The word from Spain: Entre dos clásicos

by Aarony Zade

Round one draws to an end. The Bernabéu faithful roared. José Mourinho, as is his wont, chides those journalists who walked on his assistant the day before the game. But now that the dust has settled, what have we learned? And what does all this mean as we approach the bells for the second round?

As ever, it’s all in the eye of the beholder. Real were on a high, and this was entirely understandable. They might have conceded the league, but few doubted they had any chance anyway. “It’s practically impossible now” said Alvaro Arbeloa after the game. As you were, then. “When will I get to take on this lot with eleven men” is the best summation of Mourinho’s sentiments.

But the gap had been bridged- 5 games, and three long years since they stuffed their Catalan rivals en route to a second successive title. A painful sequence of defeats; one by the odd goal, two by a brace, and two utter chasings, but almost all characterised by being out thought, out fought and outplayed all over the field. And to do it have played almost 40 minutes a man down, coming from behind made it taste all the sweeter. The possession statistics certainly told one story, but possession isn’t always everything; even, sometimes, for Barcelona.

And as for Barcelona, well they could justifiably claim to be happy too. Winning this game was always likely to mean less to them; they knew that taking a point would be enough to wrap up a third straight title under the tutelage of Josep Guardiola. Pep himself would announce that he was satisfied with the performance, his only regret being that they had failed to put Madrid to bed when they found themselves a goal and a man to the good.

Stepping aside, there are a few points that can’t be easily skewed and must surely be beyond dispute.

Firstly, second-half drama aside, it was a fairly poor game. Tactically interesting for sure, but not one for the purists. Nothing resembling a spectacle. Barcelona had contributed to this by being somewhat below par. Content for long periods to play keep-ball, there was none of the sparkle that illuminated the Camp Nou at the end of November.

Real too, had played their part. While playing deeper than they had in that hara-kiri horrorshow, they busied themselves harrying Barcelona’s midfield. They were tight, disciplined and diligent throughout. And despite enjoying less than a quarter of possession- even before the sending off- it’s probably fair to say that they fashioned the better chances in the game; certainly from set pieces, yes. But also, arguably, from open play.

And a final matter that brooks no argument; Pepe, deployed in that holding role he has filled to good effect, albeit intermittently, for the Portuguese seleccão, was by some distance the best player on the park. But more on what that might mean ahead the remainder of this series later.

By Monday morning, the air of relief and contentment in Madrid had been punctuated; and the man leading the charge was none other than the most starred player in the club’s history, Alfredo Di Stéfano. In a searing critique set out in his Monday column in Marca, the blonde arrow didn’t pull any punches with regard to Real’s approach.

“Lions against mice”, he fumed as he clinically dissected the shortcomings of the current white vintage. “What I liked: the wonderful control of Barcelona which is to be admired. Their game is not to seen with the eyes but felt by the soul. They treat the ball with love, caressing in. To watch them is a joy for everybody.”

“What I disliked: Real Madrid, a team devoid of personality. This game must offer some clues as to how they should approach the next one, given that their strategy of offering nothing except counter-attacks has been revealed to be a failure.”

Of course, the club’s honourary president expanded upon that which had left him pleased as well as that which left him displeased. José Lacruz offers a clear English translation of the column which can be found here www.sfy.co/595.

Nobody, not even a man as outspoken as Mourinho, would dare to dismiss the words of Di Di Stéfano out of hand. Instead, on Tuesday, the Portuguese was polite yet forthright in his response to the criticism whilst remaining typically guarded on his approach for tonight’s Copa del Rey final.

“There are no favourites,” he opened “but I am convinced it will be a good game.”. When pressed as to whether his approach had been negative on Saturday, he rejected the suggestion. “When Barça have the ball the we have to defend and if we don’t, their quality means we will have huge difficulties. We have to defend like a team, and real teams must defend with eleven. In the past, Real used to defend with six and attack with four. Like my friend Messina, I have serious doubts whether the Madrid press really want us to win, but the fans aren’t blind; they’re not stupid. They’re on our side.”

He gave little away in terms of his selection, responding brusquely: “We’ll go on the field with four defenders, three in midfield, and three in attack. There will be a centre-forward. Pep said they’ll play with [reserve keeper José Manuel] Pinto and ten others, and I can tell you now that we’ll play with Sergio Ramos and ten others”

Eventually, the subject of Di Stéfano’s column was raised. “He is the most important person in the history of Real Madrid, and I am nobody in the history of this club. For this, his words are to be treated with respect and I will not comment on them except to to say this. I am the manager; and it’s the manager who chooses the side.”

As the conference drew to a close, he was asked what it would mean- if he had been signed to win titles- it would mean for Real to lose the cup having already lost the league. “When they [the club] speaks to me they ask nothing of me. They only ask for professionalism, hard-work, honesty, seriousness, dedication… they know that I dedicate myself to football 100%. I think I was chosen to lead this team because of this professionalism and dedication”.

Real will enter the game with a full strength squad. Barcelona, meanwhile, should have captain Carles Puyol available despite his early exit at the weekend. Only Eric Abidal will be out, and we can take it as given that Guardiola is unlikely to shuffle the deck too much; the only real dilemma is whether Maxwell or the more defensively sound Adriano is preferred at left-back. Where questions do remain is in the finer tactical points as to how Pep will seek to micro-manage his side’s approach to gain the maximum benefit against his opponents. And this in itself presents further questions.

Mourinho has far more cards marked under possible at his disposal. The one area that Real have a clear advantage over Barça is in their depth of talent. We can probably take it as true that Real will line-up in some sort of a 4-3-3 formation, as hinted by Mourinho, but all formations, as Jonathan Wilson correctly observes, are neutral; it is the personnel on the night that will male the difference here. Mourinho clearly took a lot of lessons from the hiding his side took at the Camp Nou, and he will no doubt have formed some new stratagems ahead of this one. Saturday’s return to this same stadium to face third-placed Valencia is hardly going to be a major consideration.

Some of the criticism (not just from Di Stéfano) was justified, of course, but it’s fair to say he had begun to get the balance right. His attacking substitutions worked, even with ten men. It’s also probably fair to say that Ozil was always likely to enter the fray had the teams stayed level on goals as well as men. His defensive reconfiguration worked too, although the goal here was to get Pepe back into the centre after he’d dropped back to cover the Raúl Albiol shaped hole in their defence. Pepe could be key again here; it was always a likely that he would assume this role at some point over the four games, and his muscular presence would be boon here again. Will he risk introducing Ozil from the start? The German knitted the attack together, and might well be preferred ahead of Di Maria, or even possibly Xabi Alonso. The latter is probably the less likely scenario of the two. Kaká, a player whose form suffers more than most’s when short of full fitness is reportedly nearing peak physical condition, and it may to the former Ballon d’Or winner that Mourinho may turn to should he need to reshape his attack. At the spear-end of the attacking trident, I would expect Emanuel Adebayor to favoured as Real continue to ease Gonzalo Higuaín back into their set-up.

The phony war is ever; now they’re playing for real.

With apologies to the rest of the league for the brevity of out round up, there were some points of note at the weekend. Roberto Soldado scored again for Valencia as they cruised to a 3-0 victory at hopeless Almería on Saturday. We can probably chalk off one of the relegation places there already. For Soldado, that makes it 7 goals in 4 for the former Real and Getafe man, who’s been one of the steal of the season at just £8m.

It might not be a patch on the clásico in terms of profile, but Cornellà was the site of real treat of a game where Espanyol- boosted by the timely return of another one of the season’s signings, their top scorer Osvaldo- fought back twice to secure a two-all draw against Atlético Madrid. Speaking of returns, a brace from Julio Baptista helped Málaga to a priceless 3-0 victory over Mallorca which, added to Zaragoza’s 1-0 defeat at Villarreal on Monday night, saw the Andalusians leapfrog the Aragonese club in the standings into safety. It didn’t look possibly just a few short weeks ago, but maybe- just maybe- Manuel Pellegrini will guide his side to safety yet. They face a tricky trip to Santander to take on Racing this weekend, but a win their would take them to 36 points and leave their Cantabrian opponents in the mierda. The other big relegation tie takes place on Monday, and it could be the last roll of the dice for Almería who trek to Zaragoza, as the race to avoid the drop really hots up. Also worth watching out for- in fact THE one to watch out for; Sunday’s late kick off sees Sevilla host Villarreal.

Final two points of interest; UEFA have charged Andrés Iniesta with getting himself intentionally booked in the first leg against Shakhtar, and the man from Manchego now risks a further suspension ahead of their semi-final tie against, well… you know. Barcelona hope to have the punishment commuted to a fine. And lastly, a press release from Royal Emirates Group revealed that the consortium are on the verge of taking over a top flight side for some €3m, taking on board the as-yet unnamed club’s liabilities which total some €130m. The statement- no, this is not a joke- says that the club in question will be rebranded as “Team Dubai”. Pretty much all the speculation has centered on Real Zaragoza, and although the consortium moved to deny this- and Zaragoza’s management refused to comment- the media are in general agreement that it will be 1995 European Cup Winners’ Cup champions.

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