El Clasico: Ronaldinho redux?
The Santiago Bernabeu was draped in white, as Real Madrid and Barcelona players took to the iconic stadium's hallowed turf. What was meant as a show of strength from the Madridistas, to intimidate the visiting Catalans, transformed into a show of protest in a matter of ninety minutes.
The anticipation gave way to seething anger, as Madrid's famously moody fans waved the white paraphernalia, initially carried to support their team, to signify surrender.
The spectators made their displeasure known as they directed their anger towards the club president's box and the player dugout, which housed their under-fire manager Rafa Benitez.
Their fury stemmed from a dispirited effort of their players and the sheer helplessness of having to relive the horror that had been inflicted upon them in 2005.
Back then, Ronaldinho in his pomp towered over Madrid's Galacticos with a spine-tingling performance. The Brazilian scored two goals in a 3-1 humiliation of Real Madrid in front of their own fans.
Ronaldinho cut Madrid's defenders into half, twisting and turning, whizzing past them as if they weren't there. Such was his brilliance, Madrid fans paid homage to what they had seen with a standing ovation for the smiling assassin. The only player to pull this off before him was the great Diego Maradona.
Saturday's El Clasico was billed as a battle between two of the best forward line-ups ever assembled in world football. The world's five most expensive players – Gareth Bale, Neymar, Cristiano Ronaldo, James Rodriguez and Luis Suarez – all started, while the planet's best player – Lionel Messi – was on the bench as a precautionary measure.
Yet, after the dust had settled, if one had to describe El Clasico in two words, they had to be – Andres Iniesta.
Coming into match, the diminutive pass master hadn't scored a goal in his last 39 La Liga appearances. Last time the midfielder found the back of the net was way back in March 2014.
Having played majority of his career alongside the equally majestic Xavi, Iniesta's footballing genius has often been under appreciated by audiences.
On Saturday, the 31-year-old served another gentle reminder to fans about his understated greatness. Iniesta dictated play from the middle of the park, outplaying his younger rivals in Toni Kroos and Luka Modric.
He moved the ball across the pitch – left to right, to teammates and back - without a care the world, as though he was playing in the backyard of his mansion.
He unlocked the Madrid defence at will, in perfect sync with his teammates Neymar and Luis Suarez. The trio didn't miss a beat.
The terrifying bit about Iniesta's play was that he didn't shift into top gear, yet passed the ball with 96% accuracy.
Be it his ingenuity in finding Sergi Roberto with a cross field ball in the first half, or the
determination to win back the ball with a sliding challenge in the second, the maestro was virtually unplayable.
After Suarez opened the scoring, Neymar was slipped in by Iniesta to double the lead. When Neymar returned the favour with a succulent backheel, Iniesta wellied the ball past the diving Keylor Navas to cap off a memorable night. It was only fitting that the man, brilliant on the night, strangled Madrid's hopes with his own hands.
In the 77th minute, with three points and bragging right firmly in the bag, Luis Enrique ordered a change of personnel. The moment Iniesta's number was flashed by the official, Real Madrid fans accorded him the ultimate sign of respect.
The stung Bernabeu faithful stood up and applauded Iniesta, as he made his way to the touchline. It was a beautiful moment. Fans, often blinded by rivalries, set aside team allegiance to marvel at a masterful performance.
Iniesta had come on as a substitute when Ronaldinho was the toast of the Bernabeu almost a decade back in 2005. In true Barca tradition, one wonders how 20-year-old Munir El Haddadi was impacted on the night when he replaced Iniesta amidst a moment of true sporting bipartisanship.
Suarez's virtuoso double may have grabbed the headlines, but Iniesta put the class in the El Clasico on Saturday.
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