El Clasico. It simply never gets old. FC Barcelona progressed to the semi-finals of the Copa del Rey with a 2-2 draw on the night ensuring a slender aggregate win for the Catalans against a spirited performance from Real Madrid. The visitors started the better side, and had many chances to open the scoring, but it was Pedro who drew first blood before Dani Alves smashed in a screamer just before the half-time break. Madrid did put up a fight with goals from Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema, but ultimately, it was not enough.
From the moment the line-ups were announced, you could tell it was going to be special. Barcelona had sent out their strongest possible cup XI, while Jose Mourinho had thrown caution to the wind with a 4-2-3-1 formation. Gonzalo Higuain started somewhat surprisingly in attack, while Kaka took his place in attacking midfield. It was a bold move, but we all knew it was coming. It was merely a question of how well Barcelona would deal with it.
Gerard Pique was the first man to make a mistake, and that was only 15 seconds in. Failure to judge and control a simple backpass let Gonzalo Higuain slip through on goal, but as Jose Pinto closed down the angle, the Argentine lost his composure, firing the shot well wide of the mark.
Higuain was making a real nuisance of himself, and had another chance soon after, as Xabi Alonso’s smartly taken quick free-kick on three minutes found Higuain at the back-post. The Argentine this time directed his shot on target, but Pinto was on-hand to tip it round the post. Real Madrid had started far the better team.
Next up to benefit from lax Barcelona defending was Cristiano Ronaldo, holding off the challenge of Dani Alves to send a left-footed snapshot wide. The Catalans needed to settle down, get their foot on the ball and keep possession. However, that was proving impossible given the high-line of pressure from Los Blancos.
Alexis Sanchez nearly broke free of the Real defense with Barcelona’s first half-chance, as a delightful ball over the top found its way to the Chilean, but he couldn’t quite get it under control to unleash a shot. The game was racing from end-to-end; it really was frantic at the Camp Nou. Unsurprisingly, that only suited Madrid.
Kaka was looking good in the middle of the park, and around the 10 minute mark he led a lightning-fast breakaway that culminated in a pass to the left and one Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portuguese forward went for goal, in a carbon copy of his shot from the first-leg that caused Pinto so many problems, but this time the Spaniard got a hand to it. Maybe a week too late, but better late than never!
Barcelona also posed a threat on the counter attack, and it was Cesc Fabregas’ turn to play the Kaka role if you will. Leading the attack he had options to his right and left, but his final pass was just behind Messi, who could turn and get off a shot, but not one which would trouble Iker Casillas. This match was everything a Clasico should be; the individual quality on display was mind-boggling.
Mesut Ozil decided he would give us an example of that quality around the 20 minute mark, dropping a shoulder before unleashing a ferocious swerving shot from the best part of 35 yards. Pinto at first thought that it was flying over, but this was no ordinary shot. The in-air movement was staggering, and the ball cannoned off the underside of the bar before you could do as much as blink. It would have been some goal; the German was desperately unlucky with that shot.
The next note-worthy incident was the first yellow card of the evening, and it was Lassana Diarra with the unenviable honour of taking it just a step too far. This would prove pivotal later in the half, but back to the chances on goal, and Jose Pinto had made yet another mistake.
We know that he is uncomfortable in possession, we know he isn’t Victor Valdes, however much we want him to be, and he showed it yet again by gifting possession to Gonzalo Higuain with a manic pass in his own area. Fortunately, Higuain was not on his best form, and Pinto did make a fine save to deny him, but boy oh boy, he was lucky that he got the chance to redeem himself.
Barcelona were a little fortuitous to be level, but there was nothing lucky about Andres Iniesta, as the oft-injured midfielder was forced off yet again. Stretching for the ball in an innocuous challenge it has been revealed that Iniesta tore his hamstring, and while it is supposedly a small tear, if it is indeed a recurrence of that same injury that sidelined him for so long in 2009, it is bad news for Barcelona. Needless to say, we wish Andres a speedy and full recovery from his injury.
Then the Clasico got a bit more like your typical Clasico. Sergio Ramos talked himself into a yellow card, which is always stupid. Yellow cards for dissent are so unnecessary, so avoidable, and as it proved, so costly. Barcelona began to work their way into the game: pass and move, pass and move; it was a joy to behold, especially one sequence of play that ended up with a corner kick after good work by Alexis.
Then came the breakthrough.
It was so against the run of play, Pedro might as well have worn a mask. All the chances, all the opportunities Real Madrid had to take the lead; it was almost robbery that Barcelona went ahead first. However, they had no-one to blame but themselves.
Lionel Messi (who else?) was the creator, running at the Madrid defense and drawing a number of challenges, most notably that of Alvaro Arbeloa. As a result, the substitute Pedro found himself in acres of space, so naturally, Leo Messi dinked a cute little pass into his path. It turned out that Casillas had been drawn towards the ball as well, as Pedro side-footed it into the corner, with Casillas unable to even attempt a save. Barcelona were ahead. Again.
You couldn’t blame Real for losing their composure just a little, after all, they had been the better side. Lassana Diarra though should have known better. Sweeping Leo Messi off his feet on the edge of the area, he was literally begging for the referee to make a decision. It was a clear yellow card, but the referee knew this. Would he send off Diarra and face the inevitable Mourinho barrage? Of course not, he kept the teams level (in numbers) to try and keep the game even. It was a poor decision.
On the other hand, fate has a weird way of evening things out.
The free-kick was taken, albeit poorly, and Lassana Diarra threw himself in the way. The ball was spinning towards the goal-line, but moving rapidly towards Barcelona’s right-hand side. There to meet it was Dani Alves.
Words do not do this goal justice. Perfect? An understatement. Hitting the ball like he had never struck a ball before, it arrowed right into the top corner, everyone was bemused. What just happened? Well, I’ll tell you what, Barcelona were 2-0 up, thanks to an absolute golazo from Alves.
All this despite Real Madrid being far the better side. Gotta love football.
At this point, you could be forgiven for thinking the game was over. Real Madrid had 45 minutes to score three goals at the Camp Nou, all the while hoping that they could keep the Blaugrana out at the other end. Messi went close with a free-kick shortly after the break, and it looked like Barcelona would settle down, play keep-ball to close the game out.
Then came the Mourinho change.
Off came Lassana Diarra (should have had a red card remember) for Esteban Granero. More on him later. First, Real nearly found a way back into the game through a set piece, not too dissimilar to Barcelona’s goal last-week. The delivery was good, and Ramos was the right-side of Dani Alves. It was an easy header, too good to be true, and he made no mistake. The referee did not either. He ruled out the goal for a foul, and the replay showed why: Ramos had pulled Alves’ arm.
Was the contact enough to warrant a foul? Should Alves have fallen over? Was it a dive? Who cares, why was Ramos making the contact in the first place? He had positional advantage over the Brazilian. He is stronger, arguably quicker, more powerful, taller; the list goes on and on. He could have won that header with his eyes shut at this stage, but he pulled Alves arm, fully aware of his reputation, giving him that "Get out of Jail Free Card".
Amidst the protests, Ronaldo found himself in the book. Cue another change from Jose, and this was the one he got wrong. Karim Benzema came on for Gonzalo Higuain, when he should have started. His impact was instant, causing all sorts of trouble, and given the Argentine’s poor finishing, Mourinho looked mad benching the Frenchman. Also making way was Kaka, for Jose Callejon.
That signalled the shift in the match, Real were going for it. Now, it didn’t take long for this gamble to pay off...
Mesut Ozil got the assist, sliding through an excellent pass to Cristiano Ronaldo, although he still had a lot of work to do, one-on-one with Pinto. Good thing for Cristiano was that Pinto made his life easy, diving to the ground far far far too quickly, and all Ronaldo had to do was carry on running for a brief second and roll the ball into the empty net. 2-1, but maybe not yet game on.
Barcelona made their second change, though it wasn’t really in response to the goal, merely replacing Cesc with Thiago after the summer signing got a palm in the face from none other than comic book villain Pepe. No booking though I might add.
Then it all got a bit serious. A simple ball over the top found Karim Benzema, who kept his nerve to skip past Carles Puyol and apply the finish. Madrid had drawn level, against all the odds, it truly was game on. Now it was a question of whether Barcelona could hold on.
Benzema nearly grabbed a second minutes later after another ball over the top sent him free of Carles Puyol, but Puyol recovered well to make an excellent intervention. At the other end of the pitch, Barcelona lost arguably their most lively attacking threat as Alexis Sanchez hurt his shoulder after landing awkwardly as a result of a heavy tackle from, yep, you guessed it, Pepe. In his post-match interview, Guardiola indicated that we could be without Sanchez for a couple of weeks.
As the Barcelona world looked to Lionel Messi to end Madrid’s hopes, he showed a (slight) human side, sending another free-kick just over the bar, before one of his trademark runs ended with a vicious shot going wide at the near post. The shot was fairly similar to the goal he scored in the Champions League final, but without the end product obviously. Then it all got a bit ugly.
Sergio Ramos jumped for a 50-50 header, and was red carded. It was a harsh decision as Busquets clutched his face, but what do you expect? Busquets feels contact on his face, he will go down. Nothing you or I can do about it. However, here’s what I was saying earlier, Ramos is still to blame. The call was harsh, but if he would have kept his mouth shut like footballers are supposed to do, instead of arguing with the referee, he wouldn’t have been on a yellow card. Hence, no second yellow and consequent red would have been given.
That was purely Ramos’ fault, even if the decision was the wrong one.
After that, every Real player went a bit crazy, Granero flew in with his studs showing in a tackle on Pique, and although he made no contact, deserved his yellow card. Pedro headed straight at Casillas, before being brought down (in a separate incident) by Pepe. I was shocked to find out he hadn’t been booked prior, but he was booked there, so it evened out.
Barcelona held on for the victory, Real Madrid deserved better, I will be honest about that, but they showed their true colours again at the end of the match. Pepe applauded the referee off in an obvious show of dissent and sarcasm, while Real Madrid’s captain, one Iker Casillas admitted that he insulted the referee in the tunnel. They were great in the match itself, but Barcelona remain eons ahead in public image.