A festival of football in Madrid by Graham Hunter

This was sublime. Football at its purest, its quickest, its most relentless — thrilling enough that if anyone had watched this sport we love for the first time tonight then they’d be hooked for life. Craving more.

When so many of the world-renowned participants — Leo Messi, Xavi, Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira — performed outstandingly, it’s perhaps surprising to some who couldn’t watch the match that the names that will probably emerge with the most credit from this game are two debutants and the referee.

Real Madrid CF v Rayo Vallecano - Liga BBVA

(Getty)

Raphael Varane, aged 19 and savouring his first Clasico, was utterly and completely sensational.  Stop, already, with the use of the phrase “he’s going to be a world-class defender in the future.” He is now.

Other than that he, too, was exceptional. (ed’s note: the referee) Good call followed good call; he allowed the proper level of physical contact such that the match at least resembled the standards of Premier League football; and his concept of how and when to apply the advantage rule, to let the play flood back and forward, contributed massively to the spectacle.

I almost applauded when he allowed Essien a thumping shoulder challenge on Messi, fully legal but normally punished by the tutu-wearing referees in Spain. Not a whimper or a complaint came from the Argentinian because he’s a proper footballer, not a whiner.

And better still when there was an equivalent challenge from Alba on Ozil a little later, Clos Gomez applied precisely the same standards.

It shouldn’t be rocket science — knowing the laws and applying them consistently — but it’s what we most often criticise officials about.

So, well done, Senor Arbitro.

And it was United who were first in line to sign Varane. I have it on good authority that the kid was not only targeted, but well scouted and happy to move from Lens to Old Trafford, yet for some reason Madrid were able to pounce first.

Real Madrid CF v FC Barcelona - Copa del Rey - Semi Final First Leg

“Varane had a magnificent game,” Gerard Pique had no qualms about confirming postmatch. “It’s very hard to look that good at that age for this club. It was a pleasure to play in a match like that, it was a great spectacle.”

Time and again the young Frenchman won crucial sprints or slid into tackles of which Paolo Maldini would have been proud.

Oh yes, and he scored the goal. A towering, crashing header where he should have been second best and which he won against the taller Pique. “My best game in a white shirt,” Varane confirmed afterward.

What needs to be set out, in black and white, is that there are not two other teams in the world, anywhere, who can play this high-quality football, at this astonishing speed, for such a large part of the 90 minutes.

Just to diverge for a moment, the whole concept of “pressing” as developed through the Milan of the early ’90s, perfected by the “Tridente” of Marcello Lippi’s Juventus when Vialli, Lombardo, Ravanelli, Padovano — whoever happened to be up front — chased the living daylights out of any defence which tried to play from the back, is that 90 percent of players will display mental and technical errors the more quickly you ask them to make decisions, to control the ball and to use the ball intelligently.

Think of Jack Charlton’s phrase to justify Ireland’s (successful) long-ball philosophy — “Pooot ’em oonder presssshah” he’d growl in his hoarse Geordie roar.

Pressure = stress. Stress = creates fault lines. Fault lines = an opportunity to create shock waves.

So just marvel for a second how both sides, perhaps more regularly Barca (but nobody will persuade me that Madrid didn’t try to match them) consistently took risks with first-time passes, giving the ball to teammates who had a marker on them but who had the chance to further the attack, and played the ball confidently from the back even when an attack had just broken down and the most natural thing in the world would have been to kick possession away frantically.

The ball moved with unbelievable speed and accuracy and, in the best sense of the phrase, we were treated to end-to-end football which you normally don’t see outside a primary school playground.
No speculative stuff, no cynical game-killing tactics, very little pragmatism — two well-staffed outfits tearing at each other back and forward and using cleverness and technique to create advantage — not counting on the other side committing errors.

And this isn’t a time for anyone to waste energy by suggesting this is an attack on Real Madrid. It’s not. It’s an attack on the racists who produced this foul abuse. Moreover these sentiments apply to every ground, professional or amateur, across Spain (and every other nation for that matter). If anything similar happens in the return leg my attitude and my request for action will be identical. Ditto Valencia, San Sebastian, Zaragoza — wherever it happens.

A thing of beauty was besmirched on Wednesday night. It remains beautiful in its essence, but those who appreciate football appreciate the need to unite to rid it of a sickness.

Read the full article on ESPN Soccernet

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