FC Barcelona came from behind to secure a thrilling 2-1 victory at the Santiago Bernabeu in the first leg of their Copa del Rey El Clasico showdown with Real Madrid. The game bore many similarities to the match in December, in that Madrid took the lead, this time through Cristiano Ronaldo before Barcelona fought their way back to equalise through Carles Puyol before Eric Abidal grabbed the winner. It was a captivating match, and the best part? We get to do it all again next week.
Jose Mourinho was the talking point before the game, mainly for his unexpected line-up, which featured none other than summer signing Hamit Altintop at right-back. Pepe moved into a Trivote midfield for Los Blancos, who were operating in a 4-3-3 with both Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuain in attack. It was a gamble for Mourinho to alter his tried-and-tested formula, especially with Barcelona switching back to a 4-3-3.
From the outset it was clear how the game was going to pan out. Real looked to absorb the Blaugrana pressure before launching into a counter-attack, while Barcelona were comfortable to ease into their possession style, slowing gnawing away at the stubborn Madrid defense. Surprisingly, this meant little to no pressure on the Barcelona backline when in possession, despite the selection of Jose Pinto in goal. That was Mourinho’s first mistake.
There was one instance on the eighth minute where Eric Abidal had possession in his own defensive third and was able to casually walk around, in stark contrast to the asphyxiating high-line of pressure that has wielded such promising results for Real. Watching on the TV, it was easy to forget that the opposition were at home, such was the lack of urgency about their play. That was until the 11th minute anyway.
As always, Real were going to pose a threat on the counter-attack. This placed an onus on Dani Alves to stay back instead of venturing forward, as the space he would leave behind would be exploited by Cristiano Ronaldo. However, old habits die hard. Madrid launched a counter-attack, and admittedly, Alves was not too far forward. It was enough though to leave Ronaldo in acres of space and Karim Benzema picked him out beautifully with a perfectly weighted diagonal pass. From there on in, it was vintage Cristiano Ronaldo. He could cut in from the left-wing with little in the way of resistance and power a low shot towards the keeper and see what happened. What happened was Jose Pinto making a crucial error.
The eccentric back-up keeper could not react quickly enough to the shot, and it zipped through his legs and into the back of the net. Mistake? Yes, but I am unsure whether many other keepers would have done better against Ronaldo. The Portuguese forward’s scoring records suggest they do not...
Real were ahead with their first effort on goal, and in truth, they had contained Barcelona up until that point. It was not a deserved lead per se, but it was earned through solid defensive work. How would Barcelona react was the $64,000 question. Andres Iniesta went some way to showing us minutes later, his driven effort was parried round the post for a corner kick.
Then Alexis Sanchez got involved after Cesc Fabregas lifted a delightful ball over the top of the Madrid defense, and Iker Casillas was but a mere spectator as the Chilean’s looping header rebounded off the cross bar. Almost an instant reply from the Blaugrana.
After that, the game degenerated just a little, as you expect from a Clasico, with Pepe picking up a yellow card for a clear foul, before getting Gerard Pique booked for what appeared to be a 50-50 challenge in the air. Not for the first time, play-acting was coming into play from both sides. Back to the football though and Lionel Messi was the next to test the Spanish captain with a rasping drive towards the near post, which Casillas did extremely well to tip round the post given the power behind the shot.
It was clear to me at least that Barcelona were gradually finding their rhythm, aided by Real Madrid’s inability to string two passes together, and the tiring legs out on the field. The best Barcelona chance of the half did come late, although it was (by their standards) an absolute sitter. Alexis Sanchez combined well to feed the ball to Andres Iniesta inside the Madrid penalty area, but the man who managed to score the winning goal in the World Cup final could not keep his composure, slicing his left-footed shot well wide and over. Half-time at the Bernabeu, and Real Madrid were in front.
Neither side opted to make a change during the half-time interval, perhaps a little surprisingly as Real were crying out for a creative influence in midfield, with Pepe riding his luck on a yellow card. However, Mourinho had got it "right" so far, at least in terms of the result anyway. Barcelona would soon make him pay.
Mistake number two from Real Madrid was the appalling defensive work on show. Yes, they had limited Barcelona, but that was down to a lack of quality finishing as much as anything. Tactically, they were all over the place to the extent that long-term absentee Ricardo Carvalho was the best positioned defender on the pitch for Los Merengues. In his first game back no less. Altintop was looking an out of practice makeshift right-back (exactly what he was), while Fabio Coentrao looked no better than Marcelo ever has at left-back with none of the attacking flair.
That makeshift defense was certainly evident on the equalising goal.
I understand that Barcelona are not renowned for their set-piece prowess, especially corners, although the marking on display was criminal at best. The ball was swung in, and you think, "Real have this covered". Sergio Ramos is jumping with Gerard Pique, but then the ball goes over both of their heads, and you see what Pique has done. Maybe he was trying to head the ball, but maybe he was selling a decoy run in an effort to draw Ramos away from the middle of the area. Whatever the case, the outcome was perfect.
Carles Puyol wears his heart on his sleeve, and is Barcelona through and through. So, it was fitting that he could exploit that space left behind with a surging run that caught Pepe napping to connect with a diving header and send the ball into the back of the net. The equaliser was long coming, and fully deserved for Barcelona. It might have "only" been the Copa del Rey, but you could see how much it meant to Puyol to score against Real Madrid.
Andres Iniesta again found himself with a good chance to score, but his stretching effort was knicked away by Ramos, seemingly for a corner kick, although a goal kick was given. Then the match degenerated again...
Sergio Busquets received a yellow card for a less than necessary foul, before a little bit of football intervened as Altintop sent a fine cross to the back post only for Karim Benzema to hit the post instead of the back of the net. But back to the fouling. Jose Callejon had only been on the pitch for around 30 seconds before he found a way into the book, and then things got ugly. Pepe had a moment of madness which is fast becoming his trademark, this time stamping on Lionel Messi’s hand while he was on the floor. Needless to say, it was pointless and thuggish behaviour from the defender, but the worst part is that it surprised no-one. He got away with it, although some are suggesting that punishment should be handed back in retrospect, much like the case of Jermaine Jones in the Bundesliga.
Sergio Busquets reminded us that there was a football game taking place with his chance shortly after the restart of play; his delicate header was not quite delicate enough and fell onto the roof of the net. Barcelona would soon find a way through, with the most unlikely of scorers...
Lionel Messi was the architect, caressing the ball over to the left-flank and Eric Abidal. Both the pass and the run were perfectly timed and executed, but even then it was hard to believe that Abidal was actually through on goal against Iker Casillas. The left-back had only scored three career goals prior to the match, but his finish would have made Messi proud, guiding the ball into the far corner with the outside of his left boot. A fairytale goal for the Frenchman, Barcelona had done it again.
Pep proceeded to display his astuteness by saving his changes ‘til the dying stages of the game where they could eat away at the clock and disrupt any momentum Madrid looked to build. I said somewhat with a hint of hyperbole that Real Madrid were never "in" the Clasico in December, well, tonight, there is no hyperbole needed. Mourinho’s tactics were that of a bottom feeder club, operating with seven defensive players at his own ground. His reliance upon the counter was plain to see and therefore easy enough to stop with time, and from there on in, there was no Plan B.
Ronaldo disappeared from the game around the half-hour mark, Higuain was non-existent throughout while Benzema showed no signs of his performance in December. Alonso could not dictate the play, nor the tempo of the rare counters leaving them frenzied and disorganised, which Barcelona could defend with ease. Sure, he kept the score down, but at what price?
The game has been lost; the tie is all but over, while Barcelona can go on with confidence. What can his players take from this? A hit to the confidence is all I can think of. Oh, and the mental hurdle is getting higher by the match. Real Madrid attempted to play for a draw, hoping for a win. They still lost.
At this stage, it must be considered as a humiliation, regardless of the score. At least in the 5-0, they went down with a fight.