¡El Clásico Fantasico!

January 26, 2012 — by Sean1


What started off el clásico predictable turned into a wide-open and exciting affair. Though they were the losing side, Madrid's performance is sure to embolden them on their league return to the Camp Nou.


Further Thoughts on Copa del Rey Clásico

January 20, 2012 — by Suman1


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:

Real Madrid v Barcelona by vynylr


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.


Los Clásicos As Amadeus Redux

January 19, 2012 — by Edhino2


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?

[Editor’s note: If you missed the match, read Sid Lowe’s match report or his subsequent blog post (“Real Madrid damage image, reputation and status in defeat to Barcelona“).  Or better yet, watch the video highlights below (at least before they’re taken down due to copyright infringment) or stream the full match from’s archives.]


A Decaffeinated Clásico Today?

January 18, 2012 — by Suman2


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 Santiago Bernabéu, 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 will be streaming it live; see 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):

13 December 2008 Barcelona 2 – 0 Real Madrid La Liga
2 May 2009 Real Madrid 2 – 6 Barcelona La Liga
29 November 2010 Barcelona 5 – 0 Real Madrid La Liga
16 April 2011 Real Madrid 1 – 1 Barcelona La Liga
20 April 2011 Barcelona 0 – 1 Real Madrid Copa del Rey final
27 April 2011 Real Madrid 0 – 2 Barcelona Champions League (semifinal, 1st leg)
3 May 2011 Barcelona 1-1 Real Madrid Champions League (semifinal, 2nd leg)
14 August 2011 Real Madrid 2-2 Barcelona Spanish Super Cup (1st leg)
21 August 2011 Barcelona 3-2 Real Madrid Spanish Super Cup (2nd leg)
10 December 2011 Real Madrid 1-3 Barcelona La Liga


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.”

Will Casillas compañera Sara Carbonero need a (caffeinated) café con leche to stay awake for today's Clasico?

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.


What to Watch This Weekend: El Clasico!

December 10, 2011 — by Suman


Another El Clasico is upon us–Real Madrid hosts archrivals FC Barcelona at the majestic Santiago Bernabeu for a Saturday night La Liga match (kickoff is at 10pmCET/9pmGMT/4pmEST).

This will be, remarkably, the 7th El Clasico of 2011: there were the four matches packed into 18 days last spring (two meetings in the Champions League semifinal, the Copa del Rey final, and their 2nd La Liga match of the season), plus there were two legs to the preseason Spanish Super Copa.  But the frequency of El Clasicos hasn’t at dampened the anticipation of seeing these two sides face off of the pitch.  As we wrote 13 months ago, ahead of the first El Clasico of last season (the one at the Camp Nou that became, shockingly and memorably, “La Manita“), El Clasico means “Catalans vs Castilians, L’Equip Blaugrana vs Los Blancos, La Masia vs Los Galacticos, Los Cules vs Los Madridistas, regionalism vs centralism, Cryuff vs Franco, Guardiola vs Mourinho, Messi vs Ronaldo.”

We recommend two match previews to get you ready for the match:

1) Sid Lowe’s match preview in Sports Illustrated (you could also read his new piece about Jose Mourinho in the Guardian)


2) Zonal Marking’s tactical preview

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.


El Clásico Series, Part 3: Champions League 1st Leg

April 27, 2011 — by Suman2

Pep: Decir la verdad al puto jefe!

Just when you thought El Clásico couldn’t get any more heated, Pep Guardiola took the rivalry to 11 in his press conference yesterday in Madrid. But the real battle of Mourinho contra Guardiola will take place on the pitch later today, with the 1st leg of the Champions League semifinal. It will remarkably be the 3rd meeting in the past 11 days between Guardiola’s Barcelona and Mourinho’s Real Madrid (following the tense 1-1 draw in a La Liga match on April 16 and Madrid’s dramatic 1-0 Copa del Rey victory a week ago), and the real battle will be the tactics the two managerial masterminds deploy today, in light of the past two matches–and in light of key absences for both squads.  Here’s what you need to get ready for today’s match:

If you have time for nothing else, open up this post of ours from last November, containing both sides’ squad lists; also open up Marca’s very cool interactive graphic showing “Los sistemas de Mourinho y de Guardiola“–though given the injuries and suspensions, today’s starting XIs will not be any of the ones shown there. Keep reading..

If you’ve got more time, and haven’t been following our El Clásico coverage, catch up on last November’s initial La Liga meeting here and here (“This game more than any other has divided the CultFootball brain trust, with one faction supporting the brilliant arrogance of the establishment side and the other hoping the subversives from the north can one-touch their way a million times to victory.”). That match of course produced a stunning 5-0 victory for the Catalan club–what we called “Tiki-taka to La Manita” (that post includes two sets of video highlights from that instant classic El Clásico).

Like the rest of the footballing world, we’ve got loco for El Clásico over the past two weeks. Our preview of this four-game series is here.  These words still hold true–but a couple key names mentioned here will be absent today due to injury (Iniesta for Barça, Khedira for Madrid):

So which team is in better form? Through most of the season it was clearly Barcelona, but they’ve seemed a tad shaky of late while Madrid are looking pretty comfortable on the pitch. Madrid have also had an entire season to learn Mourinho’s defensive principles…then again Barça tend to have their way with what seem at the outset to be the most prepared of teams.

The key to a Madrid victory will be to limit Messi’s time with the ball. When his teammates have looked less than otherworldly this season, the little Argentine has stepped up his game to amazing levels. Very often it’s some combination of Iniesta and Xavi that pop open the defenses, with Messi finishing the movement, but Khedira and Alonso will collapse on them very quickly and it’ll be up to Lionel in isolation (and also finding Villa moving off the shoulder of his defender).

For Barcelona to walk away with the win they’ll have to retreat quickly when they lose possession (Madrid have a very quick counter attack) and not give Özil any time on the ball. The young German is a key link between back and front, and with him contained Barça can maintain their high pressing and look to turn the ball over quickly, as they do.

After the Copa del Rey, the observation that Barcelona seems a tad shaky while Madrid is looking increasingly comfortable holds a fortiori–as well as the tactical observations about Messi on the ball and Madrid on the counterattack, with Madrid’s defensive midfield “trivote” tasked with collapsing on the former, and Özil certainly a key to the latter. See our multipart film session on the Copa del Rey final for illustrations of these points.

Madrid’s trivote in the previous two matches consisted of Khedira, Xabi Alonso, and Pepe. With Khedira out, look for Lass Diarra to step into the midfield. Might we see Kaka make an appearance in the midfield, and/or Higuain up front? The Brazilian midfielder and Argentine striker have both been absent this season due to injuries, but both played well over the weekend in Madrid’s 6-3 blowout of Valencia.

ZonalMarking's Probable Starting XIs

For Barcelona, their stalwart defender Puyol returns to lineup, but both Brazilian left wingbacks (Adriano and Maxwell) have been left back in Barcelona due to injury. Add to this Eric Abidal’s continued absence (due surgery in March to remove a tumor from his liver, although remarkably he returned to training this week), and Barcelona will again be forced into a suboptimal lineup in defense. Look for Mascherano to stay in the starting XI, though it’s not clear if he’ll be playing wingback.  ZonalMarking speculates that Puyol will play on the left, while Mascherano will stay in the center.  In either case, Barça likely won’t get the forward width they get from Adriano or Maxwell–but that may actually be a good thing, as Puyol or Mascherano will stay home and be more likely to prevent Madrid counterattacks up that wing.  Hence, look for Madrid to concentrate even more on getting behind Dani Alves on the other side of the field–the diMaria-Alves matchup there is key.

Not having Iniesta in the midfield is of course a huge loss.  In his stead, it will likely be the Malian Seydou Keita who pairs with Xavi and Busquets–though we may also see the 20-year old “wonderkid” Thiago Alcantara in action. Up front it will be the usual trio of Villa, Messi and Pedro.

We leave you with video of Pep’s presser yesterday–we are confident we will be using the phrase “el puto jefe y puto amo” with regularity in the future:


CultFootball Film Session: Copa del Rey Clásico (Part 2)

April 25, 2011 — by Suman1

We went through the 1st half highlights of last Wednesday’s Copa del Rey Clásico in detail–highlights that were dominated by Real Madrid’s counterattacking.  But it was a game of two halves:

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.

Watch along as we detail the 2nd half highlights below:

Comments on 2nd half highlights:

The 2nd half highlights start off (at 7:06 of the video) with a great chance for Pedro from the left flank, created by Xavi and Iniesta (51′).  The tape jumps from that clip ahead to the 69′ (7:44), and a classic instance of Messi’s ability: he drops back to the halfline to receive the ball from Xai; three Madrid defenders converge on him (Pepe, Marcelo, Xabi), but he turns away and scampers across the field, turns away another Madrid tackler, and slots a ball through for Pedro–who does in fact put the ball in the back of the net and starts celebrating.  But the linesman had called offsides, and the explosion of Barça joy is cut short (“Explosión de alegría abortada”). The replay shows that Pedro was leaning just beyond the last defender.

"Explosión de alegría abortada"

Another beautiful Barça thru-ball creates another great chance (8:43, 75′): Busquets with a great pass from the center line to Dani Alves, who’s further forward than any other Barcelona player.  He cuts back and finds Messi, who’s run into space at the top of the Madrid box.  He gets off a good shot, but Casillas saves well–and here’s an example of where ” the counter attack of Madrid started to look more like desperate clearing rather than pointed reply.”  Watch the sequence after Madrid boots the ball up off Casillas’ rebound–Barcelona plays keep away for about 20 seconds in the crowded middle of the pitch, evenutally leading to another great chance for Pedro.  The ball goes tiki-taka from Dani Alves to Busquets to Xavi, who dances around a challenge from Marcelo, gives it back to Busquets.  He finds Iniesta, who one-touches to Messi.  Messi once again skips through a few Madrid defenders, shifting the play from one side to the other, and finds Xavi in a bit of space. He puts Pedro in, and he nearly scores by chipping Casillas–but the Madrid captain just manages to swat it away with his fingertips.  Casillas keeps Madrid in the game a few minutes later, when another sequence of Barça possession leads to another great chance, this time for Iniesta off a quick give-and-go with Messi (9:45, 81′).

Madrid does create two chances in the last five minutes of regulation.  A good tackle and quick pass forward (by Xabi? 10:22, 87′) to CR7 leads to a strong run at Barça’s defense by Adebayor.  Ronaldo runs behind him and up the left flank; Dani Alves is tracking him, but gets turned around when it seems like Adebayor might get through to goal himself.  Adebayor lays off for Ronaldo, who’s seemingly in on goal once again, but again Alves is able to recover just in time to block Ronaldo’s shot.  The last chance is created by Ronaldo, who despite his missed opportunities keeps working hard.  He picks up a loose ball in the middle, finds diMaria on the left; the Argentine cuts in, creates a bit of space between him and Dani Alves just outside the box, and sends in a curling shot that Pinto palms over.