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Soccer

For Real Madrid, The Clásico Was Just Another Game

Karim Benzema of Real Madrid CF celebrates a goal prior to the referee cancelling the goal during the LaLiga Santander match between Real Madrid CF and FC Barcelona at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on October 16, 2022 in Madrid, Spain.
Diego Souto/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

A concomitant fact of any big rivalry game is the barrage of cliches. Throw out the record books when these two teams meet, Jim, because anything can happen in a game like this. Jim, there’s absolutely no love lost between these two, and it will be important for the players to feed off that energy while at the same time—and this is important, Jim—also keeping their heads. But, Jim, at the end of the day, it’ll all boil down to which team wants it more, don’t you think so, Jim?

There is no bigger rivalry in world soccer than El Clásico, and as expected the air surrounding Sunday’s edition was thick with such cliches. Barcelona needed a win to put an end to its worrying recent skid, and to stake its claim as a true title contender for the first time in the post-Messi era. For Real Madrid, the match offered the opportunity to stomp on Barça while it was down, to crush the Catalans’ spirit and assert once again that the Blancos remain a class above. But for all the pomp, circumstance, and perceived importance of this edition of the storied Clásico, the actual match was most notable for how it seemed like just another game, at least for Real Madrid, who came away winners, 3–1.

Madrid won this game the same way it has won so many other games this season: with calm assurance, without needing to overextend itself, with utter control. Other than the uniforms, you would’ve have been able to tell whether Madrid’s latest victim was Barcelona or any other La Liga outfit. The moment seemed to weigh nothing to the Blancos, and the opponent posed no greater challenge than any other good Spanish team would. When Madrid is Madrid, it doesn’t matter who’s on the other side.

The match itself was a good corrective for anyone who might let stats get in the way of a true, holistic understanding of what happens in a game. Barça had 57 percent of the possession, took 18 shots to Real’s eight, and had twice as much expected goals before counting Real’s late penalty. But you would only understand the match as anything other than total Madrid domination if you didn’t watch. Barcelona had more of the ball, but rarely threatened. The Blaugrana mostly attacked through their wingers, who were ineffective. Éder Militão had Robert Lewandowki under lock and key, and between the shared vigilance of Toni Kroos and especially Aurélien Tchouaméni, Pedri had a hard time getting free in places where he could do real damage. With both its biggest goal threat and its attacking mastermind largely squeezed out of the game, Barcelona lacked the influence of those who best know how to transform the round ball into something sharp and dangerous.

In fact, the only ones who knew how to turn Barcelona possessions into scoring chances were the Madridistas. This was the game’s most consistent pattern: Barça has the ball, does nothing with it; Madrid forces a turnover, triggering an intense but uncoordinated Barça counter-press; Madrid easily bypasses this disjointed press with two or three passes, and proceeds to charge straight toward the Barça penalty area. It took only 12 minutes for Madrid to find the opening goal, and about 20 more minutes to get the second, both of which were born from rapid Madrid attacks against a scattered Barça defense. Kroos was at his imperial best all day, luring the opponents over here, freeing up space over there, and taking advantage of his handiwork by sending the ball and a teammate exactly where he wants them both. An ascendent Kroos is synonymous with control, and him playing in his fullness is a much more telling mark of which team commands the game than any stat can measure.

With that commanding first-half lead, without any particular reason to worry about the opposition, and with the game being played on its own terms, Madrid more or less coasted for the rest of the match. Barcelona had a brief spell where it played its way back into the game, a 20-or-so minute stretch that began with a hope-igniting goal from Ferran Torres in the 83rd minute and ended with Rodrygo winning and then converting the game-killing penalty in the first minute of stoppage time. As is so often the case, Real did exactly what it needed to do, no more and no less. Had Karim Benzema been in finer form, he probably would’ve sharpened the edge of a few more Real attacks and left Barcelona with a more embarrassing scoreline. Instead, Real played within itself, took its chances when they arose but didn’t press for more, and finished the game with a comfortable victory.

That last bit, about Madrid resisting the urge to go for Barcelona’s jugular, is the part that made Sunday’s Clásico so oddly normal. Had Madrid really pressed its advantage, it could’ve handed Barça the kind of spirit-breaking defeat that could have major ramifications. Could a big, humiliating 5–0 Clásico loss, coupled with yet another Champions League failure, have gotten Barça manager Xavi’s seat hot enough to start causing smoke? Could it have ruined García’s confidence, essentially ended Sergio Busquets’s tenure as Barça’s starting defensive midfielder, and sent the club into a tailspin out of which it might takes months and possibly a new manager to emerge from? And why wouldn’t Madrid at least try to snap Barça’s neck, even just to see what might happen?

I think the answer to that last question lies in Real Madrid’s conception of itself. Madrid measures itself almost solely against its own self, against its past, as revealed in its favorite competition. The Real Madrid ethos is first and foremost built around its superiority in Europe, and takes its position in Spain somewhat for granted. So while Barcelona measures itself against Madrid—and often does indeed go for the jugular in Clásicos, hence the prevalence of Barça blowouts over the past couple decades, of which the most recent Clásico before Sunday’s stands as example of—and defines its success primarily as in contrast to that of the capital’s evil empire, Madrid has different, broader concerns. Because this Barcelona does not threaten Madrid’s position as Europe’s reigning monarch, the Blancos have no reason to invest much more energy or attention to the Blaugrana than they would any other domestic challenger.

In that light, it makes sense why Sunday’s match felt so routine in spite of all the hype surrounding it. It’s obviously good for Real Madrid to beat Barça, but there’s no need to try too hard to make it into some big statement, either, and even a loss wouldn’t have been that big of a deal. Sometimes, for Real Madrid, a Clásico really is just another game. And until Barcelona can change that fact by pressing Madrid where it really matters to them—i.e. once it comes time to start adding to the trophy cabinet—the Blancos will continue treating the Blaugrana like yet another step on the inevitable march back to the top, back where they belong.

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