FOX Soccer Exclusive
Madrid, Barca on opposite directions
Real Madrid humiliated Barcelona Tuesday night, bouncing them out of the Copa Del Rey behind a two goals from Cristiano Ronaldo, and winning every battle on the field. Barcelona were left a humbled team, and one that looks shockingly weak heading into a difficult Champions League test against AC Milan as well as the back end of the La Liga season.
Critics will point to the mental aspect of the game; Barcelona simply didn’t look prepared for the match and an inkling of their problems manifested itself at the pre-game press conference.
Barcelona stand-in coach Jordi Roura had used Tuesday's Copa del Rey semifinal presser to try and pressure referee Carlos Undiano Mallenco. Claiming Mallenco had been "permissive" when letting Madrid get away with some rough stuff during previous El Clásicos, Roura allowed the master of mind games, Jose Mourinho to move into action.
"The Special One" pounced on Roura's words, ironically saying that he had learned from Barca's "good guys" never to pressure refs. His words seemed to be taking the moral high-ground, but Mourinho had actually smelt fear. He was ready to move in for the kill.
So while the 90,000 fans that crowded Camp Nou duly focused on ref Undiano Mallenco, whistled throughout the game, the truth is that their focus should have been on Cristiano Ronaldo. Each time the Portuguese picked up the ball the crowd seemed to catch its breath and cower back. With good reason.
On Madrid's first real counter-attack, Gerard Piqué was suckered into a rash tackle inside the box. The fans did not like Undiano's decision, but it was correct. The penalty sent Barca goalkeeper Jose Pinto the wrong way and Ronaldo became the first player ever to score in six consecutive Clásicos.
Mourinho's plan worked to perfection. His well-organized defense kept sucking Barca inside - and the Catalans looked very short on ideas and inspiration. While Lionel Messi and Xavi Hernandez struggled, most of the crowd's grumbles were aimed at Cesc Fábregas, who again looked short of confidence and unsure of his role in the team. In two minutes, he first bungled one counter attack and then swiped and missed at a chance inside the area.
Meanwhile Madrid's Xabi Alonso, Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane all looked cool and in control.
Thoughts soon turned to the benched David Villa, and chants for the Spanish international goalscorer began with Barca still struggling early in the second half. At one point, its main Messi was deep in midfield, while Xavi was the furthest man forward. Needless to say, the move backfired.
Before Roura could make the change, Madrid had broken again. When Angel Di María's shot was saved, Ronaldo calmly converted the rebound. 2-0 to Madrid, and nobody inside the stadium, not even the Barca players it seemed, believed that a comeback could happen.
"After the first goal, we tried to equalize but they could counter very easily," Fábregas told reporters after the game. "We left too much space behind. It is a tough defeat to take, but we need to lift ourselves quickly."
Mourinho, with the job done at hand, left media duties to injured Iker Casillas.
"My teammates were brilliant, we controlled all the lines on the pitch, and in defense we were superb," said the Real Madrid captain. "Cristiano was phenomenal. The team gets ten out of ten. We are deserving finalists."
Varane's header saw the French teenager run to embrace Mourinho on the sideline, and brought even wilder celebrations from the 500 Madrid fans packed in under the roof behind that goal. Barca's supporters reacted by exiting the stadium with 20 minutes remaining on the clock.
On the pitch, their team looked rudderless, and issue of the absent Vilanova rose up once more. Roura, who 12 months ago was an opposition scout, seems a nice genuine guy, but not a leader.
The attempted pre-match mind-games completely flopped, and Barça's season now seems to be in disarray despite its 12 point Primera División lead; with 12 consecutive games conceding at least once and a 5-0 aggregate score from the season's two biggest games now seem the more significant stats. Ahead of Saturday's El Clásico at the Santiago Bernabéu and then with the Champions League return leg against AC Milan in two weeks' time, Roura admitted some changes - perhaps Villa to start and Cristian Tello on the wing - could be made.
"When you lose you clearly think of changing things," he said. "We might introduce some new things or another way of playing against Milan."
For Madrid and Mourinho, what had seemed like a nightmare season has now turned completely around. Madrid's performance was also ideal blueprint for the fixture against Manchester United next week, as United boss Sir Alex Ferguson, watching from the Camp Nou directors box, surely recognized.
"We will go to Manchester with the same idea," Casillas said. "We must bring this to Old Trafford."
The veteran Ferguson is unlikely to be as scared of Mourinho or Ronaldo's threat as Roura showcased Tuesday night. Concerned, however, is another thing.
Dermot Corrigan is a freelance Irish sportswriter who lives in Madrid and writes about soccer for several publications, including FOXSoccer.com, Sport 360°, When Saturday Comes and Iberosphere. Contact him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan.
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