For a clásico upgrade, please add spice

It’s thirty three minutes gone in the second half and after many unsuccessful attempts, the blonde ponytail of Sofia Jakobsson has beaten the Barcelona centrebacks’ offside trap and she is through on goal. Ten seconds later, Mapi León’s face is, as we say in Spanish, ‘a poem’. With a mixture of amusement and disbelief, she is clapping the decision sarcastically and covering her face with her hands, walking away but also looking back to see her teammates swarming the referee like the a mob of very angry bees. A penalty has been called. The card is red.

A minute later, Olga Carmona is on the scoreboard. A name that, much like Oscar dos Santos’, the sole Brazilian to find the net in that famous men’s World Cup semifinal, is now a Trivial Pursuit gem. Everything else, is now Clásico folklore.

Olga Carmona takes a shot. @realmadridfem

Call me by your name

There is no consensus (and I anticipate there never will be) as to whether this game, the second in their history and hosted in the Catalan capital for the first time, can be considered a Clásico. Personally, we believe it is, but perhaps for the wrong reasons. There might be an association with the fact that this match up has been going on since forever in the men’s game, and people might think that that fact, the amount of times it has been played, is what makes the Clásico a ‘clásico’.

I think this fails to acknowledge the very real reason why this game is so appetising, and that is the background history and politics of what the teams represent or have represented for their supporters, and their clash in the sporting field. What the clubs stand for. The history of the country. The cities that are involved in it and their geopolitical relationships. For contextualisation purposes, Athletic Bilbao and FC Barcelona have also played each other since time immemorial, and the remnants of these encounters have much less bad blood between them.

So whether it is in men’s football, women’s football, or curling, this game will always be a Clásico, now that both teams are the teams they are, and have behind the apparatus they have now, as opposed to last year’s, when Tacón had not yet been absorbed into the Real Madrid sphere. The debate will not die down, but this is the explanation we choose to give to the name debate. It was a Clásico.

Expected result / Unexpected tactics

The expectation for this game was high. Barcelona had not played in ten days, Real Madrid had cracked into the second spot on the ladder momentarily, and were putting together a solid collection of work against non-direct rivals – teams that, all things considered, one also needs to beat in order to keep the pace in the race. It was the first time it was going to be played in Barcelona, and with the FCB elections upcoming, it had generated some noise in the press among some of the potential future presidents; their evident and baffling lack of knowledge of what the women’s team stands for is a conversation for another day.

Alexia Putellas celebrates her goal.

Given Madrid’s recent form and their ability to climb up the ladder, one might have been forgiven for thinking that the result of this game was going to be any different. On the scoreboard, the story was quite telling: 4-1 to FCB, one goal better than last time around for Real. The result that teams that allow space for Barcelona’s forwards to run normally get. Being brave at the Johan Cruyff Stadium, at the moment, has very damaging consequences for visitors. And Real Madrid experienced this first hand, despite playing the game they needed to play in order to beat FC Barcelona.

Tactically speaking, decisions had to be made that were both genius and ruinous for both coaches. Lluís Cortés went with Oshoala up forward, and this was the game for her: two goals, key participation in another, immense threat on the run, and got the opposition keeper sent off. You could not ask more from the Nigerian attacker. On the other hand, having Oshoala there meant Jenni Hermoso was pushed to the number 10 role, which mean that FCB went with a numerical disadvantage in the midfield (Alexia and Patri, plus Jenni as a helper), when Madrid had four players taking the ball away from them and pressing them… the Barcelona way. Aitana Bonmatí, who has been playing magnificently in the role of second striker/number 10, was the sacrificial player, and Barcelona felt her absence, until she came on with twenty minutes to go.

On the other side of the fence, Real Madrid’s gaffer, David Aznar, got it right when adding players to populate the midfield with an attempt to take possession and play a brave and offensive brand of football. The sacrifice was Kosovare Asllani, quite an odd choice given she is the team’s top scorer. The Swedish international did not play a single minute, not even when her team went down 3-0 at half time. The rumour mill never stops and moves like this would only fuel the idea that she might not stay in the ‘white house’ beyond this summer.

Real Madrid were imprecise in feeding Sofia Jakobsson most of the time, but she also struggled to remain onside. In fact, the only chance she broke free was in the aforementioned penalty play. For the most part, Real Madrid were good at keeping and taking possession, but they could not find the missing link between the midfield and the forwards, and therefore barely managed to make Sandra Paños uncomfortable.

The sledgehammer can be devastating

FC Barcelona has been comprehensively criticised for failing to put away over two thirds of the chances they generate. This Achilles heel has cost them dearly in big games, most recently in the semifinal of the SuperCopa against Atlético. In the clásico, they did have some obvious ones not go their way (Oshoala hit the crossbar a metre from the goal line, for example), but their first half performance was devastatingly effective.

Every time they cracked past the second line of Real Madrid’s high press, they scored. The spaces were there, as the blancas were caught too far up the pitch, and in space and on the run, good luck stopping the likes of Asisat Oshoala or Caroline Graham Hansen. The third goal, manufactured by the two forwards, and set up by captain Alexia Putellas, was a demonstration of what Barcelona can do on the counter when executed correctly.

It is, however, much easier to score when the result is going your way, and the player responsible for breaking the deadlock in the first ten minutes was Alexia Putellas. Who else? Misa could save Patri’s point blank range header, but could not do anything to keep the captain’s strike out. Alexia does that. She does not score meaningless goals. She barely scores scrappy ones. Her left boot marvels and concerns rivals in equal proportions. It is much easier score with Putellas in the team, particularly if the goal is within her range.

Seeing red (cards)

Did you need more spice? Then pass on the sriracha. The result might have been unimportant by that point, after Kaci involuntarily assisted Oshoala in the fourth goal. But it would not be a Clásico if everything was done correctly and if everyone remained on the pitch, right?

With twenty minutes to go, Leila found the run of Oshoala and the Nigerian found herself through on goal, with Misa having left her box in an attempt to clear the ball that her defence was unable to reach. Oshoala chose to shoot rather than lift the ball over the keeper, and Misa’s stray hand, a reflex act, made contact with the ball. Straight red. 10 players and 4-0 down. The drama.

The ensuing Graham Hansen free kick was almost an easy save for substitute keeper Yohana, so as much as Real then faced the prospect of an all-out attack being one player down, Misa, in hindsight, did something rather well: she avoided the dreaded 5-0, the ‘handful of goals’ over the direct rival, something that in Clásico folklore has been a key bragging right. Much like Luís Suárez in that infamous World Cup quarterfinal against Ghana, doing the wrong thing turned out for the best.

But if Misa’s red card was as clear as day, both live and in the replay, the same cannot be said for the story that opens this article. Mapi León was shown a second yellow card for clearing the ball from Sofia Jakobsson in the penalty box, a clearance that also tripped the Swedish international. The referee called a penalty and left Barcelona in an unusual position going into the next game: their most utilised player will be unavailable.

It is plays like this, an unfair penalty and a red card, and the ensuing debate about refereeing, that has added the spice to a political, ideological, linguistic, and geographical rivalry in the men’s game. It is almost a Clásico trait that some terrible refereeing needs to occur, favouring either side, for it to be a proper Clásico. From the disallowed Rivaldo free-kick of 2001 to Figo’s red card for tackling Puyol. The women’s game was no different, and the first clásico in Barcelona will probably be remembered for this minor incident (in the scheme of the whole game) and Olga Carmona’s goal, than for the actual score.

What next from here

FC Barcelona march on, and continue to smash through (with more or less emphasis) everything that is put in front of them. They may enjoy the concept of playing more than one game a week for some weeks to come, should the games remain scheduled. In less than 10 days, they will be playing for the last piece of silverware of 2020 in the Copa de la Reina against Logroño, a team they will also face this weekend.

Real Madrid can take many positives from this outing: the tactical set up and bravery going forward is the way a team with their budget should be playing every week. Playing like this, they should be in the UWCL next year, which would be a great boost for their prospects in the Primera Iberdrola going forward as they might be able to attract interest from higher profile players in the off-season. Levante and Atlético (but also Madrid CFF, who are playing magnificently, and UDG Tenerife, who have not played recently because of COVID positive cases but remain within reach in the ladder) will put up a fight, but with two spots up for grabs, Real should be aiming to finish second.

As a final note, this refereeing incident is not an isolated situation in the Primera Iberdrola. As Mapi León said on Twitter, Real Madrid had two legal goals ruled out for offside last week which could have really decimated their chances of staying in the race. The refereeing needs to improve, and fast. The players deserve much better.

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