Saturday, 16 April 2011

Match Report: Real Madrid 1 Barcelona 1

It is a rare case when these two giants of the world game meet that everyone can go home happy but this was one such evening.

The usual mixture of tension, excitement and exorbitant levels of hyperbole in the newspaper pages, front and back, in the lead up to any Classico have been exaggerated by the impending catalogue of these fixtures to come in the next two and a half weeks. A cocktail of anticipation that had led to this particular match being slightly overlooked – everyone knows La Liga is once again Catalonia bound, the realoffering will come in Europe’s biggest prize.

In that context a scintillating draw whereby Barcelona all but rubber stamped the championship and Real showed they can more than compete with their bitterest rivals – something that was in doubt after the 5-0 destruction in the Camp Nou four months ago – left all parties contented after the appetizer before these ties become really decisive.

The suspicion that both managers may have been tempted to go with slightly weakened sides proved unfounded.

Jose Mourinho went for the 4-3-3 formation that many had suspected but with an intriguing collection of personnel. Pepe was selected as the deep-lying midfield player with Raul Albiol partnering Ricardo Carvalho in defence. Angel Di Maria and Karim Benzema were given the nod alongside Cristiano Ronaldo up front.

Pep Guardiola recalled Carles Puyol to the starting line-up after four months out – a sure sign of the Catalan coach’s worry of the lack of pace at the centre of his backline. Puyol’s inclusion allowed Sergio Busquets to move forward into his natural position alongside Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez, whilst Pedro Rodriguez was restored to the frontline alongside Leo Messi and David Villa. Adriano was also preferred to Maxwell at left-back.

The home side’s intent was clear from the start. In contrast to the season’s earlier meeting between these two Real sat very deep, allowing little space in behind. This had the dual effect of allowing the midfield to press Xavi and Iniesta vigorously whenever they held possession inside the Madrid half and creating space for the pacy front three to drive into when Real won the ball back.

However, it was mainly from set-pieces that the home side threatened in the first-half. Ronaldo was first to go close, firstly firing a free-kick into the hands of Valdes and then heading over from a Xabi Alonso corner.

Barcelona then created their best chance of the half on one of the few occasions they got in behind the Real backline. A wonderful ball from Iniesta found Messi through on Iker Casillas but his lofted finish didn’t have the elevation nor the power to beat the Spanish captain.

On a night when the scoreline was dictated by penalties Barcelona had a big claim turned down on the half hour. Villa nicking the ball away from Casillas before tumbling over. Replays showing that there was definite contact and no touch on the ball from the goalkeeper.

Having escaped that claim the hosts then ended the first period on the front foot. Di Maria fired over after he had turned Puyol in the area before a rare miscontrol by Ronaldo allowed Adriano to step in and clear when the Portuguese appeared to have the goal at his mercy. However, the Brazilian’s next clearance was even more spectacular. Barcelona again failed to deal with an Alonso corner and Ronaldo’s header back across goal seemed destined for the net but for a smart reaction from the full-back on the line.

Ronaldo had another close effort at the start of the second period – his free-kick this time clipping the outside of the post. Yet, within a minute the game swung massively in Barcelona’s favour. Villa this time clearly hauled down by Albiol inside the area. Referee Muñíz Fernández left with no option but to point to the spot and give the Spanish defender his marching orders. Messi converted the penalty for his 49th goal of a truly remarkable season.

Surprisingly, though, the visitors failed to build on this advantage. Their natural passing game which should have suited this situation perfectly deserted them, Alves and Iniesta particularly culpable.

Real in contrast typified Mourinho’s style: aggressive; energetic; hungry. They harassed Barca in possession with Pepe and Sammi Khedira very impressive in the midfield. However, the real standout for the home side in the second-half was Mesut Ozil. The German replaced the ineffective Benzema with 10 minutes of the second-half gone and brought a calm, poise and creative spark in the final third that Real had lacked till that point. An interesting conundrum that now faces Mourinho is how to incorporate Ozil into a 4-3-3 in the upcoming games against the Champions.
That being said Xavi came within inches of finishing the game when his controlled effort clipped the top of the bar.

Set-pieces continued to cause Barcelona problems and Pepe missed a glorious chance to equalise on 65 minutes when he scuffed wide from five yards. Another substitute Emmanuel Adebayor then missed a decent chance, failing to control Ronaldo’s clipped cross.

Real’s tenacity was eventually rewarded with an equaliser but it’s source was more than dubious. Alves’ challenge on Marcelo deemed to be a penalty despite the Barcelona player appearing to have played the ball. Ronaldo stepped up and fired home his first ever goal against Barcelona with ease.

That goal cued 10 minutes of classic end-to-end football as both sides sought a winner. Casillas rushed from his line to deny Villa before Khedira’s fierce shot was well handled by Valdes.

Villa then had one last opportunity to win the game but after a wonderful ball from Xavi had found him in the clear, the Asturian failed to control and the chance was gone. The frantic conclusion summed up as Casillas charged nearly 40 yards from his goal in a valiant attempt to set another attack on its way.

Mourinho will no doubt claim this as a psychological victory - his side showed immense spirit to battle back from a goal down. Guardiola will no doubt claim the title race is not over. But deep down both know that in Barca’s quest to repeat their treble of 2009 one trophy is already firmly back in the cabinet. Another will be dished out on Wednesday. Tonight was merely the Tapas. At the Mestalla the real feast will begin.

FT: Real Madrid 1 (Ronaldo 82) – Barcelona 1 (Messi 53)

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