Direct football played with electric pace saw Real Madrid worthy winners in their Copa del Rey match against Barcelona on Tuesday night. Pressing in unison, prepared for different scenarios and defensively disciplined, each player understood their role perfectly to play a flawless game against their strongest rivals.
However, the night belongs to one man, even if Raphael Varane threatened to steal his limelight – Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portuguese may never win the Ballon d’Or again for as long as Lionel Messi challenges him but last night, he played a majestic game to ensure his team’s advancement in the competition.
Regularly thought of as second best in recent years, the Portuguese international continues to outperform his greatest rival in these anticipated Clasicos. In the eight games played between the two sides since January 2012, Ronaldo has scored in each but one for a total of nine goals. It’s perhaps also worth mentioning that five of those eight matches played were in the Camp Nou.
Grabbing his side by the scruff of the neck this season, he has consistently combined his exquisite pace with admirable athleticism to guarantee the necessary results. On Tuesday night, he did so once again alongside the disciplined Angel Di Maria and the vision of Mesut Ozil. The pace imposed in the counter-attack, the ability to overcome markers and the display of mental strength is what made the Real Madrid forward a cut above the rest. Barcelona simply could not contain him.
However, CR7 is the least of their worries as Barcelona were tactically outdone for the second time in a week. For a side largely in need of depth and the ability to provide a vertical edge, Barca ought to have relied on David Villa or Cristian Tello upfront, if nothing more than to allow Messi space in which to operate. Meanwhile, Cesc Fabregas’ play in midfield hindered the impact of his teammate Andres Iniesta, who struggles to perform as well when not deployed in his preferred midfield role.
Collectively, the squad did not press for the ball high up the pitch, much like they haven’t done all season, whilst Real Madrid’s defensive discipline restricted their opponents to mere lateral movements between the lines. Critics have accused the Catalans of complacency, an argument evidenced by their slow reactions. Overwhelming possession of the ball proves futile when penetration becomes impossible and their unwillingness to win the ball back in advantageous positions has placed further pressure on a back-line that has now conceded in each of their last 12 games.
Essentially the above is nothing more than a regurgitation of the same conclusion – Barca have no Plan B. Yet they’ve rarely needed it. Hindsight is a critic’s greatest aid and whilst tactics proved crucial on the night, in truth the Catalans are simply a team struggling without their Coach and leader on the sidelines.
Victims of their own success, one cannot help but wonder whether Barcelona lost the game before the match even started. Complaints about the referee combined with the jeering of the home crowd every time said referee made a decision is having a negative effect on a team suffering with their confidence levels.
The media are only adding to the problem. Certain pro-Barcelona news outlets concluded that Milan played nothing more than a negative game to attain the desired result. Last night, Mundo Deportivo published a whole piece online, immediately after the game focusing entirely on the decisions of referee Undiano Mallenco and the several errors he committed.
Gerard Pique has attempted to nip this all in the bud when he came out after the defeat to Milan to insist there were no excuses and he was right. The longer Barcelona feel they were hard done by, the longer it will take for them to bounce back and at this stage of the season, there’s nothing they need more than the strength to recover.