Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The decade's greatest footballing moments (7) - The Ronaldinho Clasico

Football is, indelibly, a team sport. There are twenty-two players on the pitch, so, even if one side has a couple of players playing like donkeys, they can still pull off a result (unless the goalkeeper is having a mare, of course).

But, every so often, we witness a match which is entirely, totally dominated by a single player. One man stands head and shoulders above the rest, and decides the outcome of a game purely by the force of his own will. And not just by scoring the critical goal, but by producing a performance of sheer brilliance. In the last decade, think of David Beckham dragging England to a draw against Greece to qualify for the 2002 World Cup. Think of Andrey Arshavin inspiring Russia to beat Holland in the Euro 2008 quarter-finals. But the greatest individual performance of the decade came in the first El Clasico of the 2005-06 season. That is why it is known as “the Ronaldinho Clasico”.

Real Madrid’s galacticos were dying a death by this point. The team was still based around the big names (and big egos) that won the Champions League in 2002 – Zidane, Figo, Roberto Carlos, Raul. With a rejuvenated Ronaldo added to the squad, they won La Liga in 2002-03, but the next two campaigns saw the Madridistas win sweet FA. The managers came and went after Vicente Del Bosque was inexplicably sacked after the last La Liga triumph, and the current lucky chap in charge was the Brazilian Wanderley Luxemburgo. But results were not happening, even with David Beckham in the team too, and by the time of the big derby match his jacket, as we say, was hanging on a shoogly peg.

Barca, in contrast, were on the up. Ronaldinho was in irresistible form as it was, while Samuel Eto’o was still to sustain the knee injuries that reduced his work rate over the coming years. The Cameroonian would score 34 goals that season. Manager Frank Rijkaard had quality oozing through the midfield, with Deco playing the best football of his career, Xavi beginning to emerge as a world class player, and the continuing development of Iniesta. Rijkaard had finally tinkered with his front three in the weeks leading up to the Clasico, finally losing faith in Frenchman Ludovic Giuly (who never really seemed good enough to justify being a Barca player) and bringing through a certain young Argentinian named Lionel Messi. There was a fair bit of surprise when the team sheets were released at the Bernabeu – Messi was in from the start. Surely he didn’t have enough experience? And however good Barcelona were, they were guaranteed to have a tough game at the home of Real Madrid.

Weren’t they?

While the most recent derby, last month, has been lauded as involving the two strongest, and most expensive, club sides ever, I would argue that this match, on the evening of 19 November 2005, comes pretty close. Real went with Casillas, Salgado, Helguera, Sergio Ramos, Roberto Carlos, Beckham, Pablo Garcia, Robinho, Zidane, Raul and Ronaldo. Barca lined up as Valdes, Oleguer, Marquez, Puyol, Van Bronckhorst, Edmilson, Deco, Xavi, Messi, Eto’o, Ronaldinho. Madrid’s gameplan was the same as usual: give the ball to the galacticos, and they’ll sort it out. Rijkaard had put a little thought into things – if Zidane, Beckham et al didn’t have the ball, how could they do anything? And how comfortable would Real’s attacking full-backs be if they had to spend their time defending?

The weakness of Real Madrid’s teams this decade, after the departure of Claude Makelele, has simply been the failure of the midfield to cover the defence effectively. And so it proved. Frankly, Real’s players might as well have been in the dressing room as the Blaugrana came flying out of the blocks. Messi and Ronaldinho stayed wide as they could, leaving Eto’o the freedom of the central area. Three times he drove at the Real back line; the first two drew top drawer saves from Casillas, who for the umpteenth time covered up for his teammates’ inferiorities. But the third time saw the striker finally squeeze the ball into the bottom corner with a fierce right foot shot, with the goalkeeper able only to get fingertips in the way.

The first half followed a constant theme: Barcelona in possession and on the attack, Real’s midfield anonymous, their forwards lackadaisical, their defence hopelessly exposed and ripped apart. By the half time whistle most of the galacticos had not even broken sweat. The exception was Beckham, who at least tore around chasing the shadows, rather than watching them pass him by playing extraordinary football. Ronaldinho had spent the first half tormenting Michel Salgado, forcing Real to move Ramos wide to cover his teammate and leaving even more space in the centre. Despite causing 45 minutes of havoc, it turned out that the buck-toothed Brazilian hadn’t even got started.

Madrid, not unexpectedly, attempted to come out and have a go second half to try and get back in the game. It was, ultimately, suicidal. On 55 minutes, Ronaldinho picked up the ball on the left touchline at halfway. Two step-overs later, Sergio Ramos was sprawled on his back side and the maestro was away at full sprint with the ball at his feet. A sublime drop of the shoulder left Ivan Helguera dazed and confused, and Casillas didn’t even bother moving as a right foot strike flew into his bottom corner. Everyone in the pub I was watching the game in (the Butchers Arms in Aberdeen) went absolutely flipping mental. Goals as good as this are rare enough, one in a match as big as this was exceptional indeed.

So, just to prove it wasn’t a fluke, Ronaldinho only went and did it again 20 minutes later. This time Sergio Ramos refused to dive in, so the Brazilian simply outpaced him and drilled it across the keeper into the far corner, this time with his weaker left foot. Yet again, he had originally got the ball fifty yards from goal. No cheers in the pub this time – simply stunned, awed silence. Nobody had words to describe what they were watching. In the Bernabeu itself, the Real fans momentarily forgot their loyalties and partisanships and, unbelievably, stood to applaud the ringleader of their greatest enemy. That’s how good he was.

Barcelona won 3-0; if there had been any justice (and no Casillas) it would have been a rugby score. Barca won league, cup and Champions League that year, though Ronaldinho flattered to deceive at the World Cup and never hit the same heights again as he was gradually usurped by Leo Messi. Ultimately, that Clasico was his zenith. Real’s galactico project was over…at least until Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo arrived. Odds are that they might yet end up going the same way as their illustrious predecessors who were, on a night in November 2005, shown to be obsolete dinosaurs.


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