A lot has been said over Twitter and other mediums across the internet about the four Clasicos in eighteen days. Last night, we saw the first of the four unfold in a spectacular fashion! For some, the result might seem less than ideal, but I think most Madridistas walked out of the stadium feeling proud, for holding Barcelona to a 1-1 draw with only ten men on the pitch. Everyone was keen to forget the 5-0 fiasco last November, and even more so the 6-2 disaster two years back and last night the team showed its depth as well as its strength of character in the face of adversity.
The days building up to the game weren’t without its fair share of controversy. During the pre-game press conference, Jose Mourinho refused to answer questions from the journalists, which caused a furore as several angry journos (AS and MARCA included) stormed off before Karanka could speak. To repay them in kind, last night in the post-game conference, Mou refused to take questions from the guilty organisations. Mou will be Mou, but let’s talk about the team.
Prior to the game, MARCA leaked a line-up that surprised most: Ozil was benched and Pepe was brought back as a defensive midfielder. In the game against Athletic Bilbao (which we won 3-0), Pepe was also playing in a similar position, leaving the wingbacks with more opportunities to move forward. Many were wondering how Pepe would fair against a Barca line up consisting Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Pedro and Villa. Ozil’s omission also raised a lot of eyebrows, given how desperately we needed to get a result.
So the eventual line up saw:
(sorry for the shirt colour; this website refused to let me pick an all-white jersey.)
The first half of the game was tight on both fronts – Barca kept possession (74% overall) while Madrid tried to create chances, sometimes rather unsuccessfully. Considering many saw his inclusion as a defensive midfielder to be a big gamble, Pepe proved to be one of the best players of the night. He kept it tight at the back, giving defenders room to breathe while also allowing Xabi and Khedira to focus on moving forward and creating play. He was solid, and I would definitely like to see him back in this role on Wednesday. The Xabi-Khedira-Pepe trivote seemed more than capable of containing Barca – what was lacking in the first half was Ozil’s creative spark, even though Cristiano did look threatening from time to time.
The deadlock broke in the second half when Raul Albiol was sent off for a hard lunge at David Villa on the 53rd minute. Lionel Messi, who has previously never scored against any of Mou’s teams, converted the spot kick to make it 1-0 to Barca. Forced into disarray, Pepe was temporarily moved to the back to man the defense; the last time we fielded a two-man midfield, we were hammered 5-0. Keeping that in mind, Mou made a couple of brilliant tactical changes. First, in an immediate response to the goal, he brought in Ozil for Benzema to inject the creative spark that was desperately lacking. Following that, he made a double substitution and took off Di Maria, who had a quiet game, for Arbeloa and Xabi Alonso for Adebayor. Now Di Maria’s substitution was reasonable but the latter one puzzled most, including myself. Xabi is our creative man and when we should’ve been chasing an equaliser, it seemed bizarre to take him off and replace him with Adebayor.
However, the gamble seemed to have paid off as Arbeloa took on Albiol’s vacated spot, bringing Pepe back to the midfield with Khedira. Both of them provided a good hold in the midfield, as Real Madrid moved forward with Cristiano and Ozil. The latter had a superb last 26 minutes or so, made some excellent passes, and showed how much Real were missing his creative spark in the first half. Real pressed hard outside Barca’s box which ultimately led to a penalty, courtesy of Dani Alves’ tackle on Marcelo – I am still unsure why did not get a second yellow for the challenge. Apparently Mou told the following during the press conference:
“I asked the fourth official why there wasn’t a second yellow and he told me it’s because he’s a full-back.”
I am not sure about the veracity of this statement but if this is the reason why Alves didn’t get carded, I’d like the Spanish FA to explain why Ramos or just about any other full back gets carded and sent off? Gross double standards! Anyway, it doesn’t matter, referees will be referees – and by that I mean ridiculously favourable toward Barca , but we’ll just have to incorporate that into our game-plan. Last night it worked, Wednesday it will work too. I am confident.
In the 85th minute, Cristiano’s converted penalty re-instilled some hope into Madrid as they pressed again, nearly getting a winner when Khedira shot directly at the keeper.
Overall, there are a few reasons why we should be proud of this result:
1) It wasn’t a 5-0 or a 6-2; in fact, here are the bare facts that we can all be proud of! Barca had 74% possession, created 13 chances, 6 of them on target, had 11 men for the entire 90 minutes and they had NO corners. Madrid had 26% possession, created 11 chances, 6 of them on target, played nearly the whole of second half with 10 men and endured biased refereeing. You do the math and decide for yourself which team had the moral victory here.
2) We got a point, after five attempts; we stopped Barca from making it a hattrick of wins at the Bernabeu.
3) We played almost the entire second half with ten men and a goal down, despite that we came off with a point; everyone worked as a team, and they tracked back diligently to clear the ball. This took the pressure off our defenders and allowed them to focus on stopping Messi/Villa/Pedro from getting behind them. Once again, Pepe was the heart and soul of this Madrid team last night.
4) This will give us a huge morale booster ahead of Wednesday;
5) We seemed to have found our perfect trivote to stop Barca: the glorious Xabi-Khedira-Pepe combo.
6) We kept Dani Alves quiet and if we do that on Wednesday, we would visibly lessen Barca’s threat
7) We won the 10 v. 11 battle hands down because we went down to 10 men and then were trailing Barca by 1-0 for the next half hour.
8) Sergio Ramos lasted the entire game without picking up a card!
9) Despite the refereeing double standard, we held our ground
10) We showed Barca we are not always beatable. Guardiola might be saying this is an important result and blah blah blah but I’m sure he is furiously scratching his bald scalp to come up with a plan B. He was so used to our 4-2-3-1 line-up, I’m pretty sure the sudden inclusion of a third midfielder created some worry for him. Mou won the tactical battle, hands down.
The Barca sycophants would of course say Barca were unlucky to not win. The fact is Barca should have killed off the game when they had a chance and they didn’t. Their passing wasn’t their best, their strikers weren’t pressing our defenders as much and most importantly, Pepe’s rock solid presence before the defense limited the number of times any of the Barca strikers saw the ball. This game was a warm up to Wednesday’s crucial final at the Mestalla, and then the first leg of the Champions League semi-final back again at the Bernabeu. Though in the next game, I’m hoping to see Kaka getting some playing time, as well as Higuain, but given they just came back from long-standing injuries, it will be highly unlikely. But then again, no one expected Mou to put Pepe back in as a defensive midfielder against Barca just because his gamble in the Bilbao game paid off.
The best part about last night’s game is that we can hold our heads up high for the way we came back into the game.