With apologies to Lawrence Kasdan, here are five thoughts on Clasico Nos. five and six of 2011:
1. There is a great disturbance in the force. Real Madrid went toe-to-toe with Barca for 180 minutes, outplaying the Blaugrana for long stretches of time, including at the Camp Nou. The occasions where opponents have truly taken it to Guardiola’s Barca have been few and far between over the past three years: Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in ‘09, Arsenal in late game situations at the Emirates in ‘10 and ‘11, Inter for stretches at the San Siro in ‘10, and Real for the first half of the Copa del Rey Final at Mestalla in ‘11. No team has been able to trade punches in Catalunya, but Jose Mourinho now has that team. It’s not that he made any huge changes in terms of the personnel. The starting XI for the first leg on Sunday was the exact same as the unit that got drilled 5-0 last November and he made only one change for the second leg, inserting Fabio Coentrao for Marcelo. However, his team seem to have a better understanding of Mourinho’s favored tactics, they are in terrific shape after a productive preseason,* and they now have the confidence to press Barca high up the pitch. Gone are Mourinho’s tactics of stuffing his players with defensive instructions and hoping to nick a 0-0 or 1-0 against the run of play. He has a team that is almost equal to Barca. I wouldn’t be shocked at all if this Real side win either La Liga or the Champions League. On the evidence of the Copa del Rey matches, these are the two best teams in the world and by some distance.
* – The one counter: Barca did not have a good preseason. They lost preparation time by touring the hot, humid Southern US, they had several players out because of the Copa America, and their two big signings arrived late. If Real were ever going to beat Barca, this was the time and they missed the chance. Also, the ever-gracious Mourinho referred to the Supercup as a “tiny little title,” so who knows if he will retain his new-found balls when the team meet again with more significant silverware on the line.
2. You’ll find I’m full of surprises. Dani Alves has the reputation as an attacking right back who is a defensive liability. He may have had a disappointing Copa America, but he was outstanding in both legs of the Supercup, mainly defensively. He was able to blunt Cristiano Ronaldo’s bursts forward repeatedly and he didn’t let the sprinter-fast Ronaldo beat him for pace. I’m not sure of Alves has improved defensively or if he has always been this good but was always too far forward to tackle. Regardless, he showed that he’s not just a defender in name.
3. Control, control, you must learn control! Too bad about Real, they showed so much promise as an attacking, pressing force that play the right way and then they slowly degenerated into a collection of dirty f***s by the end of the match. Actually, that’s a little unfair. Pepe and Marcelo were dirty f***s, getting away with an assortment of kicks and elbows that clearly had no purpose other than to inflict injury. How amusing that Mourinho believes that there is a conspiracy in favor of Barca and yet his players repeatedly dare refs to send them off. And speaking of Jose, he was just a bundle of class in the melee that resulted from Marcelo trying to end Cesc’s Spanish career after 10 minutes:
You can see the source for Pepe’s and Marcelo’s ideas.
4. There is another.
So that’s what it’s like to have an impact sub. Barca’s two signings this summer – Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez – are both technically surplus to requirements. The club’s front five did not need improvement. That said, they do need depth and tonight’s match showed why. With Xavi looking a little off his game, Barca’s pace picked up immediately when Cesc came on and they closed strongly. Barca have faded at times over the past two years, most notably twice at the Emirates. Now, their import from North London (along with the new winger from Friuli) makes that a less likely prospect.
5. Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size, do you? Barca won another trophy despite Real’s impressive, high-tempo performance because the Blaugrana have the best player in the world, full stop. I don’t like simple explanations, but sometimes, there is no need to say anything more. Barca won 5-4 on aggregate with Messi scoring three and assisting on the other two. Moreover, the quality of the goals was outstanding. His goal at the Bernabeu was a ping pong effort where he bounced off of Sami Khedira and Pepe before finishing. Tonight, his opener was a ludicrous chest-pass off a corner to Gerard Pique, who then back-heeled the ball back to Messi, with the little Argentine then finishing after a dribble. (Honestly, how many goals have ever come from the following sequence: corner, chest pass, back-heel, dribble, shot?) Finally, Messi won the trophy with three minutes remaining by receiving a pass from Cesc, picking out Adriano (who is quite a useful little engine down the flanks) and then darting to the net to slam home Adriano’s return cross (a goal that was very similar to Messi’s opener against Real in the Champions League first leg).
Additionally, the opening 15 minutes showed the difference between Messi and Ronaldo. Within three minutes, Ronaldo had already fired three shots on goal, missing twice. 12 minutes later, Messi got loose and delivered a defense-splitting ball to Iniesta for the opener. One player shoots from everywhere; the other both scores goals and constantly creates chances for his teammates. Switch those two players and Real are the team of the moment.