Welcome to my football blog. I'll be covering most of the key issues and stories which dominate top level English and European football over the coming months, and so if you love this fantastic sport as much as I do, I hope you'll appreciate reading and responding to what I've got to say.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

A tale of magic and madness at the Bernabeu

Physical confrontation was a recurring theme of Wednesday night's Clasico

Wednesday night’s Champions League semi-final clash between Real Madrid and Barcelona was certainly, and somewhat inevitably, not one for the purist – scrappy, aggressive, more drama than entertainment, more petulant chess match than a contest for the ages.

It was also an occasion which served to further highlight both the fantasy and folly which characterizes elite football in the modern era, and the ability of the world’s greatest footballers to excite and exasperate in equal measure.

But all who witnessed this unique spectacle will feel equally privileged to have yet another astonishing example of Lionel Messi’s irrepressible genius to savour.
Messi's two late goals look to have won the tie for Barcelona

To expect, or even hope for, a feast of football at the Bernabeu would have been optimistic to the point of naïve; last November’s 5-0 mauling at the Nou Camp had ensured this particular el Clasico was never going to be an open contest.

Any Madridistas who believed Mourinho would be willing take the game to Barcelona were served ample notice of the Special One’s real intentions in the last two meetings of the sides, in which he laid out the tactical masterplan he hoped would wreck the Catalans’ Champions League hopes.

On Wednesday Mourinho and his players, flushed with success in the Copa del Rey final, sought to harass and to stifle Pep Guardiola’s men once again, to deny space to the likes of Messi and Xavi and to intimidate their rivals with greater aggression and physicality.

And this tried and trusted strategy worked for well over an hour, ensuring a semi-final which pitted many of the world’s greatest footballers against each other never threatened to live up to its Hollywood billing.

Rather than breathtaking skill and flowing football, the recurring theme was instead one of cynicism and petulance, as both sides sought to trick and to pressure the referee into making a decisive call and, in doing so, to tip a delicately-balanced tie in their favour.

In such an environment, controversy was inevitable – and it duly arrived when Pepe was dismissed for what Wolfgang Stark deemed a high and reckless challenge on Dani Alves, who played the part of sniper victim admirably.

The decision proved vital. With Madrid’s Portuguese defender-come-midfield destroyer out of the picture, the brilliance of Lionel Messi was finally given the room to flourish, and it was the little Argentine magician who won the game for Barca with his 51st and 52nd goals of an astounding season.

The first was a reward for a committed and cleverly timed run to the near post when he met substitute Ibrahim Afellay’s pinpoint centre; the second showcased everything that makes a rampaging Messi the most thrilling sight in the world of football: phenomenal acceleration, devastating precision of touch and a cool finish.

This match-winning contribution by the world’s best player had threatened to mask the bitter taste left in the mouth by all that had gone before. But Jose Mourinho ensured this would not remain so, with a post-match rant which was a masterclass in generalization, overstatement and selective memory.

Mourinho's post-match comments are likely to be punished by UEFA

The Special One’s ridiculous allegations of a grand UEFA-endorsed conspiracy to ensure Barcelona remain at the pinnacle of the sport did not even represent the biggest crimes of his ill-advised monologue.  An examination of what he omitted provides far more grounds for criticism.

For in all of Mourinho’s railing against referees, he failed to condemn the persistant monkey chants Dani Alves was subjected to by Madrid fans following the Pepe incident, and for which one can only hope the club will be punished.

He failed to admit that his side’s physical approach and willingness to crowd the referee at every opportunity had left them open to the sort of red card eventually shown to Pepe, or that Marcelo and Sergio Ramos could easily have earned early baths for offences against Messi and Pedro.

And he failed to credit Barcelona’s number 10 for scoring what will surely go down as one of the great goals of the Champions League era.

Mourinho has regularly sought to question the decisions of officials after defeats in big games, often with the primary function of deflecting the attention away from his side’s poor performance, but raising doubts over the validity of this Barcelona team’s success just smacks of sour grapes.

The real reason why the Special One has had a man sent off in each of his last five meetings with Barca lies in the way in which his teams look to play.

If you cede possession to your opponents and seek to pressure them aggressively without the ball, you run a very real risk of attracting unwanted attention from the referee –  and even more so when the team you are playing is particularly adept at making every mistimed challenge look like attempted murder.

Madrid’s approach to the last three Clasico meetings has made a dismissal almost inevitable. Mourinho knew this, but he was taking a calculated risk.

Pepe's red card, rightly or wrongly, proved the turning point in the match

Real managed to win the Copa del Rey because they lasted 120 minutes before going down to 10 men. Had they lasted longer than 70 minutes on Wednesday, there is a strong possibility they would have held out for a 0-0 and gone to the Nou Camp knowing one away goal would put them in a very strong position.

But they didn’t. Madrid’s players were unable to walk the disciplinary tight-rope, and so now go into the second leg all but out of the tie. Despite Mourinho’s post match defeatism, Real will not give up in Catalonia, even though they are in an almost impossible situation.

Madrid must somehow beat Barca by two clear goals at the Nou Camp, without leaving the world's most deadly attacking force any room to hurt them in return. If Mourinho were to pull this off now, it would undoubtedly represent the most astonishing moment in a glittering managerial career.

The smart money is on Barcelona lining up against Manchester United, who have made even lighter work of Schalke in the other semi-final, at Wembley in May. 

Will United gain revenge for their 2009 humiliation in Rome? Or will this exceptional Barcelona side stamp their greatness even more indelibly on the annals of history? 

Whatever happens, just be grateful this wasn't the final.


  1. Hi there. Enjoy article!

    Been wondering. Got any sources re: the monkey chants?

  2. First of all, I'm glad you enjoyed the article.

    As for the monkey chants, I myself was not at the match, but you can make it out at certain points of the televised broadcast, and several Spain-based British football journalists who were at the game, most notably Graham Hunter, have confirmed there was a disturbingly large minority of Madrid fans subjecting the Brazilian right-back to this treatment following the Pepe incident.

    Unfortunately, this appears to be a problem which refuses to go away for Spanish football. Everyone remembers the abuse targeted at England's black players in an international friendly in Madrid back in 2004, and high-profile black players such as Alves and Samuel Eto'o have complained about the racist abuse they have received from away fans.

    Of course, no one expects this problem to be resolved overnight - it took years in England, and still hasn't been completely eradicated - but these disturbing recent examples suggest not enough progress is being made. The Spanish Football Federation need to act together with Uefa to stamp it out.