It was perfect timing, just ahead of Madrid hosting Barça tomorrow lunchtime at their magnificent Santiago Bernabéu stadium …
When Xabi Alonso recently revealed the brains-trust planning sessions he, Jose Mourinho and Sergio Ramos used to stage during the Clásico Wars of 2010/2011.
It was the height of the Pep Guardiola-Messi-Xavi-Iniesta domination of the world and with “master of the dark arts” Mourinho (how JK Rowling didn’t cast him in one of the Harry Potter movies I’ll never know) suffering humiliations during Clásicos it needed all hands, indeed minds, on deck so that by 2012 there could finally be a remedy.
Alonso explains: “Messi has inflicted a lot of damage on me in my career, I’ve suffered at his hands.
“He really did our heads in.
“So Mourinho, Sergio and I used to pose ourselves the questions: ‘How IS it that he does us so much harm?’ … ‘how can we control him?’
“At that time Messi would play alongside Xavi, or just in front of him.
“They’d provoke us into doing what they wanted.
“Xavi would ‘show’ me the ball and I’d go to cover him.
“Immediately, Messi would drop into the space behind me and, of course, our centre-half, who was Ramos, would have to go to him – either to mark him or to try to intercept the ball if it was coming to Messi.
“We only began to control Messi a bit when it was me who went to mark him directly, not Sergio.
“Xavi would ‘show’ with the ball and it would look like my job to close him down. But I’d stay on Messi and that meant Ramos didn’t have to move out of position.
“What we sacrificed was having to play deeper than we’d have wanted to and also we gave up the possibility of pressing and robbing Xavi – but we prioritised nullifying Messi.
“And when we controlled that problem the Barça v Madrid matches were suddenly balanced again.”
I don’t know – perhaps you think given that Messi has only lost one in every three of his 36 Clásicos, that he’s the all-time top scorer in this fixture (24 goals) and that he won the last of these searing battles at the Bernabéu by finishing a sensational full-pitch Barça move to slash home his 500th club goal … it’s stating the obvious that Madrid had to have developed special strategies for him.
But it’s lovely to hear the detail. Particularly in context of what’s at stake tomorrow.
Madrid have to win, and it’s nothing to do with bragging rights.
They languish 11 points adrift of unbeaten Liga leaders Barça (albeit with a winnable game in hand) meaning they are in a position from which they have never, in their noble history, fought back to win the title.
Albeit that Los Blancos are THE club of “firsts”, this would be a special trick and it’s obligatory that the fightback begins right now.
So while I’d argue that Madrid, on form and fit, have the better XI and should win this match, they have a significant task in stopping Messi.
A significant task in not only planning that strategy – but effecting it.
Meaning that, with Alonso and Mourinho both long gone, our magnifying glass must be firmly placed on the third, remaining, Musketeer – Ramos.
His red card record is spectacular (I swear strikers hear the phrase “this tackle has been sponsored by Hallmark” as he crunches into them).
Though he’s never once been sent off for Spain (his next cap will be his 150th), Ramos has been red carded 24 times for Madrid – the all-time record in Spanish history.
Five of those red cards have come in Clásicos, two for hacking down Messi.
But that’s not even half the picture.
Although there’s nothing personal in it, you can be sure of that, Messi has spent large swathes of his Barcelona career leaving Ramos looking slow, clumsy, rash or a bit foolish.
From the third goal of Messi’s first Clásico hat-trick, back in 2007, when Ramos was the defender lunging in hopelessly to stop the little kid making it 3-3, via the way in which Messi used his “new” false-nine position in Barcelona’s 6-2 win at the Bernabéu in 2009 to chip the ball over Ramos, who responds with a kind of Kung-fu leap, so that Thierry Henry can race away and score – the Argentinian has tormented Ramos.
The worst? When he kept showing the ball and then flipping it away from Ramos in the 5-0 win of 2010 – Mourinho’s first in charge.
Something snapped, and we’re all lucky it wasn’t Messi’s leg.
As Lassana Diarra crunched Barcelona’s No10 from one side, Ramos simply booted him from the other.
Red card. Full pitch brawl.
Even last April when Messi scored that ultra-magical 500th goal to win the Clásico with just seconds remaining – it came after Ramos had scythed into him like a Major League Baseball batter might slide for his life to try to steal first base. Marching orders again.
There was a Ramos-shaped hole into which Barcelona charged – and scored.
But the brash, likeable, mega-successful Madrid captain is no mug, don’t get me wrong.
He’s won or drawn 20 of his 38 Clásico tests and of the four goals he’s scored against Barça, three have been worth a win or a draw.
The main reasons I describe this rivalry are that, firstly, Ramos has to find the right way to contain Messi and that probably means Madrid’s midfield, Casemiro or Kroos, trying to tangle him up like Alonso once did.
Secondly, it’s just spectacular drama when the big, athletic, determined, successful guy tries his heart out to snuff out the small, brilliant, tricksy, street-smart little ’un. A story of human drama.
On balance, I think Madrid are far better, more resourceful than their current Liga position shows and may well win this one.
Also because they absolutely must.
But, to do that, they have to cope with Leo Messi.
Good luck, Sergio old bean.