In Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man & the Sea, an elderly fisherman struggles for several days to catch and subdue an enormous marlin. Once he vanquishes the beast, ties it to his boat, and heads to shore, a group of sharks arrive and eat the fish. He tries in vain to fend off the sharks with his oar, but returns home, exhausted and empty-handed. The lesson? Time, represented by the sharks, will eventually take everything from your grip – no matter how tight you hold on.
Last Saturday at the Nou Camp, Real Madrid were the sharks.
Before last season’s Champions League final, Brian Phillips predicted a coming cule decline. Why? Well, practically, several key players have approached the expiration date for maximum performances: Puyol and Xavi grow younger not. Both are world class, but tires lose tread. Lately, misfortune unrelated to sport has struck Eric Abidal (may he enjoy a speedy recovery). David Villa seriously injured himself, even though he wasn’t exactly lighting up the nets beforehand. In part, the injury trade winds stopped blowing in their favor.
And Cristian Tello and Thiago are Cristian Tello and Thiago. Good players, just not world beaters. The myth of the La Masia academy – that it consistently produces Hogwarts’ magicians – should finally be put to bed. For the last few years, Barcelona has rode almost the exact same starting eleven. Their bench rarely needed to provide a spark or insurance. Rather, Iniesta and Xavi would dart around the midfield while Messi provided the cutting edge. The back line of Alves, Pique, Puyol, and Abidal shielded Victor Valdes from actual work. The formula reached a monotonous consistency, depending on your affiliation. Yet reality has now undone the equation.
In terms of narrative, every team that succeeds over a spell of time goes through four phases: ascent as underdog; champion; champion with aura; champion without aura. Rijkaard and Ronaldinho lifted Barcelona from the ashes, while Messi and Pep solidified their view at the top. Still, the gap narrowed. For the last several months, Real Madrid has battled to kill Barcelona’s aura. The Supercopa, the Copa del Rey, last year’s Champions League – at a certain stage, Mou stopped game-planning for Barcelona and fielded his offensive 4-4-2 (with Ozil dropping back) in key games. The merengues huffed and puffed, but Barcelona managed to escape each time.
Until last Saturday. The aura is dead. Long live the aura. For their part, Real Madrid looked fit and organized over 90 minutes. Unlike the Chelsea game, Barcelona did not turn their possession into scoring chances. Madrid did not simply ride their luck – they snuffed out danger in the center of the park. Yes, Xavi could have scored an early equaliser, but Barcelona saw few clear cut chances after that. And this also was not a studs-up foul fest, apart from Dani Alves’ love affair with Cristiano Ronaldo’s calves. No Copa del Rey final redux. The most important aspect was the unseen. Leo Messi‘s false 9 role rendered him invisible – he might as well have been playing for the albiceleste.
Yet I still feel dirty and uneasy. I’m not incredulous, just uncomfortable. Real Madrid’s win, a Nou Campazo, was merited. We have killed the aura, even though the body remains. A Jason-esque short-term resurrection remains possible. Barca are favorites to beat Chelsea. I wouldn’t doubt a King’s Cup and Champions League double. We could even trip up in La Liga to make matters close. However, the next wave of clasicos will lose their luster. Neither team sits atop a throne.