Non-stop action. Great goals. Controversies galore. Sensational passes. Unreal drama. European football rarely lacks for talking points after any given weekend of football, but with so much happening it can often be hard to focus on the biggest moments.
ESPN India attempts to single out one moment from all the action across Europe's top 5 leagues (league action only) that lit up the weekend.
This weekend, we pick El Clasico's denouement; Franck Kessie's last-gasp winner for Barcelona in their 2-1 win over Real Madrid.
This was a three-act play:
When the ball gets to Robert Lewandowksi's feet, the clock reads 90:53. What's unusual is where he receives it -- hugging the touchline on the left flank. You'd expect Lewandowski to be stationed in the penalty box at this kind of time in such a crucial match; but Lewandowski has been floating around the Camp Nou all night.
Just like he has all season, in fact. Barcelona has seen more of the Poland national team Lewandowski than the Bayern version -- he drops deep, tries to facilitate play, drifts wide. He's not scoring at the rate we're used to seeing him do it (he's on 15 goals from 22 LaLiga matches) but he already has two more assists than he had in the whole of the last Bundesliga season.
Lewandowski picks it up and drifts inward. Real Madrid's collective attention is immediately drawn. A drop of his shoulder and he's squared up Eder Militao. The Madrid defender is no state now to chase what's coming. Dani Carvajal tries to close him down, but he's on the wrong side to stop what's coming... the backheel. Glorious. Inventive. Genius. A chop from the heel of Lewandowski's right boot and Alex Balde has the freedom of the Camp Nou.
The overlap and pass
Balde's yelling for the ball to be switched out to the left flank. Sergio Busquets obliges, sweeping it wide and Balde moves into fifth gear. A simple pass to Lewandowski in front of him, and off he goes. He knows Lewandowski is going to cut inside from there, obviously. He knows Madrid's main intention now will be to block any chance of a shot, obviously. And so, he runs. Carvajal keeps up for about ten yards before being left in the dust -- it's the 91st minute of a draining clasico and everyone's dead on their feet. Balde had shuttled up and down the flank all game, and had more-or-less locked it down for Barcelona.
Just like he has all season, in fact. Replacing the club legend that is Jordi Alba was always going to be a tough ask, but once again it was La Masia that had given them the solution. Balde signed for the club when he was eight years old and is now their first choice left-back. He started 20 of the 26 LaLiga matches Barcelona have played so far (sub appearances in three others); and has been a vital cog in the defensive unit that has conceded just 9 goals all season.
Equally importantly, he's been a sensational attacking outlet -- in the traditional mould of the club's fullbacks -- and he'd already got four assists in the league. His fifth was to be a peach.
Lewandowski's backheel had opened up so much space for Balde it would have been easy to get the decision-making wrong: there were so many choices. Lewandowski himself had peeled off to the edge of the D, asking for the cutback. Ansu Fati had raced to the near post. Ferran Torres had ghosted into the penalty box, unmarked. What Balde did, though, was rifle it across, teasingly out of reach of the Madrid defence. It cut through four men in white and ran perfectly into the stride of the onrushing Franck Kessie, Thibaut Courtois stranded at the near post. The weight, and the accuracy, of the pass - quite something.
The one-touch finish
Kessie's the right-sided interior, the no.8, and he's where he should be when the move starts on the other flank. As Lewandowski and Balde up the pace, Kessie's still jogging. When Balde cuts into the box, Kessie's still barely jogging, but he changes direction a bit, cutting into the inside right. Most would have raced into the box, but what this jogging has done is create a big space in front of him and Ferland Mendy in front of him
Just like... not this time. Franck Kessie's been on the pitch for less than a quarter of an hour when the ball comes rushing towards him. It's the kind of minutes he's received all season, if at all. This Clasico was his 18th appearance of the season in LaLiga, but he's only started four league games. He's not scored yet, either -- a man who had played more than thirty matches a season (most of them starting) for AC Milan over the past six years, and had scored quite a few important goals over those years, had now been relegated to a bit-part player.
It's understandable given who play as the #8s for Barcelona -- the prodigious talents that are Pedri and Gavi - but he would have expected to start this one; after all, Pedri was injured. Instead, Xavi had preferred the company man's company man, Sergi Roberto in that role. Roberto had delivered too, scoring the equaliser and putting in a neat, dependable performance. It's been a long, tough season for Kessie, but he was about it give it a spark.
Once Balde made the pass, Kessie made the exact, minute adjustment needed to meet it first time. He may have created space between him and Mendy, but he knew he'd be closed down if he took a touch and then set himself. Instead, he opened his body, let the ball run across him and calmly side-footed it into the bottom corner. 2-1 Barcelona. 12-point lead at the point. LaLiga title race completely in their hands. Cue bedlam at the Camp Nou.
WE WIN! pic.twitter.com/KEC7ezSsvG
- FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) March 19, 2023
Kessie's technique had been glorious. His celebrations, even better -- tears streaming down his face, the celebrations of a man who had been suffering and had just about managed to escape them. It was a beautiful sight.