The Guardian (USA)

A president delivers peace and, surely, the title for Barcelona

- Sid Lowe

Franck Kessié hasn’t always been in the right place at the right time but on Sunday night at 10.53pm he was exactly where he needed to be, and when. One morning, soon after arriving at Milan, the Ivorian pulled into Milanello and parked in the space reserved for the big boss. Stopped by security, told he couldn’t go there because that was the president’s spot, he replied: “I am the president.” It fit somehow and the title stuck. That day he became The President; now, five years on, he became President, King, Emperor, anything he likes. Above all, he became La Liga champion, they all did. Which is why he, the son of a soldier, was standing to salute, and Camp Nou was going wild around him.

Sometimes the difference is a fine line, and sometimes that’s literal. The clock showed 80.15 in the 258th clásico, the one that would decide the destiny of the league, and the tension had been growing for a while, everything and everyone on edge, when Marco Asensio scored to make it 2-1 to Real Madrid. As he set off pointing to the badge on his shirt, over on the touchline Carlo Ancelotti clenched his fists and, to his left, Xavi Hernández couldn’t help but think how unfair it was. It was Asensio’s first touch, the kind of moment you knew was coming even when it wasn’t coming, and it reopened the title race.

On the replays, though, Asensio looked offside, and 600km south west in Las Rozas, where referees wear kit to sit in a small room with big screens, they were applying the lines in blue and red that confirmed it. With the clock on 82.49, Ricardo de Burgos Bengoetxea drew an imaginary TV and raised his arm while the Camp Nou raised the roof, marking their relief and the first time VAR had ruled out a clásico goal. Nine points ahead going into this game, a draw would probably do for Barcelona, but this was a reminder they didn’t need of just how precarious their position was; Madrid were coming for them now, the game wide open, one end to the other. Asensio shot over, Karim Benzema was blocked by Andreas Christense­n, Aurélien Tchouaméni stopped by Ronald Araújo.

Which was when it happened, a president who actually delivered peace. Well, not peace exactly. A Sergio Busquets pass set Alejandro Balde into space. He exchanged passes with Robert Lewandowsk­i, collecting a neat backheel and playing it across. Arriving right on time in the perfect place, deep in the area exactly as 91.00 rolled round, Kessié guided the shot into the net to make it 2-1, victory secured and the league with it. From six points and game on to 12 points and game over.

In front of the bench, Barcelona’s players and staff had watched the move unfold, getting closer to the pitch as it went, drawn towards the ball. Now they set off, sprinting along the touchline and across the grass, Xavi leaping about, celebratin­g winning his first clásico at the Camp Nou as a coach. “Justice was done with that goal,” he insisted afterwards. Kessié did a goggle gesture and headed to the north corner, neatly and necessaril­y sidesteppi­ng Jordi Alba, who was sprinting straight towards him, brakes cut. Then he stood still and saluted in honour of his father, who died when Kessié was 11, while all around everyone lost their heads. As more staff and subs came to join, someone got taken out by a superb slide tackle. When the crowd dispersed, Kessié went to embrace friends in the front row.

He had only been on 13 minutes and now his first goal in La Liga had virtually won it. Twelve points ahead with 12 games to go, this should be Barcelona’s title. Asked if it was over, Madrid keeper Thibaut Courtois, standing pitchside while the party got going around him, replied: “Yes. We have to be honest. There’s nothing impossible but it’s four games difference between us now.” Ancelotti, meanwhile, was doubting the VAR lines – “I’m surprised at that; it’s scientific,” Xavi replied – and talking about fighting to the end but he knew it was gone, the Copa del Rey and European Cup their targets now. “A millimetre from the league,” ran the front of Marca.

Barcelona’s players gathered in a circle and celebrated, then headed back to the north stand where Gavi was hoisted on Alba’s shoulders and they joined with the drums. Under the stand, you could hear the shouts and celebratio­ns as they headed back to the dressing room. “Delirium” shouted the front of Sport; “Ecstasy”, El Mundo Deportivo called it. “We’re a step closer; it’s not done but it’s an important cushion,” Busquets said. Xavi admitted he could understand why the fans were outside singing “campeones”. “You can never say it’s done but it’s a gap that’s hard to let go of,” Sergi Roberto said. “It ended up being a bit epic, we all went mad. It was a fiesta. We didn’t realise Asensio’s goal was offside. From that to Franck’s goal. It tastes better this way.”

Sergi Roberto had scored Barcelona’s first. In the absence of Pedri, Xavi had to choose between him and Kessié and in the end, both scored. There was something about that which fit somehow; there was something about how tight it had been that fit too. It was close on Sunday night but ultimately it hasn’t been close at all, or so the stats seem to say: Barcelona gave Madrid hope with defeat at Almería three weeks ago, and Asensio’s ‘goal’, but the title is done nearly three months ahead of time. Last season Madrid finished 13 points clear of Barcelona. At the end of the first clásico this season back in October, they were three ahead and seemed to have eased to victory. Now, Barcelona are 12 points ahead. “We don’t forget where we come from,” Xavi said. It is an extraordin­ary turnaround and those kind of figures, a race finished this early, suggest dominance.

But this has been a different kind of Barcelona, a different kind of success: it is counter-cultural which maybe it had to be. Madrid have had more shots and scored more goals yet their opener on Sunday was the first Barcelona have conceded at home from open play since last season. Xavi’s side have let in just two now: a Joselu penalty and an own goal. They have let in just nine all season – four of them to Madrid. This was their third 2-1. They have won 1-0 nine times. Nine of their last 11 wins have been by a single goal. This title may have been the hardest and least “Barcelona” of all, built on different qualities and different players, responsibi­lity shared.

Pedri has been vital: goals are not his thing really, yet he scored the winner in four of those 1-0s. But he has also suffered injury and was absent this time. Ousmane Dembélé has been Xavi’s great success, the manager taking on his own club to keep him and convert him into the focus of their attack – five goals, five assists – but he is injured now and has only started 14 games. In his absence, Raphinha has been decisive, accumulati­ng assists and scoring the only goal against Valencia and Athletic and the late winner at Osasuna. Lewandowsk­i began brilliantl­y and is still the league’s top scorer, yet has just two since the World Cup.

Frenkie de Jong, the man they tried to sell, is irreplacea­ble now. It is not just that Gavi has been important; it is that his hybrid role, an extra midfielder supposedly playing further up, much as Xavi bristles at suggestion­s of 4-4-2, has provided stability and bite. Christense­n, a free transfer, has been quietly excellent. So has Balde, who they anticipate­d moving on. Marc-André ter Stegen has been barely believable at times, even if he may have been caught wrong-footed here. And then there’s Araújo, the outstandin­g defender in La Liga, even if it took a while to be seen. On Sunday he was entrusted with stopping Vinícius Júnior; instead, his night started with an own goal. That, though, was the last Madrid scored. And then Sergi Roberto and Kessié appeared.

Two months ago, there were doubts they would be around much longer, Kessié having to deny rumours of a winter departure and Xavi pushing for Sergi Roberto to extend his contract in the face of opposition from, well, just about everyone. “Sergi Roberto has had the most unfair criticism I’ve seen in my career,” the coach said last month.”

He’s more Barcelona than the pole the club’s flag is hung on. He always performs, never complains and is a tremendous captain, altruistic, empathetic. I want him to extend and be here for years.”

Previously playing little part, Sergi Roberto has started the last five league games; Kessié has appeared in each of the last 11. “It was between Sergi and

Franck to start; I had doubts until the last minute and in the end both scored: I’m especially happy for them,” Xavi said. “Franck’s an example, always there for the team.”

Right there. Right place, right time. “It’s a feeling you can’t explain, an incredible experience,” Kessié said. “I couldn’t believe I had scored. Congratula­tions to the whole team, we deserved it. I’m so happy to have scored in front of 95,000 people.” The biggest crowd at the Camp Nou in seven years, they had come for the title and, it turned out, to salute the president.

 ?? Photograph: Lluís Gené/AFP/Getty Images ?? Franck Kessié celebrates after scoring.
Photograph: Lluís Gené/AFP/Getty Images Franck Kessié celebrates after scoring.
 ?? Álex Caparrós/Getty Images ?? Franck Kessié is mobbed after scoring Barcelona’s dramatic winner in the clásico. Photograph:
Álex Caparrós/Getty Images Franck Kessié is mobbed after scoring Barcelona’s dramatic winner in the clásico. Photograph:

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States