So, this is what it feels like? FC Barcelona lost their first Clasico under Pep Guardiola, and with it went their chances of a fourth successive league title. Real Madrid came into the match knowing that a draw would all but end the race for La Liga, and despite the "offensive" selection, they were happy to sit deep early on, especially after they took the lead on 16 minutes with Victor Valdes making a mess of Pepe’s header, leaving Sami Khedira to bundle the ball over the line. Barcelona dominated possession, but created little in the way of clear-cut chances. Time dragged on and Blaugrana hopes faded with each passing second, before Alexis Sanchez brought out the optimist in us all with his scrappy finish. However, Cristiano Ronaldo restored Madrid’s lead just minutes later, with a cruel hammer blow of a goal at Valdes’ near-post. There was to be no super-human recovery this time round; over the course of 90 minutes, Real Madrid were the better side.
Selection-wise there was a surprise recall for Cristian Tello as Guardiola opted to return to the 3-4-3 which had been so effective earlier in the season, with Thiago taking Cesc’s place in midfield. Real on the other hand were unchanged from their loss in Munich. Clearly that extra day of rest was all-important for Jose Mourinho’s team selection.
The match started brightly, with both teams pressing high up the field and trying to "play football" as it were. While it was also clear that Madrid were content to play on the counter, they did so in a less obvious manner (if that makes any sense). Madrid created the first chance of the match too, with Mesut Ozil swinging in a corner that Cristiano Ronaldo met with a fine header, forcing Valdes into an acrobatic save that resulted in another corner for the visitors.
Dani Alves started well on the right-wing, with his speed and defensive nous causing trouble for the Real backline. On six minutes he stole the ball from the visitors and closed on goal, but his touch was too heavy and Iker Casillas rushed from his goal to smother the danger. Cristian Tello was also looking dangerous on the left-wing, with the only problem being his inability at staying onside. Give it a couple more years, or even a match against lesser opposition and Tello will be a fully-formed assassin on left-wing, but tonight wasn’t quite his night.
Then came the Madrid goal, and if I’m honest, it too was a hammer blow. All it took was a vaguely well-taken set piece, and Pepe could climb and head at goal. From there, all it took was a relatively powerful header for Valdes to have problems, and as he couldn’t collect the ball in Carles Puyol was forced to try and hold off his man and clear the danger. Unfortunately for him, Sami Khedira was on hand to complicate things, and his tackle sent the ball into the back of the net. 1-0 Madrid, nothing new here; Barcelona have come from behind before.
The Catalans proceeded to monopolise possession, but couldn’t create many chances against a well-drilled Madrid back-line, which was separated into two lines of four that never strayed more than 5-10 yards apart. In fact, the only clear-cut of the first half fell to Xavi Hernandez, after a typical Leo Messi dribble across the area. The Argentine was finding it hard to get into the game (what with the four players marking him and all) but he displayed super-human vision to set up Xavi’s shot. However, Xavi dragged his effort wide, and Barcelona went in at the half a goal down. Ok, that was new.
After the half-time break, Tello was guilty of missing a couple of half-decent chances, and although we gave him some stick for it at the time (OK, a lot) there is no guarantee Pedro nor Sanchez would have gotten into those positions, let alone scored. Xavi let fly with a long-range effort and saw his shot whistle just inches wide, before being replaced by Alexis Sanchez. It was a smart substitution in terms of the match, and also in terms of Barcelona’s UCL hopes. That rest for Xavi could prove vital on Tuesday night.
Sanchez’ arrival lifted the team, that much was obvious and within minutes of taking the field he got Barca back in the game. Messi started it all off with a trademark dribble, and when he was shrugged off the ball (perhaps illegally) the mantle was taken up by Andres Iniesta. However, he too was felled, this time in the area and the ball fell to Tello who curled a shot at Casillas. The World Cup winning captain did well to make the save, but in parrying the ball he opened up a chance for Alexis Sanchez to bundle the ball over the line. At 1-1, it was game on.
At least it was, for a few glorious seconds. Mesut Ozil sent Ronaldo free of Javier Mascherano, and for some reason Valdes felt the need to rush from his goal and not challenge for the ball (again), with Ronaldo taking an extra stride to open up the angle and finish at the near-post. Liga over, sure, but this was by no means the end of an era. Depending on the result against Chelsea on Tuesday, Barcelona may have two more finals to contend this season, and at the very worst they will have one. Perhaps the last few years have spoiled us as a fanbase, but I would happily settle for a quadruple this season :P
The last three years atop of Spain have been fantastic, there is no denying that, but Barcelona can still rule Europe, and last time I checked, that includes Spain. La Liga is gone, but our fate in the UEFA Champions League remains in our hands. Onto Chelsea and the most important match of the season! Visca el Barca!