The opening twenty minutes of the latest instalment of the on-going feud between Barcelona and Real Madrid had the makings of something different. Jose Mourinho appeared to have gotten his tactics and team selection spot on, and the Catalan team was reeling. A goal in the opening 30 seconds for Karim Benzema, brought about by the Madrid players hounding and harassing Victor Valdes into an error.
Real Madrid continued to apply the pressure and didn’t allow the midfield triumvirate of Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets to settle on the ball and get into the familiar tiki-taka rhythm that they have made famous. In the 24th minute of the match, Benzema broke away down the left wing and squared the ball to Cristiano Ronaldo who inexplicably failed to trouble Valdes’ goal and missed the target completely. To compound the miss, teammate Angel Di Maria was unmarked and Ronaldo elected not to give him the ball.
If Ronaldo were not the world’s second best player, and if El Clasico was any other game, and if he was not up against his nemesis, Leo Messi, the miss would probably have been forgotten. Ronaldo would have dusted himself off and blasted the very next opportunity hard and low into the bottom corner of the net. Unfortunately, Ronaldo has had to constantly battle criticisms similar to those levelled against Zlatan Ibrahimovich – that he goes missing in crunch games, that he is a “big game bottler”.
The difference between Messi and Ronaldo was highlighted on the half hour mark. Messi went searching for the ball near the halfway line, received the ball from Pique and proceeded to do what he does best. He put his head down and committed Ozil, Diarra and Alonso towards him before releasing a perfectly weighted through for Alexis Sanchez to rattle into the bottom corner of the net.
Unfortunately the same cannot be said of Ronaldo who has struggled to impose himself in the majority of the matches that Real Madrid has played against Barcelona. Against lower-ranked teams (i.e. everyone except Barca) Ronaldo seems to be a flat-track bully scoring goals for fun – a one-man goal scoring wolf pack. Ronaldo has come up against his bogey team, Barcelona, a total of 10 times and scored just once in the Copa Del Ray victory at the end of the 2010/11 season.
Later in the second half of the game, Ronaldo missed another excellent chance to score a header from a Xabi Alonso cross with the Barca defenders missing in action. Ronaldo is one of the best headers in the game at present, and that was a shocking miss especially with the score at 2-1 to Barca. The Catalans promptly counter attacked and scored the third, and decisive, goal via Fabregas approximately one minute after Ronaldo’s miss.
A lot of the press reports and post-match analyses have focussed on Ronaldo going missing (again) against Barcelona, but this appears to be somewhat unfair. The Real Madrid team as a collective unit started the game positively and were mentally on top during the opening exchanges. However, following the Barcelona equaliser the team seemed to lose belief at the same time that Barcelona gained confidence and began to assert their dominance through their possession based game.
Mourinho has done a lot of things right during his time at Madrid – he has brought a sense of unity and team spirit (which he has done at all of his clubs) and an innate belief that they are winners. The one thing that does seem to be missing is a sense of identity as discussed here by Sid Lowe – Barcelona stick to their approach and never waver, regardless of whom they happen to be playing.
The Barca players seem to relish receiving the ball under pressure and performing their mantra of pass and move, pass and move. Contrast this with the Real players like Di Maria, Ronaldo, Ozil and Marcelo who seemed out of ideas during the second half. Who, even when they received the ball, headed down a cul-de-sac or surrendered possession cheaply.
Real Madrid may have lost this game, but they have a game in hand and will have the chance to regain top spot when they play Sevilla. When they next take on Barcelona, they will have to remember that it will take a team effort over 90 minutes to beat the Catalans.