New competition, new personnel, new year. Same old story.
It's difficult to come online after another Clasico defeat at the hands of Barca and try to explain just why Los Blancos are no match for their Catalan rivals, at least in head-to-head competition. I can't begin to imagine what it feels like for Jose Mourinho. A winner. A man who doesn't 'do' losing. Unless it's against Barca. The 'Special One' is very-much second best to Pep Guardiola at the moment and, seemingly, he can do little to change the flow.
After analysing, analysing and analysing the only conclusion is quite simple, and quite hurtful for Madridistas. When the sides meet, Barcelona are simply much better than Madrid. While many, myself included, felt the tide was turning before the Liga Clasico clash at the Bernabeu at the start of December, Pep's boys upped their gear to show they still have a hold over Madrid in Clasico matches, and Wednesday night's Copa del Rey meeting proved no different.
First of all, let's get the excuses out of the way.
It was 'only' the cup. The third priority for both sides behind the Liga and Champions League. While the tide may not be changing in the head-to-head battles, Mourinho has certainly put Madrid in pole position for the league title with his side five points clear of Barca - and for this he must be praised. A superb achievement if it comes off, and no Clasico defeat, no matter how many, can take that away from him.
We must also take into account the starting eleven for both sides. Barca's was near-enough full-strength, with Jose Manuel Pinto the only change to Pep's usual first-choice team. Pinto was, it can be said, partly at fault for Cristiano Ronaldo's goal - could Victor Valdes have done better? For Madrid, Alvaro Arbeloa was suspended, Angel di Maria wasn't full fit, Hamit Altintop played at right-back, Ricardo Carvalho played his first game in months, and Mesut Ozil and Kaka were amongst the substitutes. Was this a side purposely understrength? Or one that Mourinho felt was his best chance of beating Barca? Only Jose will know.
With the 'excuses' out of the way, the most worrying thing for Madridistas was the way the side crumbled after Barca got their equaliser. Madrid went one better than before in taking a lead into half-time, but it didn't last long. After Ronaldo's eleventh minute goal, Barca dominated for long spells and they always looked the most likely to bag the next goal. It came just four minutes after the restart, and Mourinho will no doubt have been fuming with the marking. You can stand and do little to stop a brilliant, flowing, Messi-led move, but to allow Carles Puyol the time and space inside the box to head home an equaliser is just poor on Madrid's part.
The heads dropped, the confidence was sapped from the eleven in white on the pitch. A familiar feeling had settled in with Madrid, a losing feeling, and it's one they quickly need to shake off in Clasico matches. From the moment the cameras showed a close-up of Iker Casillas after the goal, head down, it was obvious only one team was going to win. Maybe this was the reason Iker said the Barca contests "sometimes feels a little decaffeinated". While it's hard to argue against Barca's dominant play, the phsycological aspect of playing Barca, and losing against Barca, is becoming a big problem for Los Blancos.
Mourinho was first to admit that the equaliser left his men "deflated". While Madrid 'nilled' Barca in the Copa del Rey final last season, they can't expect to go into a Clasico match without conceding a goal. It's possible of course, as has been proven, but Barca's attack will always create chances and always score goals. To beat Barca, Madrid need to be able to handle the prospect of conceding to their rivals to still come out on top. They need to be stronger mentally in Clasico matches.
Two other things that have to be mentioned from the match - Ronaldo and Pepe. The spotlight was on Cristiano more than ever - can he handle the big matches? Can he perform against Barca? I don't think anyone can doubt his desire in the match. His goal aside, there were numerous 'non-Cristiano-like' moments that showed he was desperate to impress. Tracking back to help with the defence; his sliding tackle on Dani Alves early on. This was a man keen to prove his doubters wrong. While many will say he was, again, unsuccessful, he came out of the match with no less credibility than any other Madrid players - it was a poor team performance.
Talking of credibility - Pepe. 'Shameful' was the headline on the front of Spanish sports paper Marca to described the performance of Pepe. Shameful indeed, and I can't defend his actions. The stamp on Messi was a disgrace, and there were other notable 'tackles' throughout that could have seen him leave the pitch early in another Clasico. What I will say, is that Mourinho didn't help him by playing him in midfield. It didn't really work before, and it didn't on Wednesday night - hopefully Jose will have learnt his lesson. Not only is Pepe a 'danger' to others, he's also a danger to himself and Madrid playing in midfield. Tactics and game-plan aside, it's also obvious that he's better in the centre of defence. He's formed a great partnership with Sergio Ramos at the back this season and he should have played there on Wednesday night.
We've got all this to look forward to next week at the Camp Nou. Hopefully we'll see Pepe back in his regular position (hard hards at the ready, though) and see di Maria back to add some much-needed attacking threat to Madrid. Hopefully we'll also see a much more positive Madrid performance, whatever the outcome. Defeat in Catalonia next week won't be the end of the world, so Los Blancos may as well 'go for it'.
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