eventually managed to restore parity when the excellent Marcelo crossed for substitute James Rodriguez to guide the ball into the roof of the net with five minutes to go. A draw suited Madrid, who would still have had breathing space over their rivals in the league table, so the place went potty. Barca then threw all they could at Madrid, and that’s when the magic came. In the dying seconds of the match, Barca broke down the left before pulling the ball back to the edge of the area, where Messi swept the ball home, first time, bottom corner. Real were shell-shocked, Barca in dreamland! They were top of the league and now have the momentum going into the final weeks of the season.

The streets of Madrid after the game were deflated; the home side had missed their big chance to get one hand on the league trophy. The title race is still in their own hands but, as previously mentioned, the Catalans now have the impetus. It was also the way in which they lost which had stunned them. The James goal had given them unbridled joy, but the Messi magic had them lost for words. Many didn’t stick around for a drink afterwards, that’s how much it meant to them.

Messi vs Ronaldo

It’s a debate that our generation has had for years, but on the basis of the game on Sunday, there is only one winner. There was a key difference between the two players, who play in roughly the same positions on the field, and that was that Ronaldo waited for his opportunities to arrive, while Messi worked hard to make his own chances in front of goal. The Argentine was also superior in work ethic, teamwork, determination, and, most clearly, conviction, proven by the fact that Messi scored two well-worked goals at key points in the game, while Ronaldo missed an easier and clearer opportunity in the second half. Despite this, I don’t want to knock the Portuguese too much for two reasons. Firstly, he’s still a very, very good player and sometimes these types of players have their off day. And secondly, that Messi performance is the best I’ve ever seen with my own eyes. I will tell my grandchildren about it, it was that good. Lionel Messi was, evidently, my man of the match, and proves in my mind that he’s the best player of all time.

Other positive performances

Despite his side suffering a heartbreaking defeat, Casemiro had a very good game, and had Messi not turned on the style at the end, would have been my player of the match. His role is so underrated in that Madrid side, as he does all the dirty work so that the world-class attacking players can go forward and attack. When you look at some of the great teams in recent years, it’s been these types of players which make a team world-class, such as N’Golo Kanté, Gilberto Silva and Claude Makélélé. Another example of this type of player is Sergio Busquets, who played on Sunday. He didn’t necessarily have a bad game but he only really took control of it in the way that he usually would do when Madrid were reduced to ten men. Casemiro can be as good, if not better than the above-mentioned players and, in my opinion, the moment when he was substituted was the moment when Madrid lost control of the game. Other than that Marco Asensio had a superb influence on the game, playing the Gareth Bale-role to perfection. However, he needs more game time and must become a regular starter in this Madrid side in order to reach the top. In addition, both goalkeepers were excellent and if it weren’t for them, this could’ve been 6-6. Ter Stegen made 12 saves during the match, the most a Barca keeper has had to make in the league in nearly 15 years, while Navas kept Real in the match in the game’s most important moments.

Overall, what an occasion, though with the fans’ passion and electric atmosphere in the ground, it would have been worth it even if it ended 0-0. El Clasico was on my bucket list, it’s now been ticked off. It may be obvious, but I would recommend it to anyone, even if you don’t like football. It’s a special event, which shows the heartbeat of one of Europe’s grandest cities, and two of the world’s greatest ever football clubs.

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