April 17, 2024

Jude Bellingham, the man who won the Clasico for Real Madrid on Saturday, has got only one thing wrong since his transcendental €103 million move to LaLiga this summer.

Coincidentally, if you’ll bear with me, it was in the postmatch interview after his heart-stoppingly late winner against Union Berlin in the Champions League. I asked if it wouldn’t be better for his (and everyone else’s) blood pressure if he started getting a few goals earlier in matches rather than his — admittedly sensational — habit of nicking the winner in added time.

Already beaming with a heady cocktail of pure endorphins and joy, clutching his Man of the Match trophy, he laughed out loud and said: “I guess it would be better for everyone’s well-being if I began to score in the 47th or the 60th minute … but I’m perfectly happy to carry on producing late winners!”

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Said with effervescent joviality, typical of the charm and sheer life-is-giving-me-a-wonderful-gift exuberance that the 20-year-old Englishman has displayed since ignoring entreaties from Manchester City and signing instead for Madrid, neither I nor Bellingham understood that there was a different, even better answer.

Why not do both? Why not pop up with a thunderous long-distance shot to equalise a Clasico against Barcelonaand then throw in an added-time winner too?

This really is Bellingham’s world and everyone else is lucky just to be living in it.

The phrase he added that Champions League night after one of his many leave-this-to-me-lads performances was: “I’ve had my own television at home since I was 12 or 13 and ever since then I’ve been watching Real Madrid against-the-odds wins when you think, ‘Wow! How did they come back from that?’ “

This win, his win, on Saturday to beat Barcelona 2-1 wasn’t quite in that category, though.

Almost from the moment Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti started making subs, happily ignoring the idea that this might not be Bellingham’s day given how outright sensationally Gavi was playing against him, the Clasico suddenly tilted heavily in Madrid’s direction.

What is special, utterly so, is how a “newbie” — a relative youngster, a foreigner who’s still coming to terms with a new language, a new culture, one of the most political and demanding clubs in the world and who was having a relatively difficult, discouraging afternoon — can still produce pure genie-in-a-bottle moments like these and win an away Clasico.

If any of you start to take what’s happening for granted because Bellingham has been so important, so impressive, then, please, pinch yourself. Rethink.

When I was first asked on LaLiga TV in August to encapsulate what I believed the Englishman’s impact on his new club and on LaLiga might be, I said: “I think that a phenomenon has arrived.” I meant that and I’m not withdrawing a millimetre of meaning or emphasis.

When Bellingham blitzed home Los Blancos‘ first goal on Saturday, amidst the tumult, Nacho turned to his fellow substitutes on Madrid’s bench and simple said: “Madre mia!” I think that phrase has a universal understanding — it’s one of absolute, outright amazement.

Nacho may not be revered as the single most skilled or technically gifted guy at Madrid, OK. But if you watch his world-class, long-distance goal for Spain against Portugal in the 2018 World Cup, I think you’ll be impacted by how a guy who’s capable of a goal that powerful, that good, is still left stunned by what Bellingham did.

I once interviewed the legendary Johan Cruyff at his house in the Zona Alta — the posh bit of Barcelona, and as part of an hour-long chat I asked him: “Who was your toughest rival?” Without any hesitation he named the ferocious 1974 World Cup winning full-back Berti Vogts. “Why is that?” I replied. Cruyff said, grimacing at the memory: “Because you’d swivel and turn and produce a skill and be free of him and then, within a split second, there he’d be again, somehow, snapping and snarling at my ankles.”

It was the 50th anniversary of Cruyff’s Clasico debut as a Barcelona player whilst Bellingham was doing his magical stuff up in the Olympic Stadium. Had the wonderful Dutchman still been with us, he’d have been grinning at watching Gavi produce a Vogts-style masterclass on the Englishman — for about 95% of the match, that is.

When Barcelona were in the ascendancy, Gavi was the architect. When they stand together, the eye will trick you into thinking that the 19-year-old Spaniard could fit neatly in Bellingham’s pocket. Instead he combined harassing and pressing Bellingham into temporary frustration, while adding good distribution, boundless energy and a nick of the ball off Toni Kroos‘ toes so that Fermín López could crack a shot off goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga‘s right-hand post. Neither that, nor Iñigo Martínez‘ header off the woodwork at the other end doubled Barcelona’s lead and therein lay the beauty of Madrid’s win.

The argument afterwards from Barcelona manager Xavi Hernandez was: “It’s a simple summary — we dominated for 60 minutes and scored once, they then had a good 25 minutes and scored twice. We played good football, our performance merited more, but it’s all about efficacy. Right now, Bellingham is in a state of grace.”

There was one other really significant moment for the home team, which came to nothing, when the VAR team missed a really clear-cut penalty committed by Real Madrid midfielder Aurélien Tchouaméni on Ronald Araújo.

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Jude Bellingham comes up clutch to give Real Madrid a late lead

Jude Bellingham taps home the goal to give Real Madrid a 2-1 lead in stoppage time against FC Barcelona.

But in these times of accusation and smearing — when all of us who love the game want to be convincingly assured that the accusations made in the LaLiga referee bribery scandal, which is doing so much damage to the reputation of Spanish football are either false or can be categorically proven and then prosecuted — it needs saying that the referee, Jesus Gil Manzano, was excellent throughout.

He allowed robust challenges, he was close enough to all the action to avoid being fooled by players who cry and throw themselves down, and his refereeing was precisely what his big boss, Luis Medina Cantelejo, demands of the officials. The directive was fewer light fouls, more decisions with the same criteria as you’d regularly see in England, Germany or the Champions League. The goal is fewer stoppages, better tempo of matches, fewer footballers thinking that they can con the refs and, overall, a better spectacle.

That’s unequivocally what we got in the Olympic Stadium — the entertainment was Citius, Altius, Fortius, (“Swifter, Higher, Stronger” as the Olympic motto goes).

It seemed destined that — on a day when Rolling Stones stars Mick Jagger and Ronnie Wood, both born in the same country as young Bellingham, watched on — there would be a strong English theme to the Clasico. Barcelona sported the Stones’ logo on the front of their shirts as required by their sponsors, Spotify, but there was a different musical theme that also emerged.

It could have been “In Dreams” by Roy Orbison, “Dreaming” by Blondie or “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” by the Eurythmics because they all capture the feeling both goal scorers had during the first Clasico of the season.

As a kid in Turkey, Ilkay Gündoğan used to crowd into his parents’ front room where the TV was on Champions League nights to watch Barcelona play and let his mind wander to the idea that, one day, he might wear that Blaugrana strip. He once told me that he’d only be allowed to sit on the floor because the couches and chairs were all taken up by siblings, parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents — all entranced by how Barcelona played back in the day.

It’s why Gündoğan rejected a queue of clubs, many of whom were offering him a greater salary, and also turned down the chance to stay at Manchester City with a renewed contract to sign for Barca on a free transfer this summer. He followed his dream and then he followed Tchouameni’s hapless interception of the ball, with Dani Carvajal and David Alaba half-exposed, half-dozing and bounced the ball underneath Kepa for 1-0.

It just happened that either Bellingham’s dream was bigger, or stronger, or younger, or luckier — take your pick.

When it came down to it last summer, Bellingham didn’t want to stay in Dortmund, he didn’t want to join Liverpool and he didn’t even entertain the thought of playing for Pep Guardiola and adding his brilliance to the reigning treble holders. Bellingham, like David Beckham and Gareth Bale before him, yearned to play for Los Blancos — to add his name to the endless legendary players who have made this the most successful club in history.

Not by any means for the first time this season, Real Madrid need to give thanks to the power of dreams and then hum a few bars of “Hey Jude.” To paraphrase that eternal Beatles anthem, even on a Rolling Stones afternoon, the movement he needed was off the shoulder of the last Barcelona defender just as Luka Modric inadvertently bounced the ball over Martinez, and then he made Barca’s world a little colder.

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