With 90 minutes on the clock, Lionel Messi bit his lip and raised his hands to each side of his head.
Having shifted the ball to his left to leave Sergio Ramos floundering and straining his every muscle to block a shot that was out of his reach, Messi curled the ball goal-bound as he had done for his, and Barcelona’s, first goal of the game.
Trailing 2-1 and requiring a goal to shift the balance of the two-legged Supercopa tie between Barca and rivals Real Madrid in favour of the Catalan club, Messi aligned up his sights. And watched the ball stray agonisingly wide.
The two legs finished with both teams tied at 4-4, with Madrid taking the win by virtue of goal difference. Jose Mourinho celebrated as if the Champions League had been secured with a comprehensive win over their greatest rivals.
So slim were the margins of defeat and success, yet Messi’s chance was not even the best of the evening, by a long way. A stunningly open encounter at the Bernabeu highlighted adequately the strengths and weaknesses of both teams and whet the appetite for an engrossing La Liga season to come.
For Barcelona, their first half exposure as a team with a soft centre was something that hasn’t happened to them for some time, especially not in front of Madrid’s home crowd.
So used were they to rocking up to the Bernabeu before walking off with a win that you have to go back to 2008, way past Barca’s 6-2 drubbing of their rivals to find the last time Los Blancos weren’t the ones waving the white flag.
But this time it was different. Barca, bloody nosed and jellied legs, rocked against the ropes as Madrid thrust forward early on and exposed their rivals’ defensive weakness.
With Javier Mascherano and Gerard Pique seemingly complete strangers at the back, Madrid pounced, with Gonzalo Higuain and Cristiano Ronaldo netting inside the first twenty minutes. Both goals could have been easily avoided.
New manager Tito Vilanova stood on the sidelines, pale and shocked. When Adriano was handed his marching orders in the first half for a professional foul he barely moved.
The first half felt like an announcement from Madrid that they were finally Barca’s equals. Before the game Mourinho had insisted that his team would attack from the off, something that was taken with a pinch of salt.
To see his side so gainfully go for the jugular early on was something so refreshing compared the hatchet jobs his side have performed on Messi and co. in recent years. There could, and certainly should, have been much more than two Madrid goals in the first 45 minutes.
The contrast of his sides incisive thrust to that of Barca’s tiki-taka has never seen so stark, never been so refreshing. Mourinho now seems to have a fully formed idea about how to target and beat Barca without resorting to thuggery.
It took just one moment of genius to snap Barca from their slumber and to help them revert to sublime type. Leo Messi, out of sorts in the first leg, bent the most sumptuous free-kick past Iker Casillas to haul his side back into the game.
Suddenly, with 45 minutes to go, away from home and down to ten men, the impossible seemed plausible. It always did with the little genius on the pitch.
If in the first half a shadow Barcelona stood in place of a team that at times looked irresistible in the first leg, Vilanova’s men cut a much more familiar shape.
Dominating possession and forcing Madrid deep into their own half, they pushed and probed for the goal required to bring the scores level on the night – yet they still could not shut up shop.
In retreat and clinging on at times, Madrid showed traces of their inferiority complex that must be stamped out if they are to win the arm wrestle with their rivals.
Alex Song came on to make his debut and looked a force going forward but could not stop Madrid carving more than their fair share of chances – if Higuain had been on his game the tie would have been over a long time before the frantic final minutes.
How Barca must wish they added to their defensive ranks during the transfer window. They still have time to do so.
With Messi’s chance went the final whistle. Madrid had landed the first blow of the season in securing the win but there was more to last night than just victory. The home side had stood up and taken the game mercilessly to their grand opponents, setting the tone for the season to come.
They may be five points behind in La Liga already but if Madrid are to go on and finally vanquish the legacy of Pep Guardiola and start a reign of their own, then last night felt like the foundations had been laid. If they didn’t do so last season, then last night, Madrid showed Barca they aren’t the only team in town anymore.
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