It is always sweeter for Barcelona when they beat Real Madrid thanks to one of their own; a player schooled in the traditions of pass-and-move, 4-3-3 and the Johan Cruyff school of tactical responsibility at their fabled academy. A Xavi. An Andrés Iniesta. A Lionel Messi. On Sunday night, by contrast, it was a goal from record signing Zlatan Ibrahimović that allowed them to overcome their old rivals, but rather than a betrayal of Barca’s traditions, the Swede’s strike was a thumping vindication of manager Pep Guardiola’s clear-sighted and courageous recruitment strategy.
Real took to the field at Camp Nou with a line-up featuring some £185 million of new recruits and produced a commendably tenacious showing for a side supposedly beset by unsolvable tactical conundrums and plagued by implacable egos. They worked hard, pressing high up the pitch as Barcelona did throughout last season, and their threat on the counter-attack was borne out by a spate of first-half chances that could easily have seen them take a 1-0 lead into the interval.
This Barcelona, however, is a different beast. Last season their fêted passing carousel swept all before them but they received an almighty scare that they were lucky to survive when they eked past Chelsea in the Champions League semi-final after seeing their flowing football squeezed half to death by the Londoners’ muscular midfield.
There was no stinting the praise lavished upon Barcelona in the wake of their Champions League triumph against Manchester United but in the narrow victory over Chelsea, Guardiola had glimpsed his side’s undoing. Too reliant on Xavi, Iniesta and Messi. Too disposed to frustration against well-drilled, defensively well-organised sides. Too predictable.
It was this realisation that prompted the extraordinary decision to part with £40m as well as goalscoring machine Samuel Eto’o in the summer in order to bring Ibrahimović to Catalonia from Internazionale. The fee obliterated Barcelona’s transfer record and was derided in some quarters as a huge gamble on a player cruelly dismissed as a “Serie A myth” due to his perceived underachievement in the Champions League.
But Ibrahimović brought with him weapons that were previously conspicuous by their absence from Barcelona’s arsenal, most notably the option to play quick, direct passes to a genuine target man. Thus it was on Sunday that, with 51 minutes gone and Real’s defence holding firm, Ibrahimović was summoned from the bench.
Suddenly, and for the first time in the match, Barca had a different kind of attacking outlet. Their approach play up to that stage had been uniformly constructed along the ground, but when Dani Alves hared down the right flank five minutes later and lofted Barca’s first real cross of the match into the penalty area, Ibrahimović was on hand to convert it with unerring conviction.
Such is the price of variety. Such is the price of a Plan B. Barcelona may have taken a huge hit to the wallet but Guardiola now knows that he possesses a striker capable of making the crucial difference when the passing carousel falters. The first great team of the 21st century might just have got a little bit greater.