On grand night for Barcelona, Jeremy Mathieu seals place in clasico folklore

Jeremy Mathieu was Barcelona's curiously expensive purchase last summer, but on Sunday he confirmed he 'has been one of Barca's best players in 2015' writes Andy Mitten.
Jeremy Mathieu of Barcelona begins to celebrate after scoring the opening goal in his side's 2-1 La Liga win over Real Madrid on Sunday night at the Camp Nou. Alex Caparros / Getty Images / March 22, 2015
Jeremy Mathieu of Barcelona begins to celebrate after scoring the opening goal in his side's 2-1 La Liga win over Real Madrid on Sunday night at the Camp Nou. Alex Caparros / Getty Images / March 22, 2015

When Barcelona and Real Madrid last met in the October clasico, the shock selection was Jeremy Mathieu at left-back ahead of Jordi Alba. The French central defender, 31, admitted his surprise in words which were taken as criticism of Luis Enrique’s tactics. Mathieu doesn’t say a lot, but when he does the words cause consternation in Catalonia – he was the player who confirmed, via the French media, that Lionel Messi had confronted Luis Enrique after Barca’s January defeat at Real Sociedad.

But back to that October clasico, when Mathieu was one of several defenders caught by Madrid’s deadly counter attacks which saw them triumph 3-1. With debutant and fellow close season signing Luis Suarez playing on the wing, the pair have had better nights.

One of those better nights was on Sunday in Camp Nou as they scored Barcelona’s goals in a 2-1 victory over Real Madrid which sees them move four points clear at the top of top at La Liga with ten games to play. Madrid were seven points ahead of their biggest rivals in December.

Mathieu scored the opening goal after 19 minutes, powerfully heading in a clipped cross from Lionel Messi as Sergio Ramos realised that he should have been marking the former Sochaux, Toulouse and Valencia player. It was his third goal in his last four La Liga games against Real Madrid, all of them headers.

While three of his seven La Liga goals in six years have been against Madrid, it’s not appropriate to lavish the superlatives on the defender which are normally reserved for Barca’s venerated front three, yet Mathieu was excellent with his former Valencia teammate Alba to his left.

Selected at centre half because Javier Mascherano was moved forward into a defensive midfield role as Sergio Busquets could only make the bench after a month injured, Mathieu was the substance that aided the stylish Gerard Pique to his right.

Both have made headlines this season for minor off the field misdemeanours, with images of the Frenchman smoking going viral. He was a known smoker in Valencia and it wasn’t a story outside the city, though, encouraged by his wife, the club’s directors and coaching staff tried to get him to quit.

Instead he quit Valencia in an €20 million (Dh79.5m) transfer to Barca and continued to smoke infrequently. At a far bigger club that became a story and he went public to explain, “I don’t smoke much but I do it when I want. It’s a personal thing. What counts is what happens on the pitch. People will forget when they see me run.” That’s true, but furtively shot photos of him buying cigarettes at petrol stations around Barcelona continue to amuse.

Ten months is enough time to make a considered judgement, but Barca bought astutely last close season. Ivan Rakitic, Luis Suarez, Claudio Bravo and Mathieu all started in the clasico and have all been a success. Marc-Andre ter Stegen, 22, has shown sufficient promise in goal during Champions League games, while it will be fair to judge Thomas Vermaelen when he’s fit to play.

Asked to take the credit for the signings after the game, Luis Enrique instead deflected praise to the departed sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta.

Mathieu’s signing may have pleased Catalonia’s tobacconists, but fans were underwhelmed that Barca had signed a player who wasn’t even a regular French international. With Carles Puyol retired, Barca fans expected more than the shaven headed giant from provincial Luxeuil-les-Baines near France’s Swiss border, but they’ve been won over as he’s started 18 of his side’s league games so far in his sixth season in Spain.

“He was really important for us, not only his goal but his game,” said another in-form teammate, Ivan Rakitic. “He’s important for us because he’s fast, he’s very good at defending and attacking set pieces, he’s good with his head and he’s a really complete player. I hope he continues like this in the next games.”

Mathieu’s goal will be listed as his Barca highlight to date and he told French journalists that it was the best moment of his career so far, but seconds after Suarez had put his side in front after an hour, Madrid counter attacked. Mathieu anticipated a ball to Gareth Bale and snuffed out the danger in his own area, for which he was applauded by the huge 98,600 crowd, the biggest in the world so far this season.

“After the first goal, we sat back too much,” said Mathieu. “We were still tired from the game against City, but we kept on working hard.”

Asked about his side’s four point lead at the top, he replied.

“There are still a lot of games left, many points, and we have a very tough month of April ahead.”

Mathieu has been one of Barca’s best players in their 2015 rise back to the top. He scored his first goal for the club, a spectacular free-kick in a Copa del Rey game at Elche in January, but his header in the clasico will be the one he remembers over a cigarette in years to come.

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Published: March 23, 2015 04:00 AM


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