We watched Wednesday’s Clásico in its entirety with spirited company at WoodworkBK. We had the sense then that Barcelona slowly took control after the early goal by Cristiano Ronaldo, and that Pepe was terrible. Watch this extended highlight clip, which should reinforce the conclusions that (a) Barcelona completely dominated after about the 25′ mark, and (b) Pepe was a complete embarrassment–and not only for the already-infamous Messi hand stamp:
Pepe actually hurt Madrid with his play, and his theatrics yesterday matched those of Busquets last spring. He got that an yellow (~16′) for a gratuitous and cheap foul on Busquets deep in Barcelona’s half, and should have got a 2nd yellow for either his playacting at 64′ after Cesc outplayed him for the ball (listen to the Sky Sports commentators), and then of course the handstamp at 67′. So really Madrid should’ve been a man down for the last 25mins. Mourinho finally had to sub him off a little after that.
Even more significantly, he was completely rooted to the ground while Puyol streaked past him to score Barça’s first goal on that diving header at the beginning of the 2nd half.
It seems like he lost it mentally b/c he was getting outplayed all over the field–he’s just not that good on the ball, and not quick enough to contain Barcelona in midfield..
It will be interesting to see if Mourinho sticks with him after this.
Also: it looks like Carvalho was a fraction of a second pulling forward and kept Abidal onside for Barça’s 2nd goal. And then the Portuguese central defender had two really bad tackles in the final minutes of the match: one on Messi that got him a yellow, and a 2nd on Adriano in extra time that prob should’ve seen him ejected.
After watching the second half of yesterday’s Clasico, I’m beginning to see Mourinho as Salieri to Guardiola’s Mozart. When a team of Madrid’s caliber gets schooled and forced into errant passes and frantic individual dribbles on offense and desperate tackles on defense, huffing shadow-chasing and hapless outreached hands pleading for offside calls that won’t come, the opposition must be touched by the divine; the divine stringing of passes, la pelota always kept just a fleeting inch away from Madrid’s lunging cleats, and importantly, the divine total defense, which at one point saw Özil attempting to dribble into the box only to be surrounded by seven (7!!) claret and blue shirts.
That is the intensity of Barca’s defensive strategy, immediate ganging up on the person with the ball, so that even if an opponent manages to dribble past one, or two, they never have the time to look for the pass because there will immediately be the third, and then its back to eluding the first again. Barca’s players attack at a leisurely tiki-taka pace, and save their bursts of speed for reclaiming the ball. This zealous, jealous demand for the return of the ball is as much part of the secret of their possession as it is their immaculate passing.
I want to see a team really try to take Barca on with their own style, pass for pass, tik for tak, rather than Mourinho’s vainglorious attempt to find an alternative way, trying fire against water, then air and iron, his mad doomed search for an antidote when perhaps what he needs is a vaccine?
Yet another Clásico–the two Spanish superpowers meet again today, in what will be their 8th battle in the past 9 months (see table below). Real Madrid hosts Barcelona at the majestic Estadio SantiagoBernabéu, for the first leg of their Copa del Rey quarterfinal tie. Kickoff is at a very Spanish 10pm in Madrid, which corresponds to 4pmET/1pmPT here in the US (where ESPN Deportes and GolTV will be televising the match, and ESPN3.com will be streaming it live; see livesoccertv.com for additional TV listings).
But the “yet” is telling–after all those intensely anticipated and intensely played matches over the past year, even we have Clásico fatigue. It does seem like the buildup to this one is muted compared to the previous matches, perhaps because it’s a Copa del Rey quarterfinal. The domestic cup competition is certainly a distant third in importance to these teams, far behind the Champions League and La Liga titles. It’s one thing if these two were meeting in a one-off final for the Copa, as they did last April, in what turned out to be a thrilling match (see our detailed breakdown of the film from that match here and here). But for them to have to meet twice more in the quarterfinals just seems a bit..unseemly.
That Copa del Rey victory was Madrid’s sole sucess in recent memory in this rivalry. Consider the run of results over the past few years, stretching back to the beginning of Pep Guardiola’s reign, which started in the summer of 2008, when Barcelona let Frank Rijkaard go and promoted Josep up from managing the B team (annotated with links to previous CultFootball posts about certain of the matches):
Confirming that Clásico fatigue has set in, on this past Monday’s Guardian Football Weekly podcast Sid Lowe called in from Spain to the crew in London, as he usually does to commentate on all matter relating to Spanish football. Listen from the 29′ minute mark–he first reports on Madrid and Barcelon’s recent less-than-stellar recent form. Madrid came from behind last weekend to win 2-1 against lowly Mallorca, via goals from Higuain and Callejón (more on Callejón below). Meanwhile Barcelona were down 2-0 at home against Real Betis before ultimately winning 4-2 (and that after they’d points earlier this month in a yet another draw against local rivals Espanyol in the Catalan derby), and slips in this interesting analysis: “Betis were great..Betis really went for Barcelona. I think they showed that if you put pressure on Barcelona high up, and you get at those players who quite aren’t so good at bringing the ball out and maintaining possession, in particular because Pique wasn’t playing, then you can actually cause Barcelona some problems.” We’re curious who “those players” refers to–Mascherano? In any case, Pique is expected to be back in the traditional center back pair with Puyol, so it’s a moot point for today’s match–but something to keep in mind.
He’s then asked about today’s Clásico, and replies that even in Spain there’s a bit of weariness with respect to this match: “there is a very slight sense of–I don’t if I’d call it boredom, I don’t think it’s quite boredom–but a sort of tiredness of the Clásico.” Then Sid says–just as his dog starts barking, as it curiously almost always does at some point during his calls from Spain–that Casillas was quoted as saying the rivalry has become “decaffeinated when the teams play each other too often.”
Well, today’s decaffeinated match, most eyes will of course be on Messi and Ronaldo. As well they should be. But a soccer team is really a complex system. Certainly there are moments of individual brilliance, especially, as we’ve seen, from players like Messi and Ronaldo. But those moments have to happen within the context of the team. So watch Messi–but watch his movement off the ball as well as on it, and watch his combinations with Xavi and Iniesta especially. Further deep, watch Busquest–probably the least-liked Barca player, but an essential one. He’ll drop deep at times, into the center of defense with Pique and Puyol (especially when the wingback, Dani Alves and likely Adriano, get forward for width in attack); he’ll be called on to intercept and tackle to break up the opposition’s attack; and he’ll initiate the Barcelona moves forward, combining as well with Xavi and Iniesta in the center.
On the opposite side, it sounds like Sami Khedira (defensive/holding midfielder) and Angel di Maria (attacking winger) are out for Madrid due to injury. They are key players for Madrid, but the Galacticos have talent in reserve. We’ll likely see Ozil in the center ahead of Lass Diarra and enforcer Pepe (they’ll be tasked with trailing and tackling Messi), with Ronaldo on one wing and youngster José Callejón on the other. Callejón slipped into the starting lineup in Madrid’s latter, largely meaningless Champions League group stage matches–and started scoring at such a clip that he’s continued to start. He’s 24 years old, came up through the Madrid youth system, but then went to Catalonia for a 3-year stint with Espanayol, before returning to the fold this summer.
For instance, here are a couple specific issues raised in Sid Lowe’s & ZM’s pieces:
Does Cesc Fabregas start among the front 3 in Barcelona’s usual 4-3-3 lineup? If so, in place of Villa or Pedro? Messi seems to be the only one on the front line certain to play the full 90. In addition to whoever among Cesc, Pedro & Villa doesn’t start, Alexis Sanchez and youngster Isaac Cuenca are options to come off the bench. Zonal Marking on the possibilities:
Only Messi is a certainty for the front three, and his position is uncertain – he could play as a false nine, or on the right, as against Milan. He will probably be used with one wide forward (Pedro Rodriguez, Alexis Sanchez, David Villa, Isaac Cuenca) and one deeper, more central converted midfielder (Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas, Thiago Alcantara). Three forwards might be too direct and not strong enough in midfield, whilst Messi and two midfielders wouldn’t offer enough penetration. Fabregas and Pedro is a decent bet – but Pedro might not be fit. Cuenca would be a bold move, but he’s the closest to what Pedro offers, in terms of excellent positioning and movement from wide.
On the other side, all indications are that Mourinho will opt for 4-3-3 instead of their usual 4-2-3-1, with the talented German Mesut Ozil unfortunately left out in favor of a more defensive midfielder (Lass Diarra maybe, joining Sami Khedira & Xabi Alonso in the infamous trivote). Up front, of course there will be CR7 (cutting in from the left wing), speedy Argentine Angel diMaria wide on the other wing, and either Gonzalo Higuain or Karim Benzema in the center forward position–the latter being Mourinho’s famous “hunting with a cat or a dog” question. We devoted a post to it, titled “Mourinho on the Truth About Cats and Dogs“, following the initial remark approximately a year ago, and Sid Lowe has a section on it in his preview of this match:
Cat or dog?
“If I can’t hunt with a dog, I will hunt with a cat”. Mourinho’s remark has become legendary — analyzed and counter analyzed endlessly. This season, it has come more clearly into focus. Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuaín have different qualities: Benzema is far more technical, a better player in the absence of space, when you need tight passing and close skill; Higuaín applies greater pressure and is swifter on the break. The decision as to how Madrid play — will it pressure higher as it has done most of this season or lie a littler deeper waiting for Barcelona, employing the speed of counterattacks that sets it apart from any side in the world? — will go a long way to deciding who Madrid play.
Less than a week after their hard fought tie in league play, Madrid and Barça met in the final of the King’s Cup. Mourinho sent his defensive set into the midfield again, then put in Özil from the start for an added touch of creativity in attack, and sprinkled the whole side with an extra dose of aggression dust.
The force of Madrid’s tackling and their quickness in closing down the Barça players immediately unstabilized the usually unflappable Blaugrana. On the strength of their defense and their quick counter attack, Madrid had far the better of the first half. Pepe seemed to be everywhere and Ronaldo did very well as the lone striker up top (even with Mascherano shadowing his every move). The game moved quickly up and down the pitch, but Barcelona weren’t finding any joy past the midfield circle and it wasn’t until nearly the 40th minute that they finally caused an overload close to goal (the chance fizzled without them manufacturing a shot).
Their one foray aside, Barcelona were lucky to get to the halftime whistle tied at zeroes, especially after Pepe’s towering header above Dani Alves smashed against the inside post and deflected at an agonizing angle across the goal mouth.
The second half was a different game entirely. Barcelona were rejuvenated by whatever spanking Pep Guardiola gave them in the dressing room, and they came out with the sort of belly fire you expect from the best team of their generation. Suddenly the game was stretched (in part because Madrid were pushing more into attack, but also because Xavi and Pedro were drawing out Pepe and Khedira more successfully) leaving Iniesta room to move through the middle.
It was in fact Iniesta who turned the game in Barça’s favor. In the first half, the playmaker forced passes into Messi and Villa only to find them sitting inside a trap. In the second half the tiny balding Spaniard held the ball and ran past the first defensive line of Madrid, then worked in closer proximity to his strikers so they could work the tiki taka. As soon as they found their rhythm the counter attack of Madrid started to look more like desperate clearing rather than pointed reply.
If not for Iker Casillas, Barça would have gone ahead in the second half, and considering the state of Madrid at the time they would probably not have found a way back. Spain’s number one tapped away a lovely chipped ball by Pedro and pushed aside an Iniesta strike destined for the corner.
It looked as if the game would head for extra time, until Madrid managed an odd man rush at the very end of the 90 minutes and di María found himself free to test Pinto from just outside the box. Valdés’s stand-in managed to palm the floating attempt above the bar and it was onto the next 30 minutes. More of the same for the most part. Hard tackling from Madrid but Barcelona with better control, though the chances had dried up.
Then just past the 100 minute mark Madrid found their way through the center of the pitch by way of another Pepe tackle. Marcelo swung the ball out to di María who got a toe in front of Alves to lift a far-side cross to the slicked head of Cristiano Ronaldo. The glistening head of the Portugese directed the ball past the unbalanced Pinto — Madrid 1 – 0 Barcelona.
Substitutions were made by both sides in the final fifteen minutes, but the score remained the same, and Real Madrid walked away with their first Copa del Rey in eighteen years. Then, Sergio Ramos dropped it under the party bus on the way back from the airport…