Sunday, 22 April 2012

El Clasico - Tale of an Absorbing Encounter

El Clasico

My overriding thoughts of last night’s excellent encounter between arguably Europe's top two teams is how close the perceived gap between these two side is  no more.

With a 2-1 win in the Nou Camp, Real Madrid now sit a comfortable seven points clear of their fiercest rivals Barcelona, with only four games left to play.


Christian Tello was Pep Guardiola's surprise selection, continuing the trend he's set of springing a few surprise inclusions in recent encounters with their eternal rivals.

Mascherano was selected at centre-back, ahead of Gerard Piqué, where he has played 25 times this season. More times than recognised centre-back’s Puyol or Piqué. Thiago Alcantara came in in midfield, ahead of Cesc Fabregas.

Jose Mourinho went with a more forward thinking line-up, then previous encounters, however with no real surprises. The formation only had two defensive minded players in midfielders, rather than three he had previously selected in the past. Ideally Mourinho’s selection was aimed at catching, and beating, Barcelona on the counter (a lot more on that later).

Fabio Coentrão was selected at left-back ahead of the rogue Marcelo. Khedira and Xabi Alonso was the defensive screen in front of the back four.

The game

Ultimately Barcelona's formation was a 3-4-3, but at times they only really had two at the back. A 2-5-3 if you will. Dani Alves pushed up high on the right, Adriano on the left. Mascherano, Puyol sitting, with Sergio dropping deep. An unbelievably risky formation, as Real looked to play on the counter. Guardiola must've felt comfortable that the Barca centre-backs could handle Ronaldo on the break.

Throughout the game, Barcelona dominated the possession, as expected. They had a massive 72%, but still managed the same amount of attempts on goal as Real with 14 attempts a piece. Real had more on target with 6 on target to Barcelona’s 3.

In the end, Barcelona was undone by a set-piece, and one precise pace from Ozil to Ronaldo, who we all know doesn't need a second invitation to score. Barcelona can feel disappointed, as Xavi and Tello all missed great chances.

It was a poor decision to include the 20 year old winger Tello. He missed two excellent chances to get his side in the game. A promising player, but he's too raw, and this game surely came too soon.

Xavi was substituted again, with concerns regarding his Achilles problems persisting, and it's evident that he is in need of a rest.

Resolute defending from the Real Madrid back four, and Ronaldo’s potency on the threat, was undeniably the reason they became the first team to beat Barcelona at the home since Hercules beat them 2-0 on the 11th September 2010.

Real Madrid have been gearing towards this game all season, knowing full well that if they are ahead, or even within touching distance of the Catalan club in the title race, then Mourinho would finally have a game plan to get a desired result.

All season, Madrid has dominated teams, scoring at will and already surpassing the record goal total for any club in La Liga history. Any team they faced, whether it be top class opponents, or apparent minnows, the aim is clear: should they attack you, and their attack breaks down near your box, or in your half, get the ball forward as fast and as direct as possible. Hit the ball into the channels, ideally hitting Ronaldo. Ruthless counter attacks.

I remember watching Arsenal v. Manchester United in previous where they employed the same tactics. On numerous occasions Arsenal would dominate possession, the game plan was clear. Ferguson had told his men not to panic, win the ball on the edge of your own box, or in your own half, as Arsenal would play parallel passes, and use the likes of Park, Rooney and the aforementioned Ronaldo to dismantle their opponents on the counter.

Ultimately Real Madrid's players deserved a lot of credit. At times their play yesterday bordered on anti-football tactics, thumping the ball up the pitch just to relieve the pressure, but it wasn't the Madrid side we'd seen previous who had used rough methods in an attempt to kick Barcelona off the park. The likes of which Pepe and Sergio Ramos had increasingly become known for, but yesterday showed that they are indeed top class footballers, and world class defenders.

Post match

Pep Guardiola was gracious in defeat, just as he is in victory. He said “I congratulate Real Madrid for their victory and also on their league title which I have no doubt they have clinched tonight”.

Barcelona lost their streak of going 34 successive league games without defeat, will their streak of 54 home matches without defeat in all competitions, is over.

Cristiano Ronaldo set a single season La Liga record of scoring 42 goals in a single season.

Real Madrid are seven points clear, and need to win two of their remaining four fixtures to win the league. They now have to overturn a 2-1 deficit against Bayern Munich in the Champions League, then look towards regaining the La Liga crown next season.

Barcelona, now concede they won’t win the title. They still have a Copa Del Rey final to look forward too, while they face Chelsea on Tuesday in the Champions League semi-final, and look to overturn a 1-0 defeat.

This game was effectively a title decider. It was an absorbing, and a great game. Congratulations to Real Madrid, fantastic season. Commiserations to Barcelona, but I’m sure they’ll be back.

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