Five thoughts from the first leg of the Copa del Rey and Barcelona's 2-1 win over Real Madrid in the latest cl�sico.
1. Pepe. Xavi Hern�ndez described what Pepe did as "lamentable" and Carles Puyol said it was "not normal." According to Thursday morning's newspapers in Spain Pepe was a "disgrace," he was "unacceptable" and a "public danger." What they forgot to add was: really not very good.
Pepe's stamp on Leo Messi has become perhaps the image of the cl�sico, (dis)gracing the covers of all of the country's sports newspapers. It was, as the Madrid daily AS put it, part of a "repertoire of misdemeanors" and it was not an isolated incident -- not in this game, and not in Pepe's career. He is a repeat offender and with this latest incident a moral crusade has now built up against him. He is, many are saying, not worthy of Real Madrid.
The stamp was significant on another level too, symbolic of Pepe's performance and indicative of why he has become a problem. Not just for Spanish soccer but for Real Madrid itself.
Pepe plays in a way that is so accelerated, so out of control, so aggressive, that he is a card waiting to happen. He now has nine yellow cards in 11 cl�sicos and picked up a red card in last year's Champions League semifinal, leaving his team with 10 men. It is not a coincidence. Even the questionable cards are a product of his exaggeratedly aggressive approach to the game. If you constantly walk the line, you eventually overstep it. Madrid coach Jose Mourinho must take some of the responsibility for that: Pepe is played in midfield precisely to provide some aggression. Mourinho values the intimidation he brings.
But the value in Pepe's game as a midfielder is questionable, way beyond the risks inherent in transgressing the rules. Last night, he rarely represented an impenetrable barrier -- even when Madrid's tactics appeared to be working. The players who most prevented Barcelona from progressing were more often Lassana Diarra, Hamit Altintop and Sergio Ramos than Pepe. In terms of winning the ball back, he did so less than Barcelona's Sergio Busquets. Pepe won the ball less than he lost it. His inclusion as a central midfielder also meant that Xabi Alonso, Madrid's one ball-playing central midfielder, was pushed right where his influence on the game is limited.
Pepe's constructive contribution was minimal. He neither protected Madrid from Barcelona nor aided them in attacking Barcelona. In 90 minutes, Pepe attempted just attempted just 17 passes, of which only 10 were successful. His opposite number in the Barcelona team, Busquets, attempted 117 and completed 109. In part, that was the difference between the two sides. There is a phrase that gets used in Spain: tell me what kind of central midfielder you have and I will tell you what kind of team you are. As far as Real Madrid were concerned, the answer was: not a very good one.
2. Ronaldo. All that talk of Ronaldo not doing it in the cl�sicos and it was his teammates that didn't, not him.
3. Leo Messi. Some players are finished when they no longer have the physique. Leo Messi will not be. Speed is a huge part of his game but it is only part. Last night he showed once again why he is so complete. Messi still lacks that turn of pace, that acceleration, that makes him so special -- "it'll come back," said Guardiola -- but he still has touch and vision. When he is 36 he will still be a great player. He showed that last night: in a game in which he was denied space, bullied and largely subdued, in which he was not quick, he still produced a wonderful assist for Eric Abidal's goal.
4. Pinto. Pepe Guardiola had insisted before the game that he would be letting Pinto down if he did not include him in the side to face Real Madrid. He also said that he would be letting himself down -- his policy of playing his second choice goalkeeper in the Copa del Rey was steadfast, no matter who the opponents. It was a question of justice and principles. After 10 minutes, many fans were wishing he had made an exception.
The odd thing was that, after their first goal, Madrid did not seek to press home the advantage. You imagined its players taking shots from everywhere -- after all, it does not take much to open up a shooting opportunity if you are prepared to do so from distance -- but it never happened. Madrid did not have another shot in the rest of the half. It did not have another attempt on target in the entire game. Pinto may have been a weak link but Real Madrid never tested him again.
One thing is worth noting, too: Pinto was complicit in Madrid's opening goal last night. But so had Vald�s been in their opening goal a month earlier.
5. Jose Mourinho. It is a measure of just how good this Barcelona team is that they make very good teams look like very bad ones. When Mourinho plays extremely defensively against Barca, it is the greatest compliment that anyone could pay Guardiola's men: even the second best side in the world, one that has spent almost half a billion euros on players since the return of Florentino P�rez as president, admits its inferiority. So to destroy Mourinho for every cl�sico defeat is also to fail to recognize what it is that Barcelona has achieved and just how good it is. Just as losing two Champions League finals does not make Alex Ferguson a terrible coach. Mourinho's success is unquestionable and it is also true that in Pep Guardiola's time in charge, he has only failed to win three trophies -- and it was Mourinho who took two of them.
And yet ... Mourinho is a coach whose discourse is very simple and utterly incontestable: I win. Against Barcelona since coming to Spain, largely he has not. He has won just one in nine cl�sicos -- thanks to Ronaldo's headed goal in the 2011 Copa del Rey final. Mourinho has offered up a number of reasons -- or excuses, depending on which side of the divide you find yourself -- but that is to contradict his own message of what counts is what you have won. He would argue that for a while last night his tactics worked, and in a sense it did, but the paucity of the plan was eventually exposed. If he is lauded as a tactical genius when he succeeds -- and that is the only measure he admits -- then he must be questioned when he does not. Besides, not only did his team lose again but it was left again with that inescapable feeling of inferiority. Meanwhile, the continued run of bad results brings other problems: mentally, the cl�sico gets harder and harder.
Bringing in Mourinho and his staff cost over ?100 million ($128M). He has been granted a degree of support and power that no other coach has been handed at the Bernab�u. He is the manager now, not just the coach -- the man who decides transfers not just tactics. He has tried formula after formula against Barcelona and they have not worked. Easy to say with hindsight, sure, but at key moments he has made big mistakes. Madrid has evolved, it has grown stronger and it is now a fantastic soccer team -- and one that is achieving incredible things. In fact, it's favorite to win the league. But viewed through the prism of FC Barcelona, Mourinho has not yet succeeded. And last night Madrid appeared worse than it was in August when it was unlucky not to win the Spanish Super Cup. It is hard to detect a clear idea, a plan, a progression. Looked at through the rivalry, right now is Madrid really better off than it was?
Second leg. There still is one, you know.