Mental recovery the key for Real: Benitez

Players' collective confidence more important than the prospect of being sacked, says coach

Lionel Messi (left) embracing Andres Iniesta after the latter had scored the third goal for Barcelona against Real Madrid on Saturday. Messi, who started on the bench, set up the last goal of the emphatic 4-0 victory.
Lionel Messi (left) embracing Andres Iniesta after the latter had scored the third goal for Barcelona against Real Madrid on Saturday. Messi, who started on the bench, set up the last goal of the emphatic 4-0 victory.PHOTO: REUTERS
Cristiano Ronaldo shows the pain of defeat,
Cristiano Ronaldo shows the pain of defeat, but Barcelona manager Luis Enrique hailed his side’s “complete performance”. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

MADRID • With half an hour to go, Lionel Messi ran on, eight weeks after tearing a ligament in his knee, but this was no rescue mission.

Instead, the Argentinian football star came to take part in and enjoy a destruction that had been carried out in his absence.

It was already 3-0 to Barcelona against Real Madrid in La Liga on Saturday, with goals from Luis Suarez, Neymar and Andres Iniesta.

Soon afterwards, Messi, who started a clasico on the bench for the first time in 11 years and a day, helped create a fourth for Suarez, leaving the Santiago Bernabeu whistling their team and protesting against their president.

Once the game had begun, virtually the only applause of the night came for Real player Isco when he was sent off six minutes from the end for a wild hack at Neymar.

At least someone had done something, they seemed to be saying. At least the sense of impotence and inferiority had hurt him. Others had been simply indolent.

Barcelona, by contrast, had been inspired. This 4-0 victory took them six points clear of Real after 12 weeks of the season, but the real gap between them appeared much, much bigger than that.

Real were outplayed in Rafael Benitez's first clasico as coach - a clasico in which he fielded a side that did not feel much like his own. When they did briefly react, they found Claudio Bravo stopping them and, in any case, they had reacted fleetingly and too late.

The manager, who has been rather defensive about accusations that he is defensive, opted for a more attacking side than anyone had expected, employing a 4-2-3-1 that often looked more like a 4-2-4 and did not work. Real were as disastrous as Barcelona were marvellous with their star forwards Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale largely quiet .

Barcelona manager Luis Enrique said his side's performance would "go down in history" and described Andres Iniesta as "world heritage" after the rout.

"This victory is glorious, especially in the way that it came about. We were the better team and the win is down to us," he said. "There is a long way to go but it is always important to win here. This has been a very complete performance. It will go down in history as a memorable game for Barcelona."

At the heart of it was Iniesta, whom Enrique described as "patrimonio de la humanidad", the phrase applied to world heritage, a wonder to be enjoyed by everyone, property of the planet. "He is unique," the Barcelona manager said. "He has magic and he has eyes in the back of his neck."

Enrique has seen his team go from a point behind Real to six points ahead over several weeks without Messi. Asked if he now had a problem finding a place in the team for Messi, he responded sarcastically: "That's a bloody massive problem."

Benitez admitted the defeat "hurts a lot" but insisted now was not the time for recriminations, even as some fans waved hankies in protest and called for the resignation of president Florentino Perez. "The important thing now is to stick together," he said.

The Spaniard insisted he is more worried about recovering his players' confidence than being sacked.

"Logically we are hurting. It hurts to lose and particularly to lose in that manner," said Benitez. "We have lost three points in La Liga and nothing more. What worries me is the team recovering mentally before the next game (Wednesday's Champions League trip to Shakhtar Donetsk)."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 23, 2015, with the headline 'Mental recovery the key for Real: Benitez'. Subscribe