Sometimes there’s so much brilliance you don’t even know where to begin, let alone which words to use. Stendhal Syndrome, they call it, which is a disappointingly functional phrase to define those moments when you feel overwhelmed by beauty, and Karim Benzema expressed it better. On the pitch most of all, but off it too. Not when he said pfff – because what else was he supposed to say – but when he smiled, shrugged a little and said: “that’s football.” The afternoon before, Fyodor Smolov had said it too without uttering a word. Instead, he took the ball in his arms and kissed it.
“Thanks, old girl,” Alfredo Di Stéfano used to say, addressing the ball that had given him everything. Sometimes it’s enough to be grateful for the game and this was one of those times, if only fans could have been there to see it themselves. The kind of weekend Iago Aspas scores a goal so good he tears off his shirt in an empty stadium, sliding to his knees before a solitary man in a mask; the kind that closes after midnight with Benzema trying to explain how he had dreamed up the backheeled, nutmegged assist – yes, it was a backheel, a nutmeg and an assist – that took Real Madrid clear and brought the title close now.
“Sometimes things come from within me,” he said, softly. “It’s how I see football.”
This time, more than any other time. There is magic in those boots, inspiration in those minds, and not just his. When it comes to amazing goals, incredible plays, pure quality, it’s hard to remember anything quite like the latest week of the strangest season there’s ever been, a silent showreel squeezed into a solitary round of matches. The worst footballers you’ve ever seen are still exceptional – something we would do well to remember – but this? This was something else. You can spew out superlatives, turn to sensational in the thesaurus and copy down every entry, you can just make noises instead, splatter the screen with exclamations like Batman laying into baddies – Kerpow! Boom! and Biff! – but it will still fall short.
This was silly, it was bloody hell, it was did you just see that? Woof, wow and what the … It was: how?! Stop reading and get watching – which isn’t great advice for a writer but, let’s face it, it’s time to admit defeat.
It was where to start? Start at the end, that end. A wizard, a magician, a poet, a genius, Houdini, an artist: Karim Benzema has been all of those in the media this morning and why not? And yet he is not alone. On Sunday night he had produced the best assist of the season as Madrid defeated Espanyol and yet he might not have even produced the assist of the day. It’s possible he didn’t even produce the second-best of the weekend. One thing’s for sure, though: he produced the most important, and the one that will linger longest.
It is tempting to conclude that it’s over: when La Liga came back from lockdown, it seemed everything was in play; two weeks on, with six games to go, it feels like maybe nothing is. Madrid’s two-point lead looks strong, with Gerard Piqué insisting that fighting to the end is in Barcelona’s DNA – the same Gerard Piqué who admitted it would be “very, very hard” to win the league a week ago – and things have got worse since. Barcelona’s second-half collapse and 2-2 draw at Celta means Madrid have to drop at least three points. The Champions League positions look like being Atlético and Sevilla’s. And the bottom three are virtually gone: Espanyol, who have just sacked their third manager, Leganés and Mallorca are now 10, nine and eight points adrift.
How it all happened was special, the sort of stuff you just don’t see normally, and certainly not all together like this – a level of talent, technique, creativity, inspiration, intelligence so impressive that just listing it takes time. It was above all, a celebration of the men who give. “I’m just happy to be able to enjoy it,” said Santi Cazorla, speaking for everyone. Which tends to be the way when he’s around but then every game had something extraordinary this weekend, except perhaps Atlético versus Alavés, although that did have a lovely delivery from Kieran Trippier for Saúl’s opener and the stupidest penalty this season.
Borja Mayoral, Ennis Barhdi and José Luis Morales all got very nice goals as Levante secured survival for another season with a 4-2 win over Betis, while Sergio Canales scored a goal that might have been no consolation had it not been so good. Kiko Olivas and Sancet completed really clever set-play routines as Valladolid drew 1-1 at Sevilla and Athletic beat Mallorca 3-1. Enric Gallego scored an early overhead kick and a late header as Osasuna won 2-1 against Leganés – for whom Javi Avilés hit an astonishing shot that tore through the air and almost the net. And Eibar are safe again – an achievement that shouldn’t be normalised just because it’s normal now – after Pablo De Blasis scooped a lovely finish over Aarón Escandell.
Celta-Barcelona had Lionel Messi escaping the trap set for him on free kicks by dropping a perfect pass, both in conception and execution, right onto Luis Suarez’s head for the opening goa. Most of all, though, it had Aspas, “a catalogue of delicacies” in the words of El Faro de Vigo.
He produced an excellent pass to set up the first for Smolov, the Russian who got in trouble for breaking lockdown to see Boris Yeltsin’s granddaughter. Although Barcelona went 2-1 up, Suárez scoring again – a goal that on a normal weekend might have been talked about more – Aspas, Rafinha and Denis Suárez led Celta back and Quique Setién’s side fell apart. Aspas rolled a brilliant, barely believable backheel into the path of Nolito, only for Ter Stegen to make a save almost as good, thus rendering potentially the weekend’s best assist not an assist at all. But with two minutes to go, he scored a sensational free kick after a foul on Rafinha from Piqué.
The defender didn’t think it was a foul – he later tweeted lyrics from MGMT track Time to Pretend – and replays suggested he might have a point. But Aspas didn’t care. He had watched Barcelona’s walls and he knew where to aim. But knowing where he was going and getting there are not the same thing. He bent the ball in an impossibly long, low arch round the outside of the wall and into the net, running off towards the stands in celebration. They were empty, but inside Aspas was erupting. Some players can start a fight in an empty room; he can start a party. Shirt off, he skidded to the floor screaming. Barcelona were finished. Celta weren’t, but somehow Nolito missed a last-minute sitter to win it.
“It’s the milk,” Aspas said afterwards. “You’re fighting for survival, you draw with Barcelona and you feel frustrated: that last chance was so clear. We have great players.”
Spain does. Witness Villarreal, whose first goal in the 2-0 win over Valencia was impressive – a Paco Alcácer volley from Gerard Moreno’s pass – and whose second was … well, absurd. Bonkers. Genuinely, you have probably never seen anything like it. And you probably never will either.
Sergio Asenjo punted the ball from one end to the other. It flew up, up, up into the air, travelling 70 metres or more in a long, high loop. Miles below, way beneath the ball, Santi Cazorla was squinting into the sunshine, watching it drop from the sky, almost running in circles to line up under it, like a bunch of firemen with a blanket trying to catch a bloke jumping from the 15th floor. When at last it fell, it landed on the inside of his foot where, as if he were wearing slippers, Cazorla cushioned it. One touch on the volley left it sitting there in the air, waiting for Moreno and, sideways on, he smashed it in from 20 yards. From goalkeeper to goal, it hadn’t touched the floor.
It was ludicrous but it was not the last. A few hours later, a hot and not particularly impressive game was suddenly lit up by Benzema’s inspiration. The man who scored a ridiculous goal against Valencia a week ago now provided a ridiculous assist to go with it, enough to defeat Espanyol 1-0. With Bernardo chasing him, the Frenchman took the ball on the bounce and on the backheel, sending it through the defender’s legs and into the six-yard box where he had heard Casemiro calling.
“It’s Karim’s goal,” Casemiro insisted afterwards. “It’s typical of him; an incredible pass.” AS called it a “golden backheel”; Marca called him a “genius”; El País described it as “Versaillesque”; “Oil on canvas” was another line, a moment to frame, if only performance art could be. If only an audience had shared it; able to say one day: “I was here.” In El Mundo, Francisco Cabezas wrote: “if there’s any reason to watch this strange version of football, it’s for players like Benzema.” Everyone everywhere was busy remembering Guti’s “backheel of God”, but this was better, Zinedine Zidane said – and he was right. He was also not surprised. “That’s Karim,” he said.
“You haven’t asked me about the move of the game,” Emilio Butragueño said as his post-match interview came to a close. Actually, they had, but there was no harm asking again. “It’s surprising, truly spectacular. It was the play of the season,” he said.
A director now, Butragueño played the lead role in the Madrid team of the 1980s that is often seen as the footballing expression of the Movida Madrileña – an outpouring of creativity and imagination, an explosion in music, literature, film, and art. The man who once said: “Art is any creation. I try to be creative on the pitch. You compete to win, but it’s a game. You begin playing any game with the intention of enjoying yourself. When you win and enjoy yourself, it’s marvellous. On the pitch, it’s a delight. I understand football as a way of expressing yourself, inventing something. It is all about creation. Enjoyment, fun. And when that comes off it is wonderful.”
On Sunday night he watched from the empty stands as down below it did.