Barcelona will compete for the title of the kings of Europe on May 28th, a phrase that no Madridista wanted to hear 18 days ago when the first of four clásicos kicked into action. Over the four matches, each club won once while the two Spanish giants drew on two occasions; however, as any football fan knows, it was timing and importance of those fixtures that will define this campaign.
Madrid brought home the Copa del Rey, their first trophies in four years; however, were felled to their bitter rivals in the semi-finals of Europe’s most prestigious tournament. In between the four fixtures, in what is arguably the greatest rivalry in football, Barcelona also increased their lead in the league. The Catalans will soon clinch their third consecutive league title, maintaining their domestic dominance. Certainly a season of headlines, drama, and, oh, the occasional football match, but then again, what else would one except from Jose Mourinho’s debut at the helm of the world’s most successful club?
After a disgusting first leg, (in regards to on-field theatrics, post-match complaints, the racism rows and mediocre football), play was better on Tuesday night; however, one could not help but doubt, every time a player went to ground, the seriousness of their ailment. In the end, the better team did win. Madrid did not create enough opportunities over the two legs, especially Tuesday when they knew they would need at least two goals to overcome their northern rivals. Angel di Maria made a brilliant step, taking advantage of an uncharacteristic lull in the Barca defence, to launch the play that would quickly lead to Madrid’s only goal, but it would not be enough. Discussion of a comeback started up immediately. “If they get another quick one, Barcelona will have to play conscious of the fact that another goal beats them.” It was not meant to be; the last team you want to overcome a two goal deficit against is the Barcelona of the past few years at the Camp Nou.
It was textbook Barcelona goal that put the icing on the cake. Level at nil-nil, Andres Iniesta picked out Pedro with a brilliant pass, sending his compatriot through the Madrid defence to coolly finish off, for all intents and purposes, any faint hope of a Madrid upset. Kaka was incredibly ineffective, reemphasizing the questions in the pre-game as to why the Brazilian was selected over Mesut Ozil. The Germany star was the clear difference in Madrid’s Copa victory, yet Mourinho opted to start him on the bench. On the other side of the ball, Barcelona were stoic defensively; however, the Barca backline did seem set in continuing to try and earn calls with some over-dramatization. Javier Mascherano was by far the most guilty azulgrana on the evening, drawing a number of questionable fouls as well as what will surely be a few Oscar nominations.
The most controversial of which could have certainly changed the pace of the game. In the opening minutes of the second half, a run from Ronaldo opened up the Barca defence. After seemingly beating Pique, the Portugal star went to ground, but not before slotting a ball into space for Gonzalo Higuain (who would put the ball in the back of the net to no avail as the referee had already blown a foul in favour of the hosts). As Ronaldo tumbled he clips Mascherano, who would have, most likely, beaten his compatriot to Ronaldo’s through ball, dragging down the Argentina international. Of course the question on everyone’s mind was or still is: did the referee get it right? Tough to say, and I will stick to playing devil’s advocate. The ground was soaking wet, Ronaldo could’ve easily slipped on his own accord. Pique does not seem to take out Ronaldo’s legs but does make solid upper body contact with the Portuguese star. To that same point, in real time, it is hard to tell if Pique’s legs do take out those of the midfielder: does Ronaldo recognize this and go to ground too easily in order to try and win the foul? An early Madrid goal would have, undoubtedly, changed the atmosphere inside the stadium and on the pitch. Would it have meant Madrid would be celebrating tonight? Maybe or maybe not, but it is certainly one of those plays that will be the subject of pundit review and debate for weeks, if not years, to come.
The discussions will rage on throughout the capital as the season winds to an end. Should Higuain’s goal been allowed? Was Mourinho, for seemingly the first time in his career as manager, actually a poison for Madrid rather than the stalwart tactician that has masterminded such success on the European continent? How will the campaign be judged? Silverware, sure, but another league to Barcelona, as the Catalans disposed of the capital club en route to the European final. Mou’s future? Summer transfers? Madrid’s season may be over, save four essentially meaningless league fixtures; however, the excitement, or at least the circus, that will surround Los Blancos as long as the Portuguese manager is calling the shots is really just beginning.
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