OK, let’s get this out of the way right off the bat: sorry. As a member of FC Barcelona, I want to apologize for the way some of the Barca players acted last night. What should have been an advertisement for Spanish football turned into a farce, at least for the first half. At their home ground, Real Madrid played as the most expensively assembled parked bus in the history of football. Failing to break through, Barca’s players – mainly Busquets and Pedro – put on the worst acting job since Sophia Coppola in Godfather III. The instances in which Barca players went down clutching their faces were just embarrassing. I’m not going to sugarcoat a display that wouldn’t have convinced any American on the fence about footie to become a fan.
I’m also willing to acknowledge that the red card on Pepe was questionable. It wasn’t as bad a call as the two English announcers claimed; I’m not willing to accept the judgment of commentators who come from a league where leg-breaking tackles are viewed as just getting stuck in. However, it wasn’t an obvious red.
All that said, Real Madrid folded like a cheap suit after going down to ten men, almost as if they wanted to be martyrs. I’ve watched enough football to know that teams can respond to going a man down by playing harder and achieving the same level of performance with ten that they accomplished with eleven. Hell, you only have to go back to the first game of this series to see a team respond with determination. That’s why it was so strange to see Real roll over and let Barca end the tie in the first leg. (Maybe they knew that Pepe is the linchpin of their approach to negating the Blaugrana, so without him for the remainder of the first leg and all of the second leg, they were f***ed.) I expect Arsenal, a team that has made collapsing on the precipice of achieving something an annual event, to fold. I don’t expect a Jose Mourinho-coached Real Madrid side to do the same.
The fact that Real played differently last night than they did in the first two matches was a theme even before Pepe was dismissed. Los Merengues were strangely passive from the outset, allowing Barca time on the ball everywhere outside of the last third of the pitch. Part of my pessimism going into the match was based on Real’s performance in the first half of the Copa del Rey Final, when Real were attacking Barca’s players with the ball, forcing turnovers, and creating scoring chances. That aggression was absent last night. I started asking myself “what is up Jose’s sleeve? Is he killing time until he brings on Kaka with 20 minutes to go? Is he playing for a 0-0 and will then turn his players loose at the Nou Camp? Why is he taking that approach when he is facing a Barca side without Iniesta or any of its three left backs” It occurred to me that I was assuming that every performance is the result of the manager’s decisions and pre-match speech, which is a fallacy. Maybe the Real players were simply on top of their games in Valencia and are not in the same place at home? Maybe players’ performances just vary from match to match and I’m trying to put order on a universe that rejects it.
Other random thoughts:
- Barca and real have now combined for five goals in three matches. Every goal has been scored by Leo Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. Not bad for two guys who at one time had the reputations of guys who don’t come up big in big games.
- The most encouraging development for Barca going forward is that the last two matches have featured the return of David Villa to form. Villa scored over the weekend and then he looked legitimately dangerous last night.
- Real are a much deeper team than Barca. Everyone assumed going into the match that Real stood a better chance of introducing a game-changing sub in the second half. So naturally, the break-through was provided by Barca sub Ibrahim Affellay beating Marcelo and putting in a slick cross for Messi to touch under Casillas for the winner.
- This game is going in Carles Puyol’s pantheon. With Barca suffering a series of injuries to its left backs, Puyol was drafted into the position and barely put a foot wrong all day. In the first half, Mesut Ozil – the player opposite Puyol - became a ghost, such that he was hauled off at the half. In the second half, Puyol combined with Pique to snuff out any threat that Ronaldo might have presented. Puyol’s performance also illustrates a factor that allows Barca to thrive with a short squad: the players are versatile. Puyol can play anywhere on the back line. The defensive midfielders can both play center back, as can left back Eric Abidal. Iniesta can play midfield or forward. Adriano was bought specifically because he can play anywhere. This is how a team fights on three fronts with a relatively small band of participants.
It’s rare that I’ll find myself agreeing with Marca after a Clasico, but kudos to that publication and its readers (I can smell Sandro Rosell showing up at my door to claim my card after typing those words) for not falling for Mourinho’s displaced anger:
Roberto Palomar referred to Mourinho's "Jurassic football" and claimed: "Mourinho has perverted history and has lost the emotional boost that used to go with taking the field at the Bernabéu in the European Cup. Before they played with a 12th man. Nowadays, with 10."
Fernando Carreño suggested that rather than complain about the refereeing, Madrid fans should question Pepe's studs-up challenge and Raúl Albiol's grabbing of Pedro Rodríguez's throat, ask why Kaká and Gonzalo Higuaín were left on the bench after dazzling against Valencia "or if the best that Real Madrid with a squad costing €500m can do is to leave the ball with the best ball-playing side in the world and play on the counterattack".
He went on: "To be forever complaining, and especially with complaints of this nature, doesn't seem to be a credible or acceptable posture" for someone in Mourinho's position. "Real Madrid, in my opinion, is a great club that deserves something better. If your approach is results-based and you don't get the result, what's left?"
In an online poll more than 72% of Marca's readers disagreed with Mourinho's comments that referees favoured Barcelona. (Some 78% felt Pepe's red card was correct.)
Jose, if your team is making no effort to score, then how much of a difference should it make if you are playing with eleven or ten for 25 minutes?
Michael Cox notes that Barca’s injuries worked to their advantage, forcing Guardiola to field a tougher, more defensive side:
Puyol and Keita were drafted into the side as something of an emergency, but in a tough, physical game like this, their strength came in handy. Puyol and Keita are much more physically imposing players than Adriano and Iniesta, and though there was less technical quality from those positions, it didn’t turn out too badly.