Barcelona and Real Madrid staged a classic Clasico that, for 90 minutes and 30 seconds on Sunday, looked set to end in anticlimax. It was end-to-end but, on the scoreboard, 1-1 and unflinching. It was sufficient for Barca, enough to secure a nine-point lead atop La Liga, but not to set off all-night parties in the Catalan capital. It was thrilling but, with five minutes of stoppage time to play, regrettably equivocal.
Then Franck Kessié snuck into the penalty box, undetected, as the unlikeliest of title-clinching heroes.
KESSIE 90TH MINUTE GOAL!
WOW WHAT A MATCH! pic.twitter.com/9L3IXUzT4J
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) March 19, 2023
The Ivorian midfielder was goal-less in La Liga since joining Barca as a free agent last summer. But in the 91st minute, with Camp Nou rising in expectation, he met a slithering Alejandro Balde cross and produced an explosion.
He won a game that Real Madrid absolutely had to win, and instead all but confirmed that Barcelona would win its 27th Spanish title.
When the final whistle blew, Sunday's victors stood 12 points clear of their archrivals atop the league, with 12 matches to play. So their bench spilled onto the field in unbridled ecstasy. They bounced around in circles. They celebrated the ultimate climax, a triumph in global soccer's biggest league game to essentially clinch one of its biggest trophies, with glee.
Outside Camp Nou, similar celebrations continued as midnight approached, not just because Real Madrid had been vanquished but because a high-stakes turnaround had been completed. A little over a year ago, Barcelona was sinking — toward, it seemed, both sporting mediocrity and financial ruin.
But Xavi arrived midseason to lend sporting direction. In board rooms, over the summer, club officials essentially mortgaged the club's future upside in search of immediate-term stability. Barca was effectively broke, but sold its soul and its future television rights income to fund a spending spree that could re-solidify its place among soccer's elite.
It was, in many ways, economic malpractice — and has reportedly left the club needing to slash its wage bill this summer by 200 million euros.
But it also allowed them to afford players like Jules Koundé, who repelled Real Madrid counter-attacks on Sunday; and Robert Lewandowski, who slipped a clever back-heel to Balde in the 91st minute; and Kessié.
His winner did not solve Barcelona's many long-term problems, but it is why executives and fans alike tolerate the inevitability of them. Because Sunday was incredible.
Because an eternal rivalry that had recently swung toward Madrid, away from Catalonia, has swung back to where everybody in this part of the world believes it belongs.
Because Barca will be champions.