Barcelona was flying high 56 minutes into last month’s Clásico at the Camp Nou, literally; Piqué hovered in midair for what Pepe must’ve believed to be a century before powering through with a dipping header past Keylor Navas to put his side ahead 1-0. He kissed the air in all his golden-winged glory.
Little did Piqué know that later, while watching his team fall to its feet for a third consecutive defeat: a 1-2 loss to Valencia, he’d be pointing to his cranium in the type of outrage that leaves you feeling dizzy drunk two weeks later. “USE YOUR HEAD,” he implored, as he felt himself sinking rather than sailing after Ivan Rakitić’s own goal.
Barcelona lost the Clásico 1-2, the passion and power of Piqué’s header outdone by turning tides and a couple of classic goals. Gareth Bale’s blast with that burly, robust noggin of his – you know, the home of his now-notorious man bun – could have been the difference maker, but his conversion on Cristiano’s chip in was called offside. No matter – the tides were in fact turning, and you can’t expect good fortune to come in overwhelming waves when you’re attempting to raze a 39-game win streak to the ground.
On April 9 – seven days after the derby – Piqué himself was left in Mikel Oyarzabal’s wake, as the Real Sociedad midfielder floated past him with a darting header from distance. Lionel Messi tried to make magic happen in the form of a close-range effort later in the match, only to be left clutching his useless crown in frustration, having failed to score in 362 minutes of competition. Sociedad 1-0 Barcelona.
Meanwhile in Madrid, Real and Atlético de Madrid were taking the term level-headed up a notch; calm, cool, collected, confident, the former boasted five distinct goalscorers in a 5-1 romp over Getafe – its seventh successive league victory – and the latter had three of its own in a 3-0 win over Granada. A stark contrast to Barcelona’s crumbling crew.
Madrileño head force only continued to grow in the game weeks that followed; Fernando Torres scored with his skull off an Antoine Griezmann cross in a vital 1-0 victory away to Athletic Bilbao, while Karim Benzema – amongst the league’s top three head goal masters this temporada – played his part by striking into an empty net to go up 1-0 en route to a decisive 3-0 win over Villarreal.
Barcelona beat Deportivo de la Coruña 8-0 that week, then went on to topple Sporting Gijón 6-0 with a looping Leo header in gameweek 35. But Bale-backed Real Madrid and Cholo’s colchoneros were still in the La Liga hunt, their desire on full display in shows of heading prowess.
Down 2-0 to Rayo Vallecano, Gareth’s heavenly header hauled Madrid back into the game. The visitors leveled the mark at two apiece when Lucas Vázquez headed home his own before Bale put the squad on his back and finished the damn thing. 3-2. One point back, still in the fight.
Across town, Diego Simeone seemed to be losing his head – what the fuck was he thinking with the ball boy incident?! It didn’t matter, because thanks to a staunch defense led by legend Diego Godín, the team produced its second consecutive 1-0 win.
The third came against Rayo Vallecano, and yes, Simeone was wearing a headset in the stands despite the blatant illegality of his actions amidst suspension (another case of losing your head?). At a certain point, it all seemed like part of the plan for Atleti; Rayo tried its damndest to clear a loose ball in the box, but it fell to Griezmann’s wanting feet. Goal.
Garethcito’s game-winning header in the 80th minute of the match against Sociedad was the stuff of my sweetest madridista dreams. Desire, determination, demolition.
By now, you’re either enlivened by your side’s revived race for La Liga glory, or sitting perplexed as to why I’m so keen to key in on headers. What is it that makes headers so emblematic of this tumultuous title chase?
The header itself is all about passion and desire, who wants the ball more than the rest. Air as a medium acts as a normalizer; it’s not about glitz and glamour, but rather about guts and grit. You don’t have to be the most beautifully skilled or technically talented player; as long as you have courage and a craving for cranial cracks you can – and will – be first to the ball.
Godín and Sergio Ramos are the cream of the crop when it comes to putting this power into effect; one might look at Godín and see a 30 (going on 45, how long has this guy been playing?)-year-old defender who couldn’t possibly beat Luis Suárez to the ball. But he does, time and time again. Ramos isn’t the fastest or strongest specimen in world football, yet he’s the one who scored, minuto 93. He’s the guy to go to when the game is on the line.
For a little while, it felt like Barcelona flopped. The Catalan club lost its desire – or at least it dissipated in conjunction with fatigue and (false …) hopes of European honor and distinction. But they’re back; Real Betis’ Ruben Castro saw his header tipped over Claudio Bravo’s bar two weekends ago, and when that starts happening to a header hero like Castro you know the tides are turning for a second time.
This past weekend solidified it; Suárez struck twice – his second a header just past the hour mark – the 1000th goal of this La Liga season. In Valencia, Victor Casadesus headed past Jan Oblak for a vital 1-1 equalizer for Levante. Try as he might, Torres could not complete the same feat. His team lost 1-2 on the afternoon, bowing out of the title race and heading home to focus on the Champions League final and – you know – not letting Sergio Ramos seal the deal with his crowned cranium in the 93rd minute (again).
A season that’s succeeded in making all of our heads spin – that’s for sure. And it all comes down to this final gameweek.