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Friday, 22 April 2011

A humble Madrid spells danger for Barca

Real Madrid have set their egos to one side and embraced "anti-football" in a bid to end Barcelona's domestic and European dominance. The Catalans now face a serious threat to their Champions League hopes

Wednesday's Copa del Rey victory gave Real their first trophy in three years

When Barcelona destroyed Real Madrid 5-0 at the Nou Camp last November, many observers - this writer included - struggled to find the words to do justice to the level of performance we had just witnessed, and to the team which provided it.

It was, for want of a better term, simply brilliant. The best team in the world had not only beaten the side widely accepted as being their closest rivals, they had annihilated them. Schooled them. Humiliated them. Yes, ‘brilliant’ will do.

But brilliance is dependent on circumstance. In football, brilliance is defined not only by the individual or team which produces it, but also by the deficiencies of the other individual or team which make that brilliance possible.

For every act of brilliance on the football pitch, there is a mistake, either technical or tactical, individual or collective, which enables it to happen. And after last November’s thrashing, no one knows this better than Jose Mourinho.

Of course, this Barcelona team are exceptional, and their five-goal Clasico demolition of Real deserves its place among the all-time greatest club performances.

But its greatness can be attributed to the fact that the likes of Messi, Xavi and Iniesta were allowed the time and space to exhibit their genius by a combination of Mourinho’s fatally misguided tactical plan and the na├»ve mistakes of a youthful Real side.

Give Barcelona the room to play and they will destroy you. The lesson was clear, delivered in the most emphatic way possible. The Special One would not need to be told twice.

Which is why last Saturday’s La Liga encounter at the Bernebeu marked a seismic shift in Real’s tactical approach to playing their great rivals.

Rather than trying to impose their own style and dominate Barca, the emphasis for Madrid was very much on stifling Pep Guardiola’s side with a mixture of high intensity pressure and a deep defensive line, only looking for opportunities on the counterattack.

It was what some would call “anti-football” – fundamentally destructive rather than constructive, and far more in line with the approach Mourinho’s Inter endorsed against the Catalans last year.

It was also an approach which drew criticism from many quarters, most notably from Barcelona legend Johan Cruyff and, perhaps more surprisingly, Madrid great Alfredo Di Stefano.

"We saw clearly that [Madrid’s] approach was not the right one. Barcelona were a lion, Madrid a mouse," the 84-year-old wrote in his column in Marca.

"Madrid were a team without personality. Barcelona play football and dance while Madrid just run back and forth constantly, tiring themselves out."

But there was something Di Stefano chose not to highlight, and it was perhaps was the most significant aspect of Saturday’s turgid 1-1 draw: It was the fact that, after five consecutive Clasico defeats, Real had not lost. They had been dominated, certainly, but not beaten.

Mourinho was also criticized for letting the title race die by settling for the draw but, with Barca already eight points clear and carrying the head-to-head advantage afforded them by that 5-0 win before Christmas, the Special One must have considered the title race over.

He had other priorities. To rebuild his players’ fragile confidence that they could at least compete with Barca, to give them the beginnings of a belief going forward into this unique four-game series against the Catalans that they could actually best their great rivals.

And it worked. Only four days after ending their losing streak, Madrid beat Barcelona by a solitary extra time goal in Valencia to triumph in the Copa del Rey final for the first time in 18 years. But even more significantly, they beat Barca the Mourinho way.

Cristiano Ronaldo and Pepe both played crucial roles in Madrid's victory
  
Unlike their first meeting in November, Real did not walk out onto the pitch for the Copa del Rey final seized by the arrogant delusion that they could match Barcelona blow for blow. Instead, they accepted they would lose the battle for possession, and so concentrated on defending tightly and deep in a bid to limit their opponents as much as possible.

The defensive midfield trio of Xabi Alonso, Sami Khedira and the excellent Pepe ensured there was almost no space for Barca to play tiki-taka football between the midfield and defensive lines, whilst Cristiano Ronaldo, Mesut Ozil and Angel Di Maria pressured high up the pitch in a bid to prevent the Catalans getting into their rhythm.

Mourinho's gameplan was not perfect, and Madrid still rode their luck at times. Iker Casillas rescued his team-mates with fantastic saves on a handful of occasions, and only Pedro's marginally ill-timed run ensured a moment of mesmerising genius from Lionel Messi did not get the reward it surely merited.

But for the most part Real managed to frustrate Pep Guardiola's men, and actually produced a number of clear opportunities of their own through lightning quick counterattacks. Cristiano Ronaldo finally found himself in a position to have a decisive influence over a Clasico, and took his chance brilliantly with that towering injury time header.

It wasn't pretty, but Madrid have finally found a way to beat Barca. All they have had to do is to set egos aside, accept their own footballing inferiority and discard high-held principles of entertainment to embrace "anti-football".

This may not sit right with purists in the Madrid hierarchy such as Di Stefano and Valdano, but Real fans are just grateful to Mourinho for stemming the tide of Catalan victories in the Clasico.

And of course, further glories could be ahead.

The Copa del Rey victory will give the Madrid players a huge psychological boost ahead of the two-legged Champions League semi-final to come, whilst Barca's realisation that the current Real is a much more streetwise and formidable beast than the one brushed aside so easily last November may just raise a little self-doubt.

The one final question which remains is whether Wednesday's extra-time exertions will have taken anything out of either side physically.

Barcelona have a frightningly small squad, an oversight which may yet cost them dear, but there is also a doubt as to whether Madrid can defend so perfectly for what will end up being over six hours of football in less than three weeks against the most fearsome attacking team in world football.

Only time will tell, but Real's victory has provided the best possible prologue to the Champions League semi-finals.

With a new, humble Madrid likely taking to the field next Wednesday, the spectacle is unlikely to match last November's magnificent exhibition. It will, however, be a genuine contest. 

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