MADRID – Just when you thought the Clásico had run out of surprises, it threw up something new. On a field containing the two most incandescent and prolific players on the planet, the difference was eventually marked by a player who has never scored a league goal in a 12-year professional career.
Few would argue that Eric Abidal was not a worthy scorer of the winning goal; a steadfast, noble presence on a stage always as replete with chicanery as it is with breathtaking soccer. Bobbing his head above the parapet at such a crucial juncture was his "Miles Davis moment," as his erstwhile international colleague Lilian Thuram described his own moment in the sun - the brace against Croatia in the 1998 World Cup semifinal that proved to be his only two goals in 142 appearances for France.
The French international's popularity has augmented considerably in the last year as pundits, punters and fellow pros alike have marveled at his surge back from serious illness, after he had a liver tumor removed last March. Yet, Abidal's stature comes from more than that.
Outside the sacred circle of La Masia, he is the one player that traverses the two distinct eras of modern Barcelona; before, and after Pep Guardiola. Abidal's future at the club has been called into question many times before the most recent round of speculation was ended by last week's inking of a new contract. His versatility has sometimes done him a disservice. Now, there is even merit to the argument that he should be considered as the best left-back in the world.
Few positions cause as much 'who's better, who's best' debate as left-back. Head coaches of teams all around the world encounter as much difficulty in finding the right candidate to fill the slot as fans setting the world to rights in bars. It's acknowledged as Spain's one glaring weakness, with the admirable but modest Joan Capdevila doing the job for the 2008 European champions and 2010 World Cup winners. Many left-footers have been shoehorned into having a go at some point in their careers, including the reluctant likes of Giovanni van Bronckhorst, Florent Malouda and Miguel Veloso.
Many of the world's leading players in the position arrived there from a similar angle. None of Ashley Cole, Fábio Coentrão or Patrice Evra began their careers as left-backs. Neither did Abidal, but his evolution has been atypical. While Cole, Coentrão and Evra started out as left-wingers at Arsenal, Benfica and Nice respectively, and developed defensive characteristics further down the line, Abidal has always been a defender. While he is no mug with the ball at his feet, he lacks this more heralded trio's finesse.
He made his name as a center back at Lille, but he was never a run-of-the-mill blocker. Abidal stood out like a sore thumb in Claude Puel's circumspect sides, muscling opposing attackers out of the way before surging upfield, eating up turf like Pac-Man.
Though he hit the big time with Paul Le Guen's Lyon in 2004, it was after the arrival of Gerard Houllier in the following year that Abidal started to develop into the player we know today. The experienced coach made the Lyon native a dedicated full-back after he had flirted with the position under Le Guen. As with many of Houllier's innovations, his gamble went on to benefit French soccer in general, with the Abidal/Malouda axis at Lyon reprised to fine effect in Les Bleus' run to the 2006 World Cup final.
After moving to the Camp Nou in 2007, the transition was tough. The Frank Rijkaard era was crumbling, the Barcelona locker room was in disarray and Real Madrid was dominant. Abidal had his own issues of identity to deal with in the subsequent months, and indeed years. Moving back into the center of defense during Euro 2008 by Raymond Domenech for a crucial group match against Italy, Abidal was found wanting, with his positional sense rusty. When he conceded a penalty in the 25th minute for hauling back Luca Toni, he was sent off and the game was up for France.
This is not the only time Abidal's reputation has taken a hit for the team. His harsh red card in the Champions League semifinal at Chelsea, after he was adjudged to have fouled Nicolas Anelka, saw him miss the Rome final. In a nightmare few days, Abidal was again sent off in Barça's next match, in La Liga against Villarreal. This time, suspension kept him out of the Copa del Rey final.
With hindsight, it can be argued that this catalogue of accidents made Abidal at Barça. Pep Guardiola was forced to field Yaya Toure in central defense in Rome. The success of this - and the subsequent failure of Dmytro Chygrynskiy at the Camp Nou - started to persuade the coach that continued circulation of the ball was more key to Barça's future than specialist defenders. Abidal would have less to worry about in terms of Guardiola signing direct competition, had the athleticism and sound technique to fit in, and had the advantage of being a natural fit for a back three.
It is extraordinary to think that the French international is already 32 years old, especially when one compares his rich vein of form in the last two seasons to the continued careful management of Carles Puyol, another player heavily reliant on physical attributes but less resistant to wear and tear as he firmly ensconces himself in his 30's.
There is truth in saying that Abidal's health scare has given him a renewed drive and vigor. That, however, would completely overlook his superb form for most of 2010-11. When Abidal dropped out of the side, it was a far heavier blow to Barcelona's hopes of closing out a potentially historic season that Puyol's continuing struggles. They suffered a shock loss to Real Sociedad en route to the title, and the balance in the run of Clásicos tipped, with Barça losing the Copa del Rey final to Real Madrid in late April.
Abidal almost reprised his Bernabeu moment of magic four days later against Málaga at La Rosaleda. Again, Messi found him with a superb lofted pass, but the Frenchman's first touch was heavy and allowed goalkeeper Willy to shepherd him wide. Maybe it's better this way, so his Copa del Rey winner can stand alone - and we can recognize Abidal for his defensive brilliance instead.