Barca, Madrid leave Camp Nou happy
It was hard to know who should be happier here tonight.
Barcelona had shown some thrilling attacking football when replying to Cristiano Ronaldo’s opener for Real Madrid to lead 3-1 with time running out. But Víctor Valdés howler and Ángel Di María’s quick thinking had given Madrid a second away goal and left the tie nicely balanced ahead of next Wednesday’s second leg at Real’s Estadio Santiago Bernabéu.
Such drama is expected in El Clásico, but drama had seemed a long way off after a goalless first half. Instead the game seemed to be following the line pushed by the two team’s coaches -- Tito Vilanova and José Mourinho -- in the build-up, when they had attempted to play down the previous animosity between the teams. The local media had also took this approach -- but none of the 91,728 fans inside Camp Nou tonight (99% of them supporting the home team) were likely to have followed suit.
There was, of course, Mourinho’s ‘poke in the eye’ of then Barca assistant coach Vilanova during this game last year and the many and varied controversies which both delighted and angered fans on both sides in games overseen by Mourinho and Tito’s predecessor Josep Guardiola. Few events in European sport get the juices flowing like a Camp Nou -- or a Bernabéu – clasico and even if tonight saw Spain’s fourth most important tournament, it did not feel like it inside the packed stadium. There was very loud booing of the Madrid team as their names are being read out, and as the blancos players took to the pitch to warm-up. The much awaited handshake between the two coaches before the kick-off was brief but cordial.
The first half was mostly quiet though. Barcelona dominated possession of the ball, but did not do enough with it. The only times the home fans were off their feet were to decry hard challenges from Madrid's Xabi Alonso and Álvaro Arbeloa, but even these were tame enough compared to the treatment sometimes dished out by their absent team-mate Pepe. It was the first 0-0 at the Camp Nou at half-time in 23 games, stretching back to October 22nd 2011.
"I did not like the first half,” said Mourinho in his post-game press conference. “Sometimes you play a game you did not want to play. Barcelona stopped us building dangerous attacks. We had to concentrate on defending well. In the second half we showed what we can do.”
And of course, it was through Cristiano Ronaldo. He announced himself yet again as a big game player with the header from Mesut Ozil's corner which put his side in front. This time there was no repeat of the “calm down, calm down” gesture which followed his winner in April’s La Liga title deciding clásico here, but the effect was the same. The stadium, which had been waiting for their side’s dominance of possession to bear fruit, was stunned into silence.
This shock only lasted 90 seconds however, as Xavi’s pinpoint ball over the top freed Pedro Rodríguez and he took one touch to control the ball and other to fire hard and high past Casillas. The momentum was suddenly all with Barca and when Ramos tripped Andrés Iniesta, Messi’s penalty put them ahead. It was three goals in 20 minutes when Xavi finished coolly after Iniesta’s twinkling toes had opened up the space.
Now the boos and roars around the Camp Nou were replaced by a joyful rendition of Barca's club anthem. As a wonder save from Casillas denied them a fourth goal, happy fans were indulging in a Mexican wave. They were sat right back down in their seats moments later when Valdés dithered over a routine clearance and Di María nicked the ball and tapped it into the empty net for 3-2. It showed why Casillas is Spain’s undisputed number one, and also how quickly the mood can change inside a soccer stadium.
As Catalan fans filed out of the stadium after the final whistle they felt torn. Should they just be happy to have won the game? Or disappointed to have let their rivals back into it the tie when they had them on the rack? Vilanova had no doubts when he spoke to the press.
“We dominated the game and created many chance,” said Vilanova . “At 3-1 we threw everyone forward and could have made it 4-1, when maybe we should have been expecting a counter-attack. But I would not change the way we played. It is a good result but not decisive. We go to the Bernabéu to decide the Supercopa.”
Both coaches will have learned ahead of next Wednesday's game. Vilanova will been especially happy with the finish by Pedro, and an assured performance from Gerard Piqué, which suggests both players have recovered form and confidence which had drained away last year.
Mourinho will have had less to cheer during the game, but will have been delighted at how his team stuck with Barcelona, and managed to eke out a decent result even when things seemed to be going against them.
The Portuguese could not help himself though, and he managed to pick out one controversial moment to carry with him towards next week's second leg. “I did not like Barca’s first goal as it was an error by the assistant referee,” he said, when asked to pick out something he had not liked about the game.
It just wouldn't be a clásico without the controversy.
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.