Thank heavens the football Gods decided to put El Clasico front and centre stage on Saturday evening.
The Premier League decided to take the evening off from pitting Newcastle United and West Bromwich Albion against each other for the 17th time this season, instead putting their feet up to watch some proper football.
And wasn’t that the best decision they’ve made in a while?
Many probably assumed that Saturday’s clash would have been a bit of a damp squib. After all, the quality of football this season has dipped around the world, La Liga and their giants are far from the peak of their powers, and the fact that the match was being played at Real Madrid’s training ground made it all feel a bit meh.
That, of course, was pre-kick off vibes. One thing that was stacked in this clash’s favour was its significance on the top of the table. Atletico Madrid started the night at the summit, knowing it’d be unlikely they would be there a couple of hours later.
Barcelona sat one point behind the league leaders, and Madrid lay two points adrift of La Blaugrana. So, the narrative was clear: Win El Clasico, go top of La Liga and land a psychological blow on your opponents which is so damaging that the rest of their season will tail-spin.
There was so much at stake, that an attritional 0-0 and a meek sharing of the spoils was not entirely out of the question.
What we were treated to, however, was one of the best Clasico’s in living memory. Both teams came out of the blocks at a storming pace, with Barça controlling possession and creating pretty patterns around the Madrid box, while the hosts waited in position, ready to launch blistering counter-attacks.
The game followed that pattern from the off, and it was Madrid who struck first through a brilliant Karim Benzema back-heel flick, catching everyone by surprise. If we were worried that the game would lack quality, the Frenchman had just told us all to sit down and enjoy the show.
Barça may have considered themselves unfortunate to be behind, and even more so when Toni Kroos’ deflected free-kick doubled the lead. That scoreline left the visitors with nothing to lose at this point, and they went on the hunt for goals.
It was an incredible spectacle, with Barça carving out and missing chances, only for Madrid to break with devastating speed in an attempt to kill off the game. Vinicius Junior delivered another sensational display to add to his match-winning performance against Liverpool, while Benzema, Kroos and Luka Modric all turned back the clock.
But Ronald Koeman’s men were not ready to pass up the opportunity of going top of the table in a hurry. Lionel Messi had already hit the crossbar directly from a corner kick, and Thibaut Courtois had produced a series of world-class saves to keep his goal untouched.
But Oscar Mingueza’s strike early in the second half changed the complexity of the game completely, as Madrid sat back and soaked up the pouring rain, as well as a barrage of attacks.
Messi requested a change of jersey, Martin Braithwaite asked for a penalty and Ilaix Moriba smashed the crossbar with the last kick of the game, but somehow, Madrid survived. Both teams gave it their all, aware of the importance of the result, culminating in a combined 33 shots over the 90 minutes.
Not bad for a game which has lost its touch in recent years. Barcelona were crestfallen at the final whistle, while Real celebrated wildly in the torrential rain. The win put Zinedine Zidane’s men top of La Liga, ousting Atleti for the first time in an eternity.
While Diego Simeone’s men boast a game in hand, the psychological pain of having to chase the champions may be the final nail in their faltering title assault. And as for Barça, they know that they are still only a point off the top of the table, making very little difference to the scenes ahead of kick-off.
However, Koeman’s side left their heart and soul on the pitch on Saturday evening, and the Dutchman will have a hell of a job on his hands to pick them up off the floor after such a crushing defeat.
Three teams, now separated by one point with eight games to play, off the back of one of the best derbies in history. All we can say is, thank goodness that we were free to watch it.