BARCELONA, Spain — This was a match in which individual skill, tactics, strategy and passion all took a backseat to mentality.
The recent history of Barcelona and Real Madrid is so dotted with footballers of five-star, luxury class — Lamborghinis and Ferraris amid a sea of family-sized, five-door, school-run estate cars — that we all get caught up in talking about them like they are high-performance machines.
Not mere human beings.
Because they can, in football terms, go from nought to 60 in five seconds, we all adopt the habit of describing players as if they are infallible.
As if they should perform faultlessly and at the top of their specifications every time the key goes in the ignition.
Not so, and Saturday’s 1-1 draw was the evidence.
Many will likely focus upon the fact that this latest edition of El Clasico, a game that normally oozes class, imagination, daring and exquisite technique, was settled by two set plays.
To a great degree they were things of beauty in themselves, but more of that in a minute.
Each goal — Luis Suarez’s header seven minutes after half-time and Sergio Ramos’ typical “is the stage set yet?” moment of drama — stemmed from just absurd moments, when high-class players showed a ridiculous flaw in their mentality.
Take Raphael Varane, who conceded the free kick from which Barcelona went 1-0 up, during a game in which Barcelona’s opponents had clearly been sharper, surer and stronger to that point.
The defender leaned into Neymar, for no apparent reason, within a hop and a skip from the Madrid penalty area. There were no exigent circumstances.
Footballers, in Britain at least, use the term “jockey,” meaning that you tame that mustang in front of you not by lunging in or trying to “wrangle” the problem but by gradually exerting force, domination and mastery.
Neymar, on the left side, was somewhat isolated, in no danger of wriggling clear and was, if Varane had been savvy, totally containable. But the Frenchman barged into the Brazilian, and the home side breathed a sigh of hope.
Barcelona now spend oodles of time practicing set plays under the guidance of Luis Enrique’s assistant Juan Carlos Unzue.
Whenever there’s a dead-ball situation — for or against — Unzue jumps up from the bench and sprints to the edge of the technical area; at that moment Luis Enrique cedes control of the team, visually as well as strategically, by sitting down to watch what happens.
On this occasion, following Varane’s indiscretion, you could feel the Camp Nou crowd think “chance!” — particularly given the flat, unsure, sluggish 50-something minutes their team had put in before that.
Lionel Messi and Neymar lined up together over the ball and the percentage bet was that Messi’s left foot would curl the ball away from goal.
Instead, Neymar used his right boot to arc the ball on a hard, relatively low trajectory. How his cross never got far above head height and then dropped between Lucas Vasquez and Varane, while not quite being feasible for Keylor Navas to claim; well, that’s part of Neymar’s brilliance.
Javier Mascherano also played a role by dragging two players, including Ramos, forward into territory where the ball was never going to land.
Thereafter, we saw brilliance from Suarez. Barcelona’s Uruguayan striker “hid” behind Lucas before peeling away just in time to react to the ball and head in from close range.
It was a Swiss-chronograph piece of work by this club with the Swiss founder, Joan Gamper.
Then, as the game entered its 90th minute, came another example of flawed mentality.
Think of Arda Turan’s decision-making: The final whistle is very close and Barcelona, since their goal, have largely bossed proceedings.
Madrid, though, are threatening and only the uninformed would be unaware of one of the great things that the past few months have taught us: This Madrid are never, ever beaten.
Not until the dressing-room door has been closed, the team are on the bus, the aftershave has been applied, the sad tweets have been sent to millions and the stadium is locked.
Turan should surely have realised, from experience if not from football intelligence, that offering Madrid a final-moment’s free kick, from which to loft the ball toward Ramos, is more than infantile in its stupidity. Despite that, he lumped into Marcelo, who was marooned and not likely to do anything dangerous.
Referee Carlos Clos Gomez awarded the set piece and, just as had Barca earlier at Varane’s foul, this time it was the turn of the men in white to think “chance!”
The guy who had been man of the match in the first half, Luka Modric, duly put a registered-delivery cross into an area where Ramos could sign for it, thank the mailman and then head the ball home.
It was a thing of beauty.
One wonders what the mentality of Turan was when he made the foul, when he watched Modric’s cross arc over him, when he heard the silence of the crowd and the roars of the Madrid players, as Navas roared past him to celebrate in the corner.
A final point on that subject of mentality. Madrid, for 45 minutes, bossed this game without quite looking as if they were clinical up front or firing on all cylinders.
But the away side were clearly superior, and part of that was Barcelona’s mix of timidity and uncertainty.
Some of their players didn’t show for passes, while some were slow to take a minor risk in their passing. Often they looked to think that the “second ball” was a blue-collar task, not sure whether they should engage.
And then, in close succession, they scored their goal and Andres Iniesta came on as a substitute.
I’ll let you in on a little secret. During the game I was sitting in a cluster of ex-Barcelona and Madrid players, including Dani Garcia and Javier Saviola, who each played for both clubs, as well as ex-Camp Nou defenders Albert Ferrer and Eric Abidal.
During the first half, they were all pretty silent and straight-faced, checking their mobiles every now and again and enduring a low-grade Clasico.
Then, when Iniesta came on, the midfielder repeatedly did things that caused all of them to whoop, to exclaim, to shake their heads and to ask the guy next to them whether they “saw that.” He impressed gnarled old pros and had a similar effect on his teammates and the game.
There cannot have been many matches where a player who comes on with just 30 minutes left absolutely steals the man of the match award, unless he’s scored two or three times. But Iniesta simply made Barcelona unrecognizable.
All his teammates changed their mentality from, “I don’t want to be the guy who makes a mistake,” and, “Better not make that run or that pass,” to: “We can do this. We will do this — Andres is here.”
It was a remarkable visual testimony to mentality. Iniesta’s play, presence and prescience were like a magic wand to his colleagues’ confidence, will to win and willingness to try and do the things that entertain us all.
It was startling to watch, and it means that Luis Enrique has some work to do to rekindle self-assurance and attitude in the Spanish champions when Iniesta is not around.
Which only leaves Ramos and his mentality, the one this writer loves most in sport: “I’m not beaten. I’m never beaten. No chains can hold me. I will make destiny my own!”
What a man.