Barcelona are inevitable, Alexia Putellas is inevitable, people calling both inevitable is itself inevitable. That is, at least, what the script said and when Barcelona were drawn against Real Madrid in the Champions League quarter-finals, well there could only be one result.
It had been a rocky start to the 2021-22 season for Las Blancas but a kind UEFA Women’s Champions League group stage draw saw the young team navigate their way to the knock-outs as they finally began to climb the Primera Iberdrola table. It had taken, among other things, a managerial change for the Madrid team to start to play to their strengths; the talent in the squad beginning to shine through. However, even with their improving form in Spain, the team were still a long way off from being able to compete with Barcelona – on paper at least.
The group stage was done and dusted just before the turn of the year and not even the cold winter air could slow the Catalonian juggernaut down. The current champions wrapped up the league title earlier this month, still with six games of the season left, and each match began to look like an inevitability. Less a hurdle than a pebble along the path to a summer of European football. Yes, there were injury issues that Barcelona were dealing with but the starting XI Jonatan Giráldez could put out would still be one of the finest collections of players in the world right now.
As it was, the Champions League returned just two days after Xavi Hernández’ Barcelona had ruthlessly dispatched Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu, reasserting a Catalan dominance in El Clásico. The hotly anticipated women’s “Clásico” kicked off in the Spanish capital, but even Madristas didn’t fancy their chances against a team who, in seven meetings, had hit them for 32 goals and not surrendered a single point.
However, if the script had already been written, no one had thought to tell Alberto Toril’s team, the hosts needing just two minutes to settle themselves and force the errors out of an off-colour Barcelona team. Olga Carmona’s eighth minute goal enough to completely unseat the visitors, yet it was born out of errors from Barcelona as much as it was Olga’s attacking nous. The team in yellow sagged, pulled out of shape and granted the attacker a wealth of space to run into to pick up Esther’s pass. Her clean feet and composure was enough to slice through the unsteady defence and clip the ball inside of Sandra Paños’ far post.
If Barcelona had started the match with surface level cracks, the goal had punched through and sent a shockwave across the entire team, as well as the women’s football world watching on. It was not the first time the current European champions had shown weaknesses, a cumbersome and frankly, lucky game against HB Køge had been the first serious test for Giráldez. His predecessors had had their share of forgettable matches too, but never had they looked so feeble against a team they were expected to blow away, a team who they had only beaten 5-0 nine days prior.
The Barça way
The joy of this Barcelona team isn’t about the individuals but about the near-telepathic way in which those individuals come together. It’s about the players who didn’t spend their formulative years in each other’s pockets at La Masia, all learning the same style, year after year but about those who play as if they did. It’s about how the squad was hand-picked and nurtured into the entity it is today, about players from all over Spain and Europe, who grew up in completely different environments, yet who are able to access the Barcelona hive mind as if they were born to be Culés.
There is almost a ‘live by the style, die by the style’ air to this Barcelona team because, for as glorious as it is to watch – even most neutrals can fall under their spell when watching the Blaugranes – the times it doesn’t come together, there is no back-up. Objectively, it looked as if Barcelona were not 100% with it in Madrid but when they might have been able to feel their way out, Olga’s goal and Real’s confident press left them scrambling. Not only was there no back-up plan – and the team could only make the same mistakes over and over at the Estadio Alfredo Di Stéfano – but the players looked shell-shocked, like novices who’d taken to the wrong pitch.
It wasn’t just that the players in yellow couldn’t find each other, it was that they had no time on the ball to think and grope around for answers that would usually automatically present themselves.
For the hosts, there was a clear plan in place, one the players were diligently sticking to but taking part in a match that would last 180 minutes, the second goal refused to come. Although they had more depth on their bench for Toril to call upon, their lead was a fragile one and when Caroline Graham Hansen went down in the box after the break, those chances came back to haunt Las Blancas.
The foul had been a sloppy one from Olga, who had missed the ball and collided with the Norwegian attack who, for her part had taken her time to drop to the dry grass. Having been instructed to review the incident by the VAR, Lina Lehtovaara jogged over to the monitor by the side of the pitch and gave the visitors a route back into the match. Alexia Putellas didn’t need to be told twice, and happily fired the ball home from 12-yards, the goal cementing the momentum shift in the match that had threatened with the half-time introduction of Clàudia Pina.
For Real Madrid, it wasn’t just about the goal itself or seeing their advantage dashed with one swift flick of Alexia’s boot, but about the ignominy of the penalty. Refusing to let their heads fully drop, the hosts dug in, sitting behind the ball more and more, closing off the passing channels and shielding Misa’s goal where possible. Unable to claim their first shot until after the 25th minute, the Catalans began accumulating efforts, but still a long way from their best and the strikes rarely troubled Misa. It would take a rare effort on target for the hosts to be undone, Pina’s low strike just beyond on the reach of the Madrid number one.
The 22-year-old shot-stopper was called back into action minutes later to make a stunning save, punching the ball up and over the bar at a lively corner but her intervention would ultimately be for naught. A swift counter from the visitors in the last half minute of stoppage time saw Patri square the ball to Alexia for the enigmatic midfielder to chip it over Misa just as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had to Thibaut Courtois at the Camp Nou two days prior.
Barcelona had, inevitably won, but they had done so in a way few expected. The cliché is that the best teams always just find ways but in Madrid, for the majority of the match, Barcelona hadn’t been the best team. The nature of the turnaround, from the penalty to the very late third making for yet another bitter loss for Real against a team that continues to raise the bar above the heads of Toril’s charges, keeping it just so tantalisingly out of reach.
With the second leg scheduled for next Wednesday in front of a sold out Nou Camp, the worry for Real Madrid is once again, that the match will become an exhibition for the Spanish champions, who will demand so much more of themselves.