Thursday, 18 August 2011

Positives for both sides but Messi decisive in the Supercopa

Four months on from the Champions League semi-final fixtures of last season, Barcelona may have again emerged as victors in the Supercopa and Real may have again seen the red mist and consequently red cards, but this was a very different two-legged encounter.

Both sides have served up a mixture of the good, the extraordinarily good and inevitably the ugly in the past four days but both can also reflect positively on two games that restored the reputation of these two sides as the two best footballing teams in the world.

That we saw two high-scoring, free-flowing games was down to two principal factors. Fristly, Jose Mourinho realised (and hopefully will continue to do so) that his idea of the “bloque bajo” that he implemented successfully with Inter against Barcelona is unlikely to succeed again against Pep Guardiola’s side with any team over two-legs, but even more so when he has an incredible array of attacking talent that can hurt Barca at the other end of the pitch. Secondly, of course for all that this mattered – we saw just how much at the melee at the end – it was the Supercopa, a competition which when you win is a fantastic springboard and when you lose is a pre-season friendly.

In both of these ties Real have taken the game to Barca in a way they didn’t in any of their five matches last season. And it could have worked, it should have worked, at least at home where they were rampant in the first-half only to somehow still be behind to a moment of brilliance from David Villa and a slip from Pepe (who we will get to shortly).

They did a Barca to Barca, pressing intensely high up the field to pen the European champions into their own half and at times succeeding in winning the ball high up the field.

Ronaldo finally scored at the Nou Camp, Benzema finally scored in against Barca, but the fact that Mourinho is still to win in the Nou Camp exemplifies certain flaws that still remain when Real match up against Barcelona.

Pepe was lauded for his impact as part of an athletic and combative midfield three in the games against Barca towards the end of last season until an untimely, if characteristic, lunge on Dani Alves saw him see red and his side’s chances fall apart in the Champions League. However, time and again he has been caught out when playing at centre-back against Guardiola’s side. In particular Leo Messi playing as a ‘false nine’ causes the Portuguese international all sorts of problems. The dual problem for Pepe and indeed his colleagues in the centre-back position over the past couple of seasons were demonstrated by Barca’s first and third goals last night.

On the first goal Messi drops very deep, cuts inside and delivers the most fantastic through ball for Andres Iniesta to run onto. Pepe and Ricardo Carvalho are marking no one because they can’t. They are caught between pushing right up and giving Messi endless amount of room to play passes into, as shown by the fact Iniesta’s goal last night was highly reminiscent of David Villa’s two goals in the 5-0 Clasico last year, or sitting very deep and allowing Messi, Xavi and Iniesta room in front of them to unpick the lock.

The other problem for Pepe playing against Messi is that the Argentine’s movement is simply too good for him. In Barca’s third and winning goal, Pepe has Messi in front of him and thinks he has him covered but as the ball is pulled back Messi has pulled off the back and found space to hammer home.

If Pepe’s position and discipline is becoming questionable in these fixtures then Marcelo’s actions have made him a liability that Mourinho simply cannot trust any longer in the Clásicos. The Brazilian got away with one fly-kick on Messi (again not too dissimilar from his treatment on Pedro last season) but caused the huge melee at the end of the game with a cynical lunge on Cesc Fabregas.

Fabio Coentrao demonstrated last night that Real now have a more competent left-back and disciplined player at the club and the Portuguese should now be the obvious choice in that position.

However, and this is should be the most serious point to come out of last night and the weekend’s fixtures. Nothing in Marcelo’s behaviour gives the Barcelona fans the right to chant monkey noises at the Brazilian, just as those at the Bernabeu should be slammed for making the same chants at Marcelo’s compatriot Dani Alves.

Overall this was a huge missed opportunity for Real. Whilst Barca’s pre-season has been a stuttering one with the odd defeat and players arriving late in the transfer window, Real’s preparation for these two games was perfect. They won every game, had bought their players early and had them acclimatised and even started pre-season training a week earlier than the azulgrana. Moreover, of the side that Barca started at the Bernabeu six had played in summer tournaments to Real’s one. Madrid were fitter and it showed in both games but that brings us nicely to the positives for Barcelona.

The greatest asset of a champion is not knowing when they are beaten and Barca demonstrated their winning mentality in spades last night. When Benzema equalised with seven minutes remaining last night there looked like only one winner, even Guardiola didn’t think his side could win:

“To be honest before the final I didn’t think we could win”,he said.

But despite their “lack of legs” as Pep described it they (and arguably more accurately he) conjured up the response that should no longer surprise us but still continues to amaze.

On a night when the two best teams in the world played like the two best teams in the world one man still stood out by some distance. In one evening Messi has managed to turn the debate in the Spanish press from he is nothing without Xavi and Iniesta that dominated only weeks ago during the Copa America to the Barca are nothing without Messi lines of this morning. Of course both arguments are hyperbolic nonsense but the Argentine’s performance last night was so stunning, so decisive that the reaction is understandable.

The picture for me that stood as players and coaches from both sides fought, slapped and generally behaved like children in the final minutes, was that of Ronaldo stood hands on hips, looking rueful and with the speech bubble above his head which clearly read “if only it was for that little bastard!”

However, that Messi is brilliant is a luxury Barcelona have been aware of for some time. What really stood out in both these ties was at the other end of the field two of their generally unsung heroes were as good as anyone outside of Messi.

Victor Valdes saved them time and again in the Bernabeu and did so again when palming Ronaldo’s fierce strike onto the bar with the score at 1-1 and Real in the ascendancy and in front of him, in a position many were surprised Barca didn’t strengthen in this summer, Javier Mascherano was excellent at centre-back. Once again it appears Pep’s decision might have been spot on and the Argentine captain now appears likely to play the majority of the season in the heart of the defence.

And so just when these two do get us really excited and ready to get going it appears we’ll stop as the sad facts of financial mismanagement in Spanish football are for once confronted and the players go on strike.

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