Real Madrid 1-2 Barcelona – Copa Del Rey QF First Leg

Posted on January 18, 2012 by

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These games are a real highlight in the footballing, nay, cultural calendar. The speed and intensity of the drama, coupled with the exceptional technical and mental prowess exhibited by the competitors, make even cup quarter final first-legs between Real Madrid and Barcelona, the best two teams in the world, unmissable.

First half:

Tactical line-ups:

The first half followed a fairly simple – but utterly compelling – narrative. Guardiola’s decision to use Dani Alves, and to encourage him to push forward, meant that Cristiano Ronaldo was, of all 22 players on the pitch, the man in the most space. While Messi was constantly encircled by three or four Madrid players, Ronaldo’s one direct opponent was often elsewhere. Although Barcelona’s veteran goalkeeper José Pinto was at fault for the goal, Ronaldo was the attacking outlet for Madrid, who counter-attacked with incredible pace and aggression.

Barcelona slowly exerted their dominance on the game, but were still made to work hard to create chances. Real Madrid’s defensive strategy relied on intense physical effort. When playing against Barcelona, you don’t want to a) drop too deep and let Barcelona entirely dominate possession (especially at the Bernabeu), b) push too high up and leave space in behind, or c) leave space in between the defensive and midfield lines for the likes of Xavi, Messi, Fabregas and Iniesta to exploit. Mourinho’s resolution for this was to field Pepe and Lass in midfield, two incredibly tenacious midfield pressers. At times they were literally sprinting across the midfield, trying to keep up with the movement of the ball, and to make it as difficult as possible for Barcelona to move the ball from defence to attack. Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuain also did a good job of closing down and, crucially, tracking back. Xabi Alonso had been instructed to sit deeper, behind Pepe and Lass, acting occasionally as an auxiliary centre-back.

There were, it could be argued, two particularly key players for Barcelona in the first half as they slowly shifted the tide in their favour. Sergio Busquets, for one, is absolutely vital in defensive midfield, constantly making himself available to receive the pass, and using his physicality and confidence to hold onto the ball even under intense pressure. He will often hold on the ball for much longer than most would, to draw opposition players towards him thus creating space, occasionally drawing a free-kick.

Alexis Sanchez’s positive performance is also worth pointing out. In recent games he has featured in the advanced false-nine position which Messi had previously made his own. This allows Messi to drop deeper and wider, to get more involved with overall game-play (although Madrid’s physical approach did a decent job of limiting his effectiveness). But Sanchez, who hasn’t yet become a perfect player at this level, showed real promise and endeavour with his constant movement. A tired Ricardo Carvalho and an occasionally positionally suspect Sergio Ramos found it a real struggle to keep track of him.

Real Madrid went in at half time 1-0 up, but they must’ve feared that Barcelona would mount a strong comeback after the half.

Second half:

And so it proved. As Madrid’s intensity (and defensive line) naturally dropped as they tired, Barcelona became extremely dominant. Dani Alves was a bit less adventurous with his forward runs, but the Barca midfield was able to hold onto the ball a little more easily, and the away side created some bright chances. By the 60th minute, Mourinho brought on Ozil and Callejon, to inject some freshness into the side, and also as an attempt to stem Busquet’s passing from defensive midfield.

It was fascinating that many of Barcelona’s best chances (and, indeed, their equaliser) came from set pieces. Perhaps opposing teams are forced to spend so much of their time preparing for Barcelona’s unique threats, they neglect to focus on defending corners and free-kicks. Regardless, Pepe (who became more of a villain as the game ran on) badly lost his concentration as Puyol scored an excellent diving header.

Ultimately, Barca asserted themselves over a tiring Madrid side. When a team with the quality of Messi, Sanchez, Xavi, Fabregas and Iniesta can wrestle 70%+ of the possession, you would generally back them to score. Eric Abidal was an unlikely source for the finish, but Messi – who hadn’t had one of his best games in a Barca shirt, and had endured some seriously aggressive pack-defending throughout – can generally be relied upon for moments of creative inspiration.

Looking ahead to the second leg:

Sometime, Mourinho will surely manage to beat Barcelona over 90 minutes. It is difficult to work out how he might manage it, however. Madrid looked mightily impressive in the opening 15-20 minutes tonight, but their goal was partly a result of poor goalkeeping, and such a spirited early performance relied heavily on physical freshness and competitive endeavour, which is almost impossible to maintain over a full match. Barcelona and Guardiola are, perhaps, still simply too good.

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Posted in: Europe, Football, Tactics