Rarely has a game that mattered so much mattered so little; rarely has a game that mattered so little mattered so much.
Confused? So, it seems, is everyone else.
The first of four Real Madrid-Barcelona clásicos in 18 days was the game that would finally decide the league title, but most seemed to have reached the conclusion that the league was already decided -- Barcelona's eight-point lead meant that it would win the title. And yet, rather than that meaning that last Saturday's match did not matter, it meant that it did matter -- even more so. This was the game that conditioned the rest, setting the scene for the series in which every trophy was at stake. This game, a 1-1 draw at the Santiago Bernabéu, was judged not so much on its own merits, as on the basis of what it might mean for the rest of the matches; not so much a match in its own right as the first chapter in an epic saga.
That explained the slightly strange sight of Madrid apparently feeling pleased at having just lost the league. After all, it had gained the right to believe that it could win the Copa del Rey (against Barcelona on Wednesday) and the Champions League (Madrid meets Barcelona in the semifinals on April 27 and May 3); that, in Cristiano Ronaldo's words, it would have the "last laugh." Barcelona, too, took succor. A draw allowed both teams and their "entornos" (the infamous "entourage") to think -- and, importantly, say that they thought -- that they are well placed for what comes next. There were mixed emotions on both sides of the divide; concerns and confidence in Castilla and Catalunya.
So what did the 1-1 draw throw up and what does it throw forward? What were the most striking things we can take from this game, and what might it mean for what comes next?
The discovery has come late in the season, but it could be a vital one for Real Madrid: deploying Pepe as a central midfielder, as he has been on occasion for Portugal. He played a key part in a midfield three with Sami Khedira and Xabi Alonso, particularly in preventing Barcelona from allowing its possession to count. He played an unusual role as the deep midfielder who went on raids, dashing out in quick, aggressive bursts beyond his two midfield partners to make challenges, break up moves and pressure Barcelona's players -- Lionel Messi especially. Although he occasionally trod a fine line with the referee, committing five fouls, he won the ball back more than anyone else on the pitch.
Pepe also provides the kind of competitive attitude that often proves contagious, and he is a huge threat from set plays. By getting him into midfield, ahead of Lassana Diarra, and thus using a different center back, he also allows coach José Mourinho to have one more player who towers over Barcelona (although Raul Albiol's suspension, in turn, denies him one in the Copa del Rey final). From set plays, Madrid has Pepe, Ronaldo, Sergei Ramos, Ricardo Carvalho and Khedira -- all of whom are good in the air. Barcelona is tiny by comparison.
He is playing. And he is not Victor Valdés. Some admire Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola's decision to stick with the man he declared to be his Copa del Rey keeper; others think it is risky. It is certainly that. Pinto is not a bad keeper but, well, he's not Valdés.
Possession doesn't matter. Or does it?
Never before has Real Madrid had so little possession at the Santiago Bernabéu. The question is: Does that matter? Many believe so. Mourinho has been attacked by critics for his defensive approach, with even Alfredo Di Stéfano describing Madrid as a "mouse" to Barcelona's "lion." But does that make a moral judgment of a tactical decision -- and if so, is that right? Did Mourinho want possession? Did he need to attack openly? Was he right to?
At the Camp Nou in November, Madrid conceded five goals. Here, it allowed just one and Barcelona did not have a huge amount of clear chances. In fact, Madrid had more shots. It sat very deep but when it broke it was very, very fast and very direct. It rarely got behind Barcelona but it did succeed a couple of times and was dangerous when it did. And, after five successive clásico defeats and a 5-0 loss earlier this season, 1-1 was proof that Madrid could compete at last. And protect itself. Much of the talk was of drawing first blood; Madrid might not have done that but it did stem the bleeding.
What's "defensive," anyway? And did they both willingly postpone judgment for another day?
The trouble is, that brings in another question: Was Barcelona trying to attack as it normally does? Was it happy to keep the ball, knowing that a draw would virtually clinch the title? (Another question is: Should Mourinho have accepted the title slipping away?)
In a sense, it was equally cautious, equally defensive. After all, Madrid defended with position, Barcelona with possession. There was a slowness and a lack of intent in Barcelona's passing -- which might have been due in part to long and dry grass, as ordered by Mourinho, but was also partly tactical. Mourinho has been quite open about the fact that playing very offensively against Barcelona is risky; here he saw that his game plan can work and that pleased him.
But Barcelona will feel like its plan worked too; it let slip a lead, for which the players were kicking themselves, but the title's practically been won and it was not often frightened by Madrid. Barcelona is unlikely to be quite so reluctant to maintain possession for its own, purely defensive sake in future games. A draw doesn't suit the teams on Wednesday. This time it should be a little more open.
Ah, but why not attack? And what about Mesut Ozil?
For all the success -- if we are calling it that -- of Madrid's defensive formation, and for all the fact that Mourinho complained about having the numerical disadvantage after Albiol's red card, curiously Madrid produced its best soccer when it was down to 10 men, when it was forced forward, and when Ozil, who had been left out of the starting XI, was on the pitch. Even more curiously, it did so after making changes that were in part designed to rest and protect key players for Wednesday night as much as to chase the game. Xabi Alonso and Ángel Di María, men protected more than any others over the course of this season, were the playaers withdrawn. If Mourinho was thinking of leaving Ozil out of the Copa del Rey final, he will surely find a place for him now -- probably in a front three with Di María and Ronaldo.
Speaking of which, the subs (and the stadiums)
Whatever his intentions, Mourinho's substitutions worked. His bench is strong: Kaká, Emmanuel Adebayor, Gonzalo Higuaín and Karim Benzema are all likely to occupy it on Wednesday night; they are all likely to play some part in the next few games -- maybe even a huge part.
The same cannot be said of Guardiola's bench or his substitutions. Seydou Keita was unable to get hold of the game. Sergio Busquets was moved back and Barcelona disintegrated. Carles Puyol went off injured. Barcelona's squad is thin, which might not matter now but could have a huge part to play in this series. Not least because of the sense of mental as well as physical fatigue for Barcelona: four games, two of them in Madrid, and it doesn't get the chance to play at home until the final match. That's normally assumed to be an advantage; this time it looks less like one.
The pitch in Valencia
It will be cut short and watered. If Mourinho thought it was an advantage to leave the Bernabéu grass long and dry, is it a disadvantage for him to play this match on grass that is short and wet?
Mentally, who won on Saturday?
They both did. And they both didn't. They were both trying to convince us that they had emerged as victors, but had they really? There were caveats about every argument you could make and every one they made. Behind closed doors, how successful have the coaches been in either drawing a line under Saturday or taking something from it that strengthens them? Does Barcelona's possession comfort it? Does the nullification of that possession comfort Madrid? Will not losing reinforce Madrid? Will Madrid's sense of happiness simply at not losing reinforce Barcelona?
Mourinho's greatest skill has always been the emotional side of the game. In a series like this, that becomes even more central.
Who'd be a ref? Well, on Wednesday night the answer is Undiano Mallenco. After Saturday's game, Mourinho pleaded for the chance to play against Barcelona with 11 men. The complaint, like the game, should be read more as a case of looking forward to the Cup final and the two matches that follow it -- and putting pressure on the referees to think twice before drawing on a red card -- than a complaint about this game. He pointedly noted that his sides always go down to 10 men against Barcelona and that he had practiced playing with 10 before this match because he knew he would have to. To which there is a simple response: Why not practice not going down to 10 in the first place?
With the exception of Thiago Motta for Inter in the 2010 Champions League semifinal, there can be little real complaints about the red cards Mourinho's sides have had against Barcelona, either. Cards are not handed out in isolation but as a consequence of what happens on the pitch. Besides, in November, Ramos was sent off in the 91st minute with the score already 5-0. And there certainly wasn't any reason to doubt the red for Albiol here -- although there should perhaps have been a second yellow later on for Dani Alves.
Meanwhile, they were moaning in Catalunya, too, believing that the ref was permissive with Pepe and that they were robbed a first-half penalty. Everyone demands an impartial ref. The reality is that's the last thing they want.
Lionel Messi/Cristiano Ronaldo
It was always going to happen sometime but maybe we didn't expect it to happen to soon -- or in this way. Before Saturday, Messi had never scored against a Mourinho team; Ronaldo had never scored against Barcelona. But both got the monkey off their back by converting penalty kicks. Now they can get on with getting some proper goals.
It will be tough for both, though. Saturday's game was another indication of the reasons why they had relatively poor records. Mourinho had a specific plan to stymie Messi, while Barcelona's dominance of possession means relatively few chances for Ronaldo to run at Barca. When he does, though, it tends to be with space to sprint into because Barcelona plays with such a high defensive line. That's where Gerard Piqué is so important. Same with Puyol -- if he recovers. He is Barcelona's fastest, most aggressive defender.
David Villa is still not right
Guardiola's biggest complaint Saturday was that Barcelona had not killed off the game. Yet again. That failure to add to a 1-0 lead might serve as a timely warning ahead of the next matchups in this series. Barcelona is loading responsibility for goals on Messi. Which is sometimes fine -- after all, he has 49 this season -- but it will need greater variety across the remaining three games. Villa has not scored in 10 games. He was involved in both penalty shouts -- one given, one not -- and in the move that saw Messi draw a great save from Iker Casillas, so he should not be dismissed. But his first touch was off again and he cuts a frustrated figure at the moment.