Forty one. That was the total number of fouls in the clasico between Barcelona and Real Madrid at the Camp Nou. And you know what? Barca did just fine. So often castigated for being too much beauty and not enough beast, Barca showed they can win (a) rugby matches, (b) when they're not playing especially well, (c) when the opposition takes it to them, and (d) when they play with ten men for half an hour (thanks, Busquets!).
Today's 1-0 win was strange for a number of reasons. First of all, I'm struggling to recall a game in which Barca relied on Puyol and Pique to the extent that they did. Normally, when Barca win games, it's because of the control they exert in the midfield through Xaviniesta, and the constant threat in the final third provided by the front three.
Today, both those aspects were absent. We didn't see dominance in the midfield because Pep stupidly decided to play Iniesta as a winger, leaving both Pedro and Ibra on the bench to start. This despite the fact that Xaviniesta have shown time and again that when they are side by side in the center of midfield, they are peerless. When one of them is absent, however, things can get ragged.
Moreover, the threat from the front three was nullified by an excellent (and sometimes dirty) Madrid defense and midfield. They pressured the ball from the first whistle -- Jose, you might want to take notes from this game for the next time you play Barca -- and, especially in the first half, gave Barca no room to breathe. And when Barca did find a little bit of space, Madrid simply committed tactical fouls (they committed 25 fouls in all, their entire backline other than Segio Ramos picked up a yellow, Lass picked up two in the second half alone, and even Marcelo got one for good measure).
What this meant was that Barca simply did not get going until the second half, when Real's intensity dropped off a little. Real actually threatened to score more than Barca, a strange occurrence if there ever was one. But Puyol and Pique (and Valdes, no doubt, with a crucial one-on-one save from Crystiano in the first half) would simply not allow it. Tackle after desperate tackle, lunge after last-second lunge, they were truly magnificent. Puyol, especially, showed everyone what a true leader does in big games: man up. What a performance, easily the man of the match.
It needed to be one too. Despite my well-documented hatred for Crystiano, I have to say, seeing him and Kaka together on the counter-attack had me covering my face in horror a couple of times. When Pellegrini gets his selection right (he must understand that with Kaka and Crystiano in the same team, only one of Higuain, Benzema and Raul can play, and it must be Higuain when he is fit), they are an incredibly scary team going forward. And when Busquets insanely handled to get his second yellow -- I have absolutely no idea what he was thinking -- I feared the worst.
I needn't have. On being reduced to ten men, Barca became galvanized and played as a unit. Xaviniesta dropped a little deeper, and Messi defended well into Barca's own half. It was almost heroic to see them repel attack after attack, corner after corner. When they did win the ball, they did everything they could to keep it, ensuring control in tight spaces and showing that skill will always beat strength. From the 60th minute on, it was just about counting the minutes down and keeping the one goal advantage.
A word about the goal and Ibra in general. Pretty much as soon as he stepped on to the pitch, Barca looked better. Henry was completely and utterly ineffective in his fifty-odd minute stint, again raising questions of Pep's selection. If Ibra was fit enough to play, he was fit enough to start. Why didn't he? Only Pep knows. But the bottom line is that when the substitution was made, space opened up, the passing in the final third became crisper, and Barca actually started looking like Barca. And the goal? Nothing else to say, except great run, expert finish (kudos, also, to Dani Alves for a pinpoint cross, because really, he did bugger all for the rest of the game). Ibra, a big-game bottler? Right.
So Barca, still unbeaten in La Liga, go top of the table with 30 points from 12 games, with Madrid two back and Sevilla a further two back. They owe that position mainly to their center backs, but also to a team spirit and ethos that simply refused to give in. Messi, especially, typified this approach, with an extraordinary work rate (and coming back after injury, no less) and control that kept Real to 38% possession. It was a great all-round team performance against a fired up Real team, who showed that last season was an aberration, and that the gap in quality between the two will be much smaller this year. Which, I suppose, is a fair return on 250 million Euros.