‘So this is the motherfucker of them all’ author Jimmy Burns once wrote. ‘A War of the Roses, football against the enemy, the real Glory Game.’ Burns was talking, of course, about El Clasico, Barcelona against Real Madrid, Blaugranes against Los Merengues, Catalonia versus Spain. The biggest rivalry in all of sports, bar none. Don’t be fooled by those that were calling this a ‘friendly’. There is simply no such thing when these two sides meet. Too much is at stake, as evidenced by the passion and the fury on display in this game. Sure, in the stands of Allegiant Stadium, it was El Clasico as game show, Barca and Madrid shirts mixed in together, rival fans often sharing hugs and posing for selfies with one another (I even spotted one Madrid fan smiling after Barcelona’s goal and taking selfies of himself while the celebrations continued all around him – really??). There was all the usual gaudiness and razzmatazz one associates with Las Vegas. Laser shows and jovial bonhomie. Perhaps the local fans were taking it lightly – the players, not so much. This is the home of the UFC, after all, the fighting business, and tonight it looked as though one could break out at any minute. A friendly? Not on your life.
Overall, Barca were the better team in the first half, Raphinha at the heart of all their best work. He even scored the only goal of the game on 27 minutes, seizing on a wayward pass from Real defender Éder Militão to unleash a vicious, breath-taking, sumptuous strike that smashed into the top corner with delicious precision and furious venom. 1-0 Barcelona.
Ansu Fati, who did not have his best game in a Barca shirt, missed a glorious, gilt-edged chance to make it two, while Robert Lewandowski looked a constant danger during his debut in a Blaugranes shirt. Towards the end of the half, after an intensely physical and hotly contested 45 minutes, a scuffle broke out between the players. Jordi Alba went in late on Vinicius Jr, who was not best pleased with the tackle, springing to his feet to remonstrate with Alba. As Sergio Busquets tried to intervene and plead for calm, he received a shove for his troubles, drawing a full-blooded reaction from the Barca captain. Cue mayhem, shirt grabbing, pushing and pulling. Antonio Rudiger and Ronald Araujo got into a face-to-face contest that went on for quite a while, their teammates unable to prise them apart. One would hardly have been surprised had Bruce Buffer and Joe Rogan appeared to compere. Viva Las Vegas. Araujo, it must be said, had another outstanding game and continues to go from strength to strength in the heart of the Barcelona defense. I just love his passion and determination with each and every move. He is a pure joy to watch.
In the second half, both teams made wholesale changes, something which always breaks the flow of the game and makes it feel fractured and disjointed. Barca brought on Frenkie De Jong and Alejandro Balde, among others. The 18-year-old Balde looked a little out of his depth at times, and the desperate-to-stay-in-Barcelona De Jong did himself no favours, over hitting a pass for another fresh face, wide open striker Pierre Emerick-Aubamayeng, on in place of Robert Lewandowski, as well as losing possession in a dangerous area for being far too lackadaisical on the ball, something for which Barca were thankfully not made to pay. Xavi had put De Jong in as a central defender, something which he denies was an attempt to send a clear message to the quite clearly expendable Dutchman. Still, if you’re De Jong, you must be able to take a hint by now and see that the writing is on the wall. It’s over, Frenkie, we’re moving on. XoXo.
Franck Kessie (who, it has to be said, looks imperiously cool in a Barcelona shirt) missed the only other good chance of the half, drawing an excellent save from Thibaut Courtois in the 70th minute. Indeed, the Real Madrid keeper made a few decent saves throughout the game, keeping his side in the contest, not for the first time.
One other thing of comedic note was the deafening, furious blanket of boos that fell on Gerard Pique whenever he touched the ball. That and the repeated chorus of ‘Shakira’ chants. Pique, as one might expect from someone who has the life of Gerard Pique, did not look too perturbed.
And that was mostly it. Most of what mattered in this game came in the first half, and that half belonged to Barcelona. It added yet more fuel to the rising flame that Barcelona may finally be back, and about to do something very special next season. For now, the bragging rights in Sin City belong to the Culers, and both sets of fans can no doubt feel free to cavort with one another up and down the Strip deep into the hot Las Vegas night.
They should soak it up while they can.
Next time, at the Santiago Bernabeu on the 16th October, it won’t be nearly so ‘friendly’.