In defeat, Madrid takes away a moral victory from latest clásico
Here's a date for your diaries: March 27, 2012. That's the earliest that Real Madrid and FC Barcelona can meet each other again. That's when they will play if they get drawn together in the quarterfinal of the Champions League -- and if the first clash is on the Tuesday. If they meet in the semifinal, they cannot face each other until April 17. If that happens, they will play three times in eight days, or possibly maybe even three times in six, because the second league game will be on April 21 or 22.
After facing each other 9 times in 10 months, a two-month wait seems like an eternity. After Thursday night's clásico, it may feel like more of one.
When they played each other four times in 18 days last year, Pep Guardiola described it as "hard." It had largely been a grind, only rarely living up to its billing -- the game of the century that's repeated 10 times a year. Frankly, you were glad it was over and not that keen for it to come around again. This time it was good: tense, exciting and open. This was a different Barcelona -- nervous, edgy and a solitary goal from going out.
Largely because this was a different Madrid too.
Jose Mourinho claimed after the game that he had not learned any lessons.
Most people thought that there was a very clear lesson: that you can attack Barcelona. Especially with the players that Madrid have. This is a side, it should not be forgotten, that has bought some of the world's best players over the last two and a half years, and beyond. They have spent almost half a billion Euros. Kaká, Mesut Ozil, and Karim Benzema all played superbly. Kaká and Ozil did not start the first leg; Benzema started this one on the bench. This time Mourinho did trust in them. He has not always done so.
Madrid played high, with intensity, and put pressure on the players who are least comfortable in possession: Puyol, Abidal and Pinto. Yes, Pinto. One of the reasons that Víctor Valdés is so important for Barcelona is his ability with his feet. Pinto has worked on that side of the game -- vital for Barcelona -- but is still not so accomplished. He did, though, make a couple of vital saves. By the end of the game, Madrid had taken 14 shots to Barcelona's nine. When Madrid suddenly found itself 2-0 down, it came out of the blue. Madrid had taken five shots on target by then; until Pedro scored, Barcelona had not taken one.
The natural reaction to this performance in Madrid was to say: why not play like that every time? Why didn't you play in the same way in the first leg?
It is a legitimate question, but it is also one that is needs contextualizing. Doing so can provide both a negative and a positive reading. If the result is the key to judging the validity of approaches -- and it shouldn't always be, certainly not in one of games, but it so often is -- then Mourinho could justifiably say that he was approaching this as a two-legged tie. And while 2-2 is a good result away, it is not a good result at home. It is, of course, better than the 1-2 that he did get.
Context is everything. Perhaps Mourinho always planned to play this way in the second leg. Perhaps. But by trailing 2-1 from the first leg, he almost had to. It is legitimate then to ask if he had any choice. Others have asked if he chose to play the way that some of his players had asked him to. Over simplistic perhaps, but had he backed down?
If so, it provokes other questions. Should the players take the credit? Did this prove them right and him wrong? Or was Mourinho, given the (always foolish assumption) that the tie was over, in a no-lose position? By opting for a more attacking approach and playing well, his team would be reinforced and wounds healed; by opting for a more attacking approach and getting beaten, he had more proof to his players that opening up against Barcelona is unwise. He could be reinforced. By working together, everyone emerged happier. It is often said that disunity creates poor performances. It is true. But so too is the reverse; poor performances create disunity.
The evidence was that Barcelona can be got at. Or at least that it could Thursday night. That is not to say that it will always look so vulnerable.
Context again. Barcelona was far from its best; not least because Madrid made it so. Yet Piqué in particular was prone to lapses of concentration and there was a sluggishness about Barcelona, a lack of focus and concentration, of mental agility. Often the passes that undid the Barcelona back four were strikingly simple.
In the end, though, Barcelona got through. And, over the two legs, it deserved to. The second leg stays longer in the memory but it was the first that conditioned this latest confrontation. It is the second that may condition future confrontations.
In drawing 2-2 and going through, Barcelona extended the run to 10 clásicos since Mourinho took over at Madrid and just one victory for the Portuguese coach. Yet, despite that devastating statistic -- and it is one that will play on players' minds -- the sensation was of a psychological recovery for Madrid. Casillas talked about leaving happy and proud; Ramos too talked of pride. Mourinho talked of the referee. In fact, he talked to the referee. He waited by Teixeira Vitienes' car and then accused him of "screwing professionals."
Apart from the questionable nature of the assumption that Madrid suffered more at the hands of the referee than Barcelona -- his least comprehensible (if not worst) decision was the haste with which he blew the final whistle -- there is something else that is striking.
Mourinho often complains about referees but not only does he, like most coaches, fail to do so when they favor his teams -- when that happens the only narrative that counts is "we won" -- he also rarely enters into specifics. It is not in his interest to analyze decisions. Instead, he tends to utilize nebulous notions of conspiracy and bias. The feeling is more important than the facts. One conclusion that can be drawn from the last few clásicos is that, in doing so, he may have succeeded in creating a climate in which it is harder for referees to send off his players. Ramos got a red here -- very late in the game. Others deserved them before; others deserved them more.
And that is the point of the discourse: it is less about what has happened as about preparing the ground for what may happen. Much of the significance of this game lay in the same concept.
Barcelona went through and Madrid went out but both took something. After all that has happened, Madrid perhaps more. Today was Mourinho's birthday.
Pictures showing Iker Casillas and Sergio Ramos -- the two men most (unfairly) under suspicion in the light of last week's leaks to the media detailing an argument between the three -- handing him a cake may be the ultimate in cynical propaganda and few will genuinely see that as a symbol of newfound unity. What could be is the way they played last night: or at least it was indicative that motivated, talented and driven professionals don't necessarily have to get on well together to work well together. At least, not always. The internal difficulties confronted by Real Madrid have not been solved but they may have been palliated.
The Cup matters. Barcelona can still win it -- it is tempting to reiterate the fact that it hasn't won it yet, so definitive did this tie appear -- and Madrid cannot. But this game, like all those clásicos, feeds into future matches too. And that is where its significance has been sought. A hypothetical Champions League contest looks relatively equal again now. It hadn't done before. In the midst of crisis talk, of conspiracies and splits in the Madrid camp, there were suggestions that Barcelona could deliver the final blow. It did not. They'll be back to fight another day. That day could be Tuesday, 27 March.