El Clasico Part 4, UEFA Champions League Semi-final: FC Barcelona vs. Real Madrid - Entering the mind of a Madrista

BARCELONA, SPAIN - MAY 02: Karim Benzema of Real Madrid answers a question during a press conference at the Camp Nou Stadium, ahead of Barcelona's UEFA Champions League semi-final second leg match against Real Madrid, on May 2, 2011 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)


Tonight FC Barcelona and Real Madrid will dispute the fourth and final Clasico of this campaign. While the three previous Clasico’s were anything but classic, they still produced some of the more memorable in recent history, albeit for all the wrong reasons. So far, the Clasico series is a fairly balanced affair, each team won one game while drawing the other. But then again, Real Madrid won the Copa del Rey final which makes their victory the more valuable one, at least at this stage of the season.

Nevertheless, after publishing three Blaugranes previews for the Clasico we are trying a different approach this time around; why not publish the insights of a genuine Madrista on Barca Blaugranes?

In the upcoming weeks our parent company, SB Nation, will launch a new La Liga blog www.managingmadrid.com. As you can tell, Managing Madrid will be solely devoted to none other than Real Madrid. The idea of letting a certified Madrista publish his views on Barca Blaugranes may or may not put off hardcore Culés, but there are always two sides to every story.

Managing Madrid’s Gabe Lezra and I just happened to contribute to a Clasico story on CNN.com. Oddly enough, we both run SBN’s FC Barcelona and Real Madrid blog respectively. It’s quite obvious that this will only mark the first of many run-ins between Barca Blaugranes and Managing Madrid. While we do support different teams, the feature with Gabe was one of the smoothest I’ve done so far.

If that’s any indication of what to expect from the managingmadrid.com staff, I must admit I am really looking forward to its launch. We will most likely continue to disagree on a lot of issues but at least it will be done in a civilized manner.

Nevertheless, here are the insights of a genuine Madrista on Barca Blaugranes.com



What do you think of Real Madrid's tactics and formation?

Gabe Lezra: Madrid's strategy in the three games against Barcelona over the last few weeks (1-1 in the Liga, 1-0 in the Copa final, 0-2 in the Champions League home leg), has had mixed results; because it's a strategy that justifies itself based on winning--a defensive strategy aimed to curb the other team's offensive explosiveness, frustrate, and only then run devastating counter attacks--these mixed results are indicative of Madrid's performance on the whole. That is, if the team had won (or at least drawn) every game, then the strategy would be fine--but they didn't.

So I feel mixed about it. While I do enjoy watching a well organized defense repel attack after attack, frustrating the opponent to the point of aggravation, the strategy is only fun to watch when it works (pretty obvious, I know). If you're going to base your entire scheme on winning, then you have to win. Overall, though, I think it has been successful (the Copa win pretty much validates the structure), but not hugely, crazy-amazing successful.


Do you think Mourinho's post-match comments were justified?

Gabe Lezra: Not really. But he's a loose cannon, and will jump at anything he sees as an injustice. The man mixes emotion and cold calculation better than any coach I've seen, and in this case he went a little too far on the side of emotion--he was riding the post-match wave and seemed to get a little caught up in the moment. While there were some legitimate arguments to make, his over-the-top attacks dampened the actual situation and polarized the two sides: not necessary.


Do you think Pepe's playing style makes him more prone to controversial refereeing?

Gabe Lezra: Yes. He's a physical defender, who's large, lanky, and throws his body around. He's also incredibly talented, fast, and a bit insane (remember that time he flipped and kicked the stuffing out of that player?), so he has a reputation as a game changer--referees feel OK showing cards to Pepe because his reputation and his style suggest that he's a game-changing player (both positively and negatively).

His reputation and style make it more likely that he will be shown cards, both correctly and incorrectly; because of his history, referees will tend to err on the side of being too stringent, like in the case of the Dani Alves red card in the most recent match. The action itself didn't warrant a red card, but Pepe's past behavior and physical style primed the referee to look for hard, cynical tackles. 


What would you have done differently if you had been coaching either team?

Gabe Lezra: For Real Madrid, I would have made the defense push a higher line: Barcelona got very tight and nervous in the first half of the Copa final when Madrid pressured all over the pitch. Rather than sticking with such a deep defensive line, Madrid should have been rushing out to pressure in Barcelona's territory, forcing errors and general frustration.

For FC Barcelona, I would have instructed them to attack more down the flanks, and focused on trying to get balls over (not between) Madrid's defenders. Madrid is weakest on the sides of the defense, and didn't have particularly fast center backs; the key to playing a team that clogs the middle is to try to spread the field, and attack over the top from the sides with vertical runs on aerial through-balls. The other point I would emphasize would be not to get frustrated. If Barcelona could remain cool and composed against Madrid's defense, then they could limit Madrid's chances offensively by not pushing anything that wasn't there--that is, not trying through balls that Madrid's midfield and defenders will just intercept.


Do you think either team was more or less guilty of pressuring the referee?

Gabe Lezra: No. Both teams were terrible about this; the game gave a bad name to Spanish football. In a match-up that was supposed to pit the two best Spanish sides on a continental stage, both teams embarrassed themselves with their antics (both during and after the game). That's all I want to say about this.


Given Real Madrid's history with defensive coaches--they fired Fabio Capello after winning the Liga in 2006-2007--do you think Mourinho's style will affect the length of his tenure as manager?

Gabe Lezra: I think that the cases (Capello and Mourinho) are very different. For one, Capello was brought in after a title drought that saw teams like Valencia in the ascendency, while Mourinho was brought in at the height of the Guardiola-era FC Barcelona. While Capello was asked to win a title, Mourinho was asked to win a title and check the dominance of Barcelona. In this case, it really was more important that Real Madrid win and ask questions later; for Capello, the main point was to bring Madrid back to prominence internationally. Capello didn't really achieve his goals; Mourinho actually has (to some extent). As long as Mourinho keeps winning--and keeps Madrid at the top of conversations internationally--then he'll keep his job.

Another difference is in the fan's reception of the two coaches: even after Madrid won the 2006-2007 Liga, fans were still divided about whether they wanted Fabio Capello to stay. This season, after Madrid has had a relatively successful campaign (similar, really), fans are much more in favor of Mourinho staying. I think that speaks volumes.



Thanks to Managing Madrid's Gabe Lezra for his unique insights and contribution to this feature.

Check out Gabe's website www.managingmadrid.blogspot.com and look out for the launch of www.managingmadrid.com in a couple of weeks.




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