Los Clasicos

In football the El Clasico occurs when Spain’s two biggest and most successful clubs, Real Madrid and Barcelona, battle it out. Generally this will occur twice a season, home and away league matches. Over the last few weeks though, football fans have been treated to a veritable spate of Clasicos, with the clubs meeting four times, in three different competitions between 16 April 2011 and 4 May 2011. I was keen to check out all four of these games, and thought I would write this piece to chronicle my rambling thoughts throughout (it gets progressively more longwinded, as I only decided to write it during the 3rd game).

First up a disclaimer. I’m a run of the mill, SBS raised Barcelona apologist. I think they play the beautiful game, in a beautiful manner. I am not a fan of Real Madrid generally. And especially not this Real Madrid. Jose Mourinho is without question the best manager and best tactician in world football. But I don’t think this is a good thing for the world game. His game is based on defence and counter attack. Clogging up the midfield with holding midfielders has unfortunately become the norm. Then you have Cristiano Ronaldo. Possibly the only person more smug and a bigger poser in world football than Mourinho himself. Just look at the way he stands and does a ‘hero’ pose before every free kick. So from that base, here is my attempt at a balanced view of the four recent El Clasicos we have just been treated to.

Before getting into these games, here is a seriously inspired and beautiful look at what happened last time. Well worth taking the couple of minutes to check out:

This first of the games reminded me of Spain’s opening game of the 2010 World Cup against Switzerland. Spain dominated the play, passed the ball around beautifully and it was surely only a matter of time til they pulled the trigger and won comfortably. But Spain forgot that to win you actually have to kick the ball in the back of the net. And that is what Barcelona did here. They dominated the game. But didn’t pull the trigger. They went ahead from the penalty spot in the second half, but then allowed a 10-man Madrid to level it up from the spot also. Madrid almost stole the victory in the last 10 minutes when they came over the top of Guardiola’s men. The way in which Mourinho set up his team when needing a win, in the league and at home was mind-boggling. And a strange tactical error from the one who considers himself the “special one”. For some reason Mourinho’s men looked a whole lot better once they went behind, mainly because they started to actually play some football. Throughout the match Madrid were able to frustrate Barcelona off their usual game. In fact this is true of all of these games. Put simply Barcelona at times got caught up in Madrid’s garbage. The treatment of the referee by both teams in all four of these games was nothing short of disgraceful and it started right here. Even the littlest foul had scores of players from both teams running to the referee in order to provide their considered opinion on what had just transpired. This consisted of half the dudes telling the referee that it was the worst tackle in the history of world football and should be a red card, and the other half telling the referee it was the worst dive in the history of world football and should be a red card. This wasn’t the best of these four games but did set the tone for all of them.

Next up was the Copa Del Ray final. I love a good cup final. Some of my earliest footballing memories were my parents letting me stay up late and watch the FA Cup final on TV. The various cups around the world struggle these days due to the, rightly or wrongly, immense importance placed on other competitions. The Copa Del Ray final was an extremely good game. No one would argue against the statement that Barca had dominated the first meeting, and it was assumed that they would do the same again. Madrid would come out, set up defensive and it would be déjà vu. Nope. Ozil started on the right for Madrid which was a positive sign. But it wasn’t just the fact that this extremely exciting attacking midfielder got a gig. Madrid shocked and completely rattled Barcelona by pushing up the park, pressuring the ball hard. The Catalan giants usually perfect passing game was far from it. Madrid were totally dominant in this half of football. They made Barcelona, look quite frankly average. The first time I have seen Barca made to look like that, at least in the Guardiola reign. Yes, they have been beaten. But not dominated. Inter beat them in last season’s Champion’s League semi-finals. But it was by sitting back and absorbing pressure, then hitting on the counter. Not playing this kind of wonderful football. Then after half time, Mourinho pulls one of his patented tactical shifts. To by quite honest though this was an inexplicable one. Madrid came out and sat back. They did not attack, they did not pressure the ball. All they did was allow Barcelona play their natural game. Barcelona dominated the second half just as Madrid dominated the first. After a lacklustre first half, Pedro, one of the lesser lights of the Barca team, had a brilliant second half. His incisive runs from the left gave them a directness that is often missing from their game. Even the most ardent of Madrid fans would surely admit that they only won because of their captain Iker Casillas. The keeper pulled off three utterly phenomenal stops to single-handedly keep his team in it. Casillas, from the outside, seems like one of the few beacons of class in the current Madrid setup, and he could hold his head up high. It was more of the same in extra time. Barcelona controlling the game, but with both teams clearly tiring. Finally Madrid managed to execute one of their counters, and Ronaldo won the game with a clinical header after a nice bit of work by Di Maria down the left flank.

For the first time in this series of matchups Madrid now had all the momentum. Not just because of the victory but also due to their dominant first half in the cup final. Next came probably the most controversial of the games. Mourinho at home, again sets up his stall. Three, count em three holding midfielders. Urgh. This highlights an issue in UEFA competitions – the away goals rule. Teams are so petrified of conceding at home that they give up their home advantage and set up ultra-defensive. The notion behind the away goals rule is to preserve home ground equality, by lessening the need for extra time after the second leg, thereby giving the team playing at home second a greater advantage. But I think it actually erodes home ground advantage. The solution? Probably worthy of an article itself. But perhaps if neither team can manage to dominate over 180 minutes, then maybe it should be straight to penalties. Back to this game. I think some of the reaction to this game has been over the top. The first half saw two extremely disappointing pieces of play-acting by Barcelona players. Both Pedro and Sergio Busquets went down clutching at their head, with no and minimal contact to their heads respectively. Simulation is hands down the biggest blight on the game of football. These two examples were bad, but not the worst examples you will see. We saw an example of just how prevalent it is in the game’s second half when big bad Pepe from Real went down writhing in agony from minimal contact from Javier Mascherano. In my opinion, both Barcelona players were fouled. I think much of the issue seems to come from people thinking Barcelona players should be ‘classier’ than that. And there is possibly some merit to that. But I do not think this kind of behaviour is systematic within the club. In my opinion though, judging by these games, what was systematic was Madrid’s constant attempts to kick Barca off the park. Mourinho can bleat all he wants about the unfair red cards, and at times he may have a point (with the cards, not the downright idiotic conspiracy theories). But in this game, every Madrid player was happy to kick a Barca guy just after he had dished off the ball. Barcelona played a lot of possession football in the first half which got the Madrid fans in a tizzy. But it is very hard to play creatively and unlock the defence when the opposition manager plays with three holding midfielders.

Mourinho came out more attacking in the second half. Adebayor came on, and they had the better of the first 15 minutes attacking wise, until their tilt was cruelled by yet another red card. Should it have been a red card? In my opinion no. Pepe got the ball, and didn’t get too much of Alves. There is a but though, and it’s a big one. Anytime you go flying into a tackle, with a high foot, studs up and lunge at another player you risk two things. Extremely serious injury to your opponent, and a red card. You can see Pepe actually kicks out at Alves a little at the end to try and get him, but does not. A harsh red card, but one I do not blame the ref for giving. I also do not think that the referee gave too much thought to Barcelona’s good deed sponsorship of UNICEF before wielding the card. Those kind of tackles are extremely dangerous and should be stamped out of the game. I think it was a foul and a yellow. Mr Messi has rightfully gotten a lot of credit for Barcelona’s late win. The first goal though was brilliantly set up by the substitute Ibrahim Afellay who burned Marcello down the right and delivered a pinpoint ball. An astute substitution by Guardiola to put Afellay on for the tired looking Pedro. Give absolutely all the credit for the second goal to Messi though. Was a special piece of play. Mourinho’s stunned mullet face afterwards was classic. The fact that Barca managed to pull off a victory without Andreas Iniesta, a player absolutely key to their style of play and in my opinion an essential pick in any world XI, was a testament to their competitiveness, and goes some way to nullifying criticism of the team for being content to just pass the ball around and lacking any killer instinct.

As I’ve already mentioned, the fallout from this game was to be quite honest, hysterical. A lot of the criticisms directed at Barcelona’s players were justified. But they also in many cases were made more because it was Barca players rather than balanced comments justified by the actions that took place on the field. Mourinho’s comments after the game were laughable paranoia. The commentators on the coverage I was watching predicted as soon as Pepe was sent, that Mourinho was going to ensure that this issue dominated the post-game analysis. Unfortunately they were right, although I do not think they could’ve guessed the level to which he made that happen. There was also a quite strange backlash against the Barcelona style of play that it appeared had been brewing for some time. There is definitely a certain smugness on the part of some football observers toward how Barcelona play the game. But just because you like it, doesn’t make you an elitist, it just means you like that style of play. If you prefer a quicker, slightly more direct and athletic EPL style of play then that is equally as valid. And when it is played very well, such as Man U did at times against Chelsea over the weekend, then it is just as wonderful to watch as Barca’s possession based passing game. But some of the criticism was just stupid. If I here one more ignorant Brit say that all Barcelona do is pass the ball around, from side to side all game, then I may scream. And after screaming I would show them the two goals they scored in this game, two more direct, stunning goals to completely refute them.

The fourth and final game was perhaps not quite as eagerly expected as the ones that preceded it. Partly due to the fact it appeared in some ways a fait accompli (not something I believed), and also due to Mourinho being suspended from the touchlines. This was not helped either by the sodden pitch that greeted the players at the Camp Nou. Given Madrid needed to score at the very least 2 goals many predicted that Mourinho would set the team out for all out attack. Obviously he was not going to be able to send out the team in the same way as in the preceding game. However I did not buy into the suggestion it would be all out attack. It was important for them not to concede again. If Madrid conceded then they need to score 3 away to progress. On the other hand, if Madrid score early than it would be quite understandable to see Barca get the shakes. The team named was somewhat more attacking. Higuain and Kaka both started (the latter replaced Ozil which sort of cancelled each other out), and a front 4 of sorts was employed. The first quarter of the match was pretty tame, however the influence of the returning Andreas Iniesta was plain to see and he was definitely the pick of the players during the first 45. If Mr Mourinho wants to know why he has so many players sent off only needs to look at Ricardo Carvalho’s first half performance. A bunch of unnecessary fouls which continued unabated after he had picked up a yellow. Messi grew into the game with a couple of good chances late in the half. Madrid had very few chances, and those came early in the when half they pressed well, but they faded out of it quickly. Casillas again saved the day for Madrid, including one cracking save off a Messi shot after the Argentine had been set up by David Villa. Villa was much better in the two Champions League fixtures than the preceding two games. Getting more involved and setting play up, despite clearly not being in the kind of goal-scoring touch that has made him a huge star. When Barcelona amped things up in the last 15 mins of the half, Madrid just could not go with them. Barcelona tore them to shreds, not passing for no reason like some muppets suggest, just holding the ball until the game opens up for the defence splitting pass.

I can understand some frustration by Real during this game. Some calls did not going their way. Not on the big fouls, but some harsh calls on pretty minor challenges from their players. The deadlock was broken by, aside from Messi’s 2nd goal in the preceding game, the standout piece of play over the four games. Iniesta gets the ball on the right hand side of the field and tracks left. He stops, props and delivers one of the best passes you will ever see, 25-odd metres straight to the feet of Pedro who made no mistake. Despite eventually levelling the game, the attacking stars Madrid needed to shine, just never threatened enough. Higuain was very average. Why not Adebayor? He was impressive every time he came on throughout these games (aside from the need to foul like a tool incessantly), but he was left to warm the bench yet again. Perhaps the style of play they intended to play would not have suited him, but that was not apparent to me watching the game. And Kaka was so disappointing. After basically not getting on the field at all over the first three games, I was excited to see him finally get a go. But he was abysmal, nowhere to be seen. It will be interesting to see if Kaka stays at Madrid beyond this season.

Something one of the ESPN commentators said during the third game I thought was quite insightful. As is clear to most, Mourinho tactically sends out this Madrid team the same as he did with Inter last year. But the commentator made the point that for all Madrid’s exceptional players, they don’t have the excellent counter attackers that Inter did. Namely, in my opinion Mourinho was able to harness the talents of Samuel Eto’o and Diego Milito to deadly effect for Inter in this style of game. One only has to look at the bench Madrid carried into most of these games to glance deep into their mentality. Attacking talent the likes of Kaka, Ozil (most of the time), Higuain, Adebayor, and Benzema spent a vast majority of time sitting on the pine. Yet Diarra and the central defender Pepe are sent out constantly as midfielders. I’m not really in a position outwit the best manager in the world when it comes to tactics. But as a casual observer, by far the best and most dangerous that Madrid looked over these games was the first half of the Copa Del Ray. They attacked, they pressed high and they got the ball to an attacking midfielder (Ozil) in space over and over. I would have loved to see how these games panned out if Mourinho had of taken that approach in all the games.

On the whole, these games were probably not the works of footballing ‘art’ that we were all hoping for. But for me, the theatre of them pretty much made up for that. The managers trying to balance the differing expectations in each of the matches. The league match which Madrid definitely needed to win, whilst Barca were probably not as fussed about. The one off cup match for the historic, but admittedly third priority Copa Del Ray. And finally the two leg Champion’s League semi-final which both clubs desperately wanted (and needed to win). All in all, twas great to get the opportunity to watch these two teams

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