Friday, January 27, 2012

We Expected Midway and Got Antietam

Barca and Real Madrid drew 2-2 on Wednesday.  It's helpful to think about the meeting both in terms of tactics and strategy.  Tactically speaking, the match was a win for Barca because they progress in the Copa Del Rey and will now be favored to win at least one of the three major trophies on offer (albeit the least important of the three).  Barca kept Jose Mourinho stuck on one win against the Blaugrana in ten tries since he took over at the Bernabeu.  Mourinho has still never won at the Camp Nou, which is a nice stat to bandy about in relation to the club's bete noire. 

Strategically, the match was a win for Mourinho and Real Madrid because they preserved their dignity.  Here is Sid Lowe's description:

They got knocked out but they got up again. For José Mourinho's Real Madrid, the latest clásico was always likely to be less about the result and more about recovery after a week of intrigue and insult. As Pep Guardiola insisted on the eve of the game, Barcelona had a problem: the assumption was that the Catalans were already in the semi-final. A place in the next round was not really at stake; instead the prize was something less tangible. This morning, it is Barcelona who are through but Madrid emerged from a wonderful 2-2 draw as winners too.

Suddenly, unexpected, deservedly, a semi-final slot had been within Madrid's reach. In the end they could not grab it but they did grab a lifeline. Madrid never expected to progress in the cup but the progression was evident. Mourinho's side have now faced Barcelona 10 times and won just once. The run was extended but it felt like it had been ended. Mourinho underlined the comment going round the away dressing room: "it's impossible to win here." Yet the lasting impression was the exact opposite: it no longer looks impossible to win here. Barely 24 hours earlier, it did.
In this respect, Wednesday night was a missed opportunity for Barca, a chance to end the war gone.  If you like military analogies (and you know I do), this was McClellan allowing the Army of Northern Virginia to escape in the aftermath of Antietam.  At halftime, Barca had a 2-0 lead in the match and a 4-1 lead on aggregate.  Real's players had to have been dispirited at halftime because they had played well in the first half, but had failed to score because of a combination of poor finishing and excellent shot-stopping by Barca's rapping reserve keeper, Jose Pinto.  Barca had the chance to stick the knife in by delivering a humiliation that would have caused a serious crisis for Mourinho, a malaise that might have affected Real's form in La Liga and allowed Barca to winnow down the current five-point deficit.  Instead, Real came off the deck in the second half, scoring twice in rapid succession and forcing a very nervy final 20 minutes for the Catalans.

All that said, there are two caveats to the conclusion that Wednesday was an affirming match for Mourinho and Real.  First, Real came out of the Spanish Supercup in August with a similar feeling.  In that instance, they had gone at Barca hard for 180 minutes, choosing to employ an aggressive, attacking approach instead of parking the bus.  Barca won the tie 5-4 on aggregate, but Real had seemingly showed that they were now on par with Barca, such that they would no longer need to employ the tactics of inferior teams.  That affirmation didn't last, as Real lost the next two matches against Barca, both at the Bernabeu.  Second, Real's players have cause to wonder about Mourinho's tactics.  If Real can truly play with Barca, as they showed in the second leg, then why did Mourinho take such a defensive approach - marked by Pepe in midfield - in the first leg?  Couldn't Real have come to the Nou Camp without having to win on the road if their style would have been better in the first leg?  Also, Real played much better with Karim Benzema up front as opposed to Gonzalo Higuain.  Benzema is establishing quite a record for scoring against Barca, so why was he not on the pitch from the start?  Again, would Real have been in a better position than down 4-1 if Benzema had been a starter?

The two clubs will now take a break from one another for at least two months (the earliest that they can play would be the Champions League quarterfinals, which kick off two months from today).  Real have been the better side this season against everyone else, so we'll see if that continues.

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