Thoughts from the Real Madrid- FC Barcelona match.
Pressure, pressure, pressure:
That Madrid lay in wait for Barcelona was not hugely surprising, even if they have pressured higher against them in recent clásicos, forcing mistakes from Valdés, Mascherano and Piqué. That Barcelona did not press was more unexpected, though. Madrid were largely allowed to bring the ball out from the back. Only Pedro really chased to close down Madrid's defenders. Notably, it is not just Madrid, either: this season Barcelona have tended to play a little deeper and press less. Is one of the signatures of Pep Guardiola's side being abandoned?
Game on? Legs gone?
While Real Madrid had created more chances in the first half and perhaps should have opened a greater lead, in the final minutes it was Barcelona who really sought the victory and created a handful of good opportunities -- including Pedro's last kick of the game. Unusually for a team that has often stood out for its athleticism, Madrid looked tired as the game wore on. Barcelona didn't. Tito Vilanova's team also looked more like the side that needed all three points. Perhaps understandable as a win would have taken their lead at the top of the table to a huge and possibly even decisive eleven points, but while that was an opportunity it was not a necessity. In theory at least, it was Madrid who needed all three points. But Mourinho had said beforehand that a draw might be a good result -- depending on the game -- and afterwards there was a satisfaction about the visitors that might dissipate a little when, in the cold light of day, they glance at the league table in the morning. The lead at the top remains eight points. The title race is still alive, but the advantage is still Barça's.
Just a quick one, promise. With this match having the potential to be the most political game in the history of a rivalry that was already one of the most symbolic on the planet, the Spanish newspaper La Razón dedicated twenty-seven pages to politics in order to show that this is a game that should never turn political.
And rivalry ... and refs and rants.
"Because Madrid are a club señor [a gentleman of a club]", Jose Mourinho said, talking about the referee, after he stated he was not going to talk about the referee. Yet if Mourinho dropped a hint (presumably about Ozil's penalty appeal), Vilanova was more direct. He was unhappy when he finally appeared in the Camp Nou press room, and complained directly in response to Pepe accusing Barcelona players of diving. He even suggested putting together a video of Pepe's "kicks." What was striking about his remarks was that, despite occasional moments of tension and a foul count that did indeed clock up, this was one of the least conflictive clásicos for some time.
Javier Mascherano has developed into an impressive central defender and Alex Song may yet do so. Vilanova was explicit in saying that he saw Song as a central defender, but one that needed time to adapt, which is why he played him ahead of Marc Bartra against Granada. But after suffering horribly in Seville, Tito Vilanova decided against using Song here, and there is no escaping that, right now, Barcelona have a problem. Perhaps the clásico was not the game to try Bartra, although it is surprising that he has not been given a chance sooner and it wasn't really the game to try Adriano there either. The Brazilian has played in many positions before: center-back is not one of them. As it turned out, after a week's preparation, he played well and so too did Mascherano. But once again Barcelona looked vulnerable -- that Madrid almost scored from the first corner was not surprising -- and that the Brazilian was Vilanova's selection at center-back is in itself telling. The decision not to buy a defender in the summer still baffles.
When was the last time Madrid's goalkeeper came out of a clásico without having made a string of superb saves?
No one has provided more assists to Cristiano Ronaldo than Mesut Ozil and here he did it again. It has largely gone unnoticed that it was Ozil who provided the slick through ball for Ronaldo to score the winner in the title-clinching clásico here in the spring. The man many Madrid's players consider the most gifted on the team, but a man about whom Mourinho has had doubts because he occasionally drifts from games and lacks aggression, no one plays the passes that Ozil does. Sergio Ramos wore Ozil's shirt under his own last week as a gesture of solidarity that also felt like an act of subversion when Ozil was hauled off at half time against Deportivo de La Coruña recently. Now he was back. When he came off tonight, Mourinho said it was purely because he was tired. He had given everything.
Messi and Ronaldo:
What more can you say? Pep Guardiola's famous remark about Messi can be applied to Ronaldo -- and can certainly be applied to the battle between these two players. "Don't talk about him, don't write about him, watch him." There are few words that can do them justice and fewer still that have not been used before. Unbelievable. Jose Mourinho said that he did not know if Cristiano Ronaldo had done enough to win the Balón d'Or after a game that was seen as a battle for the trophy as well as the league title. "What I do know," he said, "is that talking about who is the best player in the world should be banned because these two are just so good." Tito Vilanova added: "maybe if Ronaldo had not coincided with Leo he would have had more recognition."
Oddly, at times Messi did not play at his best here: his passing was occasionally loose (never more so than in the dying minutes when he and Pedro broke away and had the chance to win the game for Barcelona) and at times he was arguably too deep. Although afterwards Tito Vilanova described him as "not just a very good player but a player who reads the game very well and knows where to go in order to find space and be in contract with the ball", he appeared distanced from the areas of the pitch where he can do most damage and where the risky passes are really risky. Yet Messi still scored twice, one of them a messy goal, one of them a Messi goal - an astonishing free kick.
Meanwhile, Ronaldo's two finishes were impeccable and the sense of danger whenever he had the ball was palpable. He has now scored in six successive clásicos. No one else has done that, ever. Just as only Alfredo Di Stéfano has scored more clásico goals than Messi -- and he is only one ahead. So often the rivalry between these two teams is reduced to these two great players; here, that was played out on the biggest stage.