Last night Real Madrid lifted their first piece of silverware in almost three years with victory over Barcelona at the Mestalla. It was by no means a vintage el Clasico but was a very interesting tactical battle between the two great Spanish sides.
Once again Jose Mourinho proved to be Barcelona’s nemesis; as he was with Inter Milan last year in the Champions League semi-final. Following the 5-0 humbling in the Camp Nou he has clearly become relatively obsessed with finding a way to stop the Catalans with the squad he has. Ever since the game against Spurs a couple of weeks ago he has been clearly tinkering with his formation in an attempt to get it right for these games against Barca.
He has deployed Pepe in a free role with the aim of breaking up Barca’s intricate passing in front of the defence. He has also been given the freedom to join in the counter attacks which he does very effectively. The Portuguese defender has an incredible engine which also makes him ideal for the role.
The Madrid game plans worked perfectly in the first half as the play was being continually broken up. They had the better of the early exchanges and dominated much of the first half. The Barcelona players simply look exhausted; the high pressing we saw against Arsenal was not in evidence last night. Some of their players are also struggling with form which made Madrid’s job slightly easier.
As the game got older it became a little stretched with Madrid not able to maintain their pressure as well as they had done in the first half. This played into Barcelona’s hands and for the first time in the game they began to create holes in the Madrid defence. There was a goal ruled out for offside when Pedro finished nicely after a lovely run from Messi. It seemed like Barca were growing into the game as they entered extra-time.
The introduction of Adebayor began to pay dividends as he was able to hold the ball up and bring Ronaldo into the play more. One of the many great things about this Barcelona side is their ability to remain calm when under pressure and they continued to probe and ask questions of the Madrid defence.
However, when Mourinho’s plans are executed to the letter he usually comes out on top and he did so again when Ronaldo powered in a header deep into extra-time. They had almost scored in the first-half of added time when the Portuguese forward broke on the right but narrowly missed the target. When Di Maria played a one-two with Marcelo he was free down the right and picked out Ronaldo in the area who headed the ball into the back of the net.
The upcoming semi-finals in the Champions League are now very delicately poised. Real will take a lot of confidence now going into the game next Wednesday but will also be aware that Barcelona will now be very fired up for the games. Their level of performance has dropped in recent weeks and a couple of the players were really out of form; David Villa looks a shadow of his normal self. These two games should be very, very interesting.