My apologies for the late take on Barca-Real, but I'm at my in-laws place and they don't get GolTV. I found the complete game on YouTube and settled in this morning for a match that Phil Ball aptly dubbed a "White Christmas." As Sid Lowe points out, Ronaldinho is getting the blame and he certainly deserves it. He shot Barca's best chance of the game straight at Casillas. He rarely linked up with Eric Abidal, who must have gotten annoyed at constantly banging up the left wing and not being rewarded with the ball. He gave the ball away repeatedly and then proceeded to flop to the turf, looking for calls. With his speed gone from too many nights spent clubbing, Ronnie's best remaining assets are his free kick taking and passing, but Barca didn't force any free kicks in dangerous areas on Sunday and Ronnie's passing was poor. If Barca get a good offer from Chelsea or Milan in January, they should probably take it and move on with Giovanni and Bojan getting more time along with Henry, Eto'o, and Messi. Ronnie should have come into this season loaded for bear after he took so much stick last year, but nothing has changed. Clubs should avoid selling low on players when things look their worst, but Ronnie has run out of chances to show that he is willing to commit himself to the levels necessary to be a great player.
All that said, Ronnie's poor performance shouldn't obscure from the bigger problem, which is that Barca's tactics were poor again. The game was the same as the home matches against Madrid and Liverpool last year. Barca looked bright for about the first half hour and then teams managed by abler men than Rijkaard totally snuffed out the Barca attack, choking off all of their passing lanes and then killing them on the counter. Real looked far more dangerous than Barca because every time the Blaugrana hurled themselves against Madrid's massed defense and gave the ball away, Madrid then snapped into a counter and completely out-numbered Barca going forward. I kid you not, Madrid had a four-on-two at one point with about twenty minutes remaining. Opponents have seen Barca's system and style time and again and the quality opponents have figured out how to snuff Barca's attacks out. The individual brilliance of Messi covers for these tactical problems on a number of occasions, but with Messi out of the match with a bad hamstring, Barca completely lacked ideas on how to create chances.
Rijkaard has apparently stated that this year is his last in charge at the Nou Camp and it's probably for the best, as he has run his course and doesn't have the same effect on the players that he once did. The team needs fresh ideas and nothing drums that point home quite like losing 1-0 at home to Real Madrid and going seven points behind in La Liga. The question is now whether Barca will turn its attention to Jose Mourinho. I have never much cared for the Special One because of the fact that he turned the most expensive collection of talent in the world into Graham Taylor's England side that missed the '94 World Cup. Chelsea were typically dreadful to watch and Roman Abramovich lost patience the moment the results stopped coming Chelsea's way. That said, I can't begrudge Chelsea fans for loving the guy because he always delivers results. At this point, I'm ready for some wins over quality opposition. Mourinho is most noted for his ability to get a collection of egos to pull in one direction and that is something that Barca badly need at this point. I have no idea what Mourinho would do with players like Messi or Bojan, but part of me is interested to see him try. Mourinho did work at the club under Bobby Robson, so he's aware of the club's values and might turn over a bit more of an attacking leaf.
A word now for the victors on Saturday. As Goal.com's player ratings suggest, Pepe was outstanding at the back for Los Merengues. He cut out Barca's attacks time and again and completely denied the Blaugrana the middle of the pitch. He was critically the first to the rebound that Casillas spilled late in the proceedings from Bojan's drive. Madrid's back line is excellent. When they play Ramos, Pepe, Cannavaro, and Heinze across the back, they're extremely hard to break down, especially with Diarra in front cleaning up the mess. In contrast, Rafa Marquez was wearing the "please attack this way!" sign on Saturday and Puyol was a little uncomfortable in space against Robinho, which makes one wonder why Rijkaard didn't opt for the obvious backline of Zambrotta, Puyol, Milito, and Abidal. Maybe Zambrotta isn't fit for 90 minutes?
I also like Madrid's midfield. Baptista made a great run and finish for the goal, linking up perfectly with Ruud for the winner on a one-two that Barca used to create when its players passed the ball properly. Sneijder was also solid and swung in some dangerous-looking free kicks towards Pepe and Ramos. The one change I'd make if I were Bernd Schuster would be to deploy Robben on the flank instead of Raul. This is not just because I can't stand Raul, but also because Robben on one flank and Robinho on the other would create tremendous pressure on a defense and open up the middle more. The one negative would be that Robben and Robinho both tend to be black holes with the ball, whereas Raul has a more unselfish side.
Overall, Madrid look suspiciously close to joining Arsenal, Manchester United, and Inter as a fourth form team in Europe right now. They have opened a healthy lead at the top of La Liga and they have the depth and tactical options to fight well on multiple fronts. Schuster is building on the work that Capello did at Madrid, although the team is no more attractive to watch than the unit last year that got Capello fired for winning the league in an insuffciently entertaining style. Madrid's Champions League tie against Roma should be very interesting, as both sides create a ton of chances. Real certainly look more threatening than Barca, who should off Celtic, but will likely lose to the first megaclub they face.