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Santiago Bernabeu El Clasico Revisited: It's Not All About Luck...

Don't you mention luck...
Don't you mention luck...

With yet another El Clasico showdown between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona growing ever closer, I felt it was worth looking at the last match at the Bernabeu. Some Madridistas still claim that luck was the prevailing factor in the match, mostly influenced by Jose Mourinho’s post-game press conference. Apparently, luck was THE prevailing factor. I can understand that luck was one of the prevailing factors, as with many other matches, but to say it was THE reason Real Madrid lost?

Well, let’s just say that I have a huge problem with that. Anyway, here are a few thoughts of the match, and the talking points it has raised in the world media.

Starting with the issue of luck, just a quick question for those believing luck was THE main factor in the loss: If Marca and AS can accept that Barcelona were better, why can’t you? This is the question that has been going around in my mind in the past few days, if the ultra-biased tabloids realise that Barcelona were better, surely the fact is universally accepted? Marca ran with the headline "Not much [of] Madrid, but a lot of Barca", while AS opted for a much more blunt approach with "The Best Team Won". Moving on from the fanatical Madrid tabloids actually taking the side of Barcelona, there are a few key points from the game itself that prove how luck was not the prevailing factor...

Defensive mistakes

Breaking down each goal, it was clear that each goal was more down to mistakes rather than luck. Take the first goal, Carles Puyol played a backpass to Victor Valdes and despite claims to the contrary, his mistake had nothing to do with Madrid’s pressure. No-one was closing him down; instead the three attacking options for Real took up position next to three defenders, thus limiting Valdes’ options when passing the ball. However, this is not enough for me to suggest that the mistake was solely down to Madrid’s pressing. After all, Valdes could have lifted the ball over Di Maria to Eric Abidal on the left-hand side, or he could have just accepted that nothing was on, and launched the ball into the Madrid half.

Valdes clearly had options, but he still tried to play a difficult pass, a crucial mistake on his part, and the rest is history so to speak. It wasn’t lucky that the pass went to Di Maria, but what followed next could be construed as lucky.

Di Maria tried to play the killer pass, it was blocked. Fortunately for Madrid, the ball went to Mesut Ozil. The German went for glory, with a volley, but this was also blocked. The ball could have gone anywhere (look at Barca’s second) but it fell to Karim Benzema. In hindsight, Benzema turned out to be the most potent attacking threat for Los Blancos, so it couldn’t possibly have dropped to a worse person. In that sense, it was lucky, but being brutally honest the blame could fall upon Valdes for the initial mistake, and then the defenders blocking the two attempts instead of clearing them properly.

Real Madrid vs Barcelona 1-3 (Karim BENZEMA GOAL 28 seconds!) HQ 10/12/11 (via ilovefoote888)

Now we move onto the Barcelona goals, and this is where it gets interesting. The first goal hasn’t really been overtly analysed by anyone – as far as I know – mainly because of Lionel Messi. People attribute the first goal to his brilliance and Sanchez’ equally sublime finish, but in truth it was down to horrendous errors by Madrid’s defense.

Sergio Ramos is the first to make a mistake. Lionel Messi is running at the Madrid defense, that I understand, but why does Ramos feel the need to push forward to attempt a tackle? There are two players in close proximity already, most notably Lassana Diarra, who must have been put off by the appearance of Ramos. That led to Diarra failing to tackle Messi, and at this point, Ramos had played himself out of the game entirely. He was static up against a full-flight Lionel Messi.

Messi breezed past Ramos with ease, and even then Ramos could have stopped him by merely holding his ground and taking the foul for obstruction. Moving on from Ramos, it is time to castigate Pepe. Watching this goal really does boggle the mind; how was this the same man that stopped Messi, Xavi and Iniesta last season? His actions for this goal are in stark contrast to that series of Clasicos, as he seemingly loses his focus entirely.

With Ramos losing his discipline it was paramount that Pepe kept his concentration as the remaining defender. Surely Jose briefed him for such situations? Clearly not. Pepe is caught ball-watching; mesmerised by the dribbling skills of Lionel Messi, maybe even confused by Ramos’ actions, who knows? Either way, Messi plays the through ball to Alexis Sanchez and Pepe reacts sluggishly. From the opposite angle it gets worse. He is watching the ball to such an extent that Sanchez can drift in completely unnoticed behind him to receive that same pass!

At this point, there is no return for Pepe, as Sanchez is quick – and strong – enough to keep his distance from the centre-back. The finish is sublime, but only possible due to the defensive mistakes, so that goal was in no way down to luck.

Gol de Alexis Sanchez al Real Madrid - Relato Manolo Lama [10-12-11] (via sebandrescc2)

Then we move onto the next goal, and this is the main basis for the claim of luck being the prevailing factor. For this to go down as a lucky goal, one must also consider the first goal of the match as a lucky event. At this point, it is worth noting that Cesc Fabregas was in an offside position, as was Dani Alves, but the former may have been influencing play. It was one of those calls that could have gone either way, and in that sense, I guess Barcelona were lucky. The finish continues on the theme of luck, with Xavi’s shot taking a HUGE deflection in every sense of the word to bamboozle Iker Casillas and creep into the corner.

That said, one could argue Marcelo should have done better with his block. Turning slightly is always a grey area for a defender looking to block a shot effectively, and the way in which he attempted to block the shot was very unorthodox, with his legs noticeably far apart to the extent that the ball could rebound through the middle after hitting his right leg. Marcelo certainly isn’t doing himself or his team any favours with the block, but the goal is lucky.

real madrid 1-2 barcelona 2011 10 12 el classico hightlight HD xavi goal (via shawkixaax)

I will accept that fact and move onto the third goal. Again it is Lionel Messi in possession, and he is running into Madrid’s defensive third. With Sami Khedira ensuring that Messi cannot work the ball onto his left foot and into a position where he could score, the options look bleak for the Argentine. Sami Khedira tries to outmuscle him, but Messi is too quick. However, Sergio Ramos is ahead of the German, and can step in if Messi decides to cut onto his left foot.

Then Marcelo gets involved. For what reason I do not know, but he steps towards Leo Messi, thus leaving a huge gap for Dani Alves. Ramos had Messi covered, but Marcelo makes the mistake, and La Pulga gets out of a difficult situation by handing the ball off to Alves. Once the pass is made, Alves has all the time in the world to control the ball, keep his head up, and find the run of Cesc Fabregas with the cross.

Not taking anything away from the Brazilian, it was a fine cross, but when you give players of his calibre that amount of time to pass the ball, you know full well that it will reach it’s intended destination. That cross was down to Marcelo’s defensive ineptitude, plain and simple. Then his mistake causes Madrid’s attempt at covering. Sergio Ramos sprints across – hands behind his back – to try and stop Alves’ cross but to no avail. Pepe again makes the mistake of following the run of Lionel Messi, leaving Fabio Coentrao to deal with Cesc Fabregas. Given Cesc’s new-found ability at proficiently heading a football, there was only ever going to be one winner. Barcelona had their third and the game was over. Nothing about that goal had anything to do with luck.

Cesc Fabregas Dream Goal vs Real Madrid (3:1) ! Spanish Commentary ! (via DavidVilla7David)

In summary, all four could be classed as errors, but realistically, only the first goal and the third (i.e. Barcelona’s second) are lucky.

Mental toughness

If we take those two goals as lucky, then we have to ask the question: what is different between the first and the third? Each of the goals moved the team into the lead, each can be classed as slightly fortuitous and each were at pivotal points in the match. The first came so early it could have been cataclysmic for the Blaugrana. They were 20 seconds in, and 1-0 down seemingly because of a fatal flaw in the Barcelona system – building from the back. At this stage, it takes a stubborn coach to stick to his plan, especially as Madrid would surely continue this high line of pressure. Would Valdes make another mistake in possession?

Well, Pep decided he would find out. He revealed after the match that he wanted the players to pass back to Valdes even more than usual after the initial mistake, basically because they had no other way to play. He realised, and I’m sure that the players did as well, that Barcelona can only build from the back. As a team, they cannot control long balls and hold up play, they cannot win a physical midfield battle; they have to play around these obstacles and play their own indomitable style of play.

It didn’t matter that the Blaugrana were 1-0 down, they played the same, and history has shown us that it usually pays off. Remember Andres Iniesta’s goal at Stamford Bridge? That’s the quintessential example of patience right there. It takes mental strength; it takes a unique kind of team to not react after such a huge setback, but Barcelona are that team, and they had mental strength. They got back into the game in the face of adversity.

What about Real Madrid? What about that third goal?

Let’s face it, the goal was lucky. Xavi could take that exact shot 100 times, and I doubt the majority of them would go in. So, Real fans claim that the turning point was lucky, hence the result was lucky, but it simply does not work like that. What made the first goal any less of a turning point than the third? Surely, if anything, the first goal after 20 seconds and days of build-up to that particular point in time; all the hype surrounding this Madrid side, claims that Barcelona were on the descendancy and the inescapable fact that the home crowd were firmly on the side of Madrid after that first goal, surely this was a bigger turning point?

At least that is my argument.

Obviously the third goal in the match was a turning point as well. At this stage it became apparent that Madrid were destined for failure for the umpteenth time against Barcelona, countless of which have been at the Bernabeu. I understand that Real have never won against Guardiola’s Barcelona in regulation time, let alone in a comeback victory but December’s match was the perfect opportunity for Mourinho’s side. Unlike other matches, they were behind to a lucky goal as opposed to a perfectly executed team goal, Barcelona had not got near to their best and crucially, Real Madrid had all 11 men on the pitch and in good form.

They even had chances; Cristiano Ronaldo’s free header was the most obvious, but the mental inability to compete once they had fallen behind was the key factor. If luck played its part, then I would argue the previous defeats did as well, after that fourth goal went in (Barcelona’s third) the heads dropped even further, as if they were resigned to yet another humiliating defeat. It could have been five or six, not because of luck, but because Real Madrid are their own worst enemy.

At the end of the day, the Real fans are entitled to their opinion, but for the record this is mine: how can you claim that luck screwed you out of the game when you were never in it in the first place?

On Wednesday night, Real Madrid will still have those lingering self-doubts, ready for Barcelona to take advantage yet again.

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