Barcelona vs. Real Madrid: 8 Lessons Learned from El Clasico
Going into this game, Real Madrid had failed to beat Barcelona in seven straight Clasicos.
But with both teams desperate for victory, it was the Merengues who emerged with a 2-1 victory that has effectively handed them the 2011-12 La Liga title.
How did Real Madrid finally overcome the hurdle? What went wrong for Barcelona? Those questions and more will be answered in the coming slides.
If at First You Don't Succeed, Try Try Again
As Real Madrid lost game after game from the end of last season to Saturday's match, one criticism leveled against Jose Mourinho was his stubborn insistence on playing attacking football versus Barcelona.
Real Madrid's last victory vs Barcelona, in the Copa del Rey, was recorded by playing Pepe in the middle as a defensive wrecking ball and throwing the ball up to Cristiano Ronaldo in the hopes that he'd be able to use some of his magical talents to score a goal against the flow of the game.
This tactic worked, and as Real Madrid have found themselves frustrated time and again by Barcelona, many Madridistas have called for a return to defensive tactics from Mourinho.
But Mourinho has not budged.
Friday, Aitor Karanka, Mourinho's assistant, boldly declared that Madrid would not play defensively against Barcelona.
And indeed they didn't. Real Madrid may have been dramatically out-possessed by Barcelona—as usual, 73 percent to 27—but they were able to record the same amount of shots and more shots on goal.
Real Madrid were highly effective with their possession, while Barcelona spent the majority of their time simply passing around the Madrid box without being able to find an opening.
In the end, Madrid won 2-1, and Jose Mourinho has finally earned the right to say that his Madrid team are able to beat the best team in the world without having to play defensively.
Barca's Left Winger and Real's Right Winger Struggled
Although Cristian Tello started El Clasico decently, he quickly faded, and by the end of halftime, Alvaro Arbeloa had him completely figured out. The consensus among Barca fans was that he needed to be subbed off.
But Guardiola stuck with him, much to the chagrin of Cules around the world. And it only got worse for Tello, as he wasted a good chance created for him by Iniesta, then mishit a perfect opportunity created for him by Thiago Alcantara.
By the time he was substituted in the 81st minute for Cesc Fabregas, it was too late; the damage was done.
For Real Madrid, their right winger didn't fare much better. Angel di Maria's performance was not under the microscope as much due to the excellence of Cristiano Ronaldo and Mesut Ozil, but Di Maria effectively did nothing positive for Madrid at Camp Nou.
He didn't link up with Arbeloa, provided nothing down the right flank, and lost the ball time and again on counter-attacks, which Real Madrid could've created dangerous goal-scoring opportunities from.
He was the first one to go, as Mourinho subbed him off for Esteban Granero, but I wouldn't expect Di Maria to start against Bayern after two awful performances in arguably Madrid's two biggest games of the season.
Cristiano Ronaldo Won the Ronaldo-Messi Duel
Never again will a Barcelona fan, or anyone for that matter, be able to say that Cristiano Ronaldo doesn't rise up in the big occasions.
Ronaldo's Clasico record speaks for itself, but one knock against it has always been that—Copa del Rey goal aside—most of Ronaldo's goals versus Barcelona have come in losing efforts.
But Saturday, Ronaldo's 54th goal of the season was the winner. And what a goal it was.
To be fair, the Mesut Ozil served the ball on a platter, and Victor Valdes only made things easier with some awful positioning, but Ronaldo's poise to finish that chance just after Real Madrid had conceded was surreal.
And that's not even talking about Ronaldo's performance as a whole. Throughout the game, Ronaldo troubled Barca's defense, forcing multiple defenders to pick up yellow cards and keeping Victor Valdes on his toes.
There's no need to bash Lionel Messi extensively for his performance in this Clasico. In truth, it very much mirrored his performance against Chelsea.
Carrying an injury, Lionel Messi didn't look nearly as sharp as he's looked at various points this season, and he didn't have enough support to create scoring opportunities for his teammates either.
The most notable opportunity he created was a perfect through-pass for Xavi, but the Barcelona playmaker was unlucky to see his shot deflect off Iker Casillas.
In the second half, the game largely passed him by, as Real Madrid's defenders and defensive midfielders had his number.
Pep Guardiola Made Some Very Questionable Decisions
Pep Guardiola is a managerial genius and always will be for his numerous achievements with Barcelona, but one has to question a couple of the decisions he made versus Los Blancos.
First, where was Gerard Pique. In fact, where has Gerard Pique been? For some reason, Guardiola has consistently stuck with Javier Mascherano as his center-back of choice alongside Carles Puyol, despite Pique being comprehensively better than the Argentinian.
Unlike Mascherano, Mr. Shakira is stronger in the air, a much better passer of the ball, and more dangerous up front. Mascherano isn't bad, but he could've been the man to prevent Pepe's header in the first half, which led directly to Real Madrid's opening goal via Sami Khedira's tap-in.
Second, why did Cristian Tello start over Alexis Sanchez—or Pedro and Cesc Fabregas for that matter? Neither Fabregas nor Pedro have been in great form as of late, but Guardiola threw Tello into the deep end by starting him in this match.
Tello's game is still overly simplistic. He'll receive the ball, cut inside or straight ahead of his defender, and unleash or a shot or a cross. His dribbling, decision-making and ability to link up with his teammates all still need improving, and El Clasico wasn't the stage for that improvement to occur.
Finally, when Tello's struggles were apparent in the first half, why did it take until the 81st minute to take him off?
If he'd been taken off prior to the 70th minute, when it was clear to everybody that he was the player struggling most in the game, his replacement could've helped Barcelona mount a comeback.
Instead, Tello's substitution came after Cristiano Ronaldo's goal had demoralized Barcelona, and Guardiola's players had effectively lost interest in the game, knowing that even a 2-2 result wouldn't help Barcelona get back in the title race.
Hopefully we'll get some answers from Guardiola, at least regarding Gerard Pique's continued omissions. His absences are seriously hurting Barcelona.
The Referee Was Superb
I said prior to this game that the referee would be tested. He was.
All in all, the game featured 31 fouls. Considering the fact that Barcelona's games usually feature an average of 20 fouls, that's not a small number of fouls for a referee to deal with.
But Alberto Undiano Mallenco dealt with most all of them well. He was a bit harsh on Mesut Ozil when he gave him a yellow card for stalling, but otherwise the six other yellows he gave out were well justified.
Mallenco made sure no undeserved dives were rewarded, and did not let acting jobs by Pepe or Cristiano Ronaldo (debatable) influence his decision-making.
Best of all, the Spanish ref didn't give out any reds, meaning that the game was able to progress with as little controversy or questions of "what if?" as possible.
Hopefully UEFA can get him to ref every Clasico from here on out, as he's done a fantastic job with the two he's reffed. I may be a bit biased in saying that, though, as Real Madrid have emerged victorious in both of those Clasicos.
Victor Valdes Not Barcelona Standard?
Another one of my predictions came true in this most recent matchup: I predicted that Victor Valdes would follow up his weak Chelsea performance with another poor showing in goal. And indeed he did.
With Los Blancos recording 11 shots altogether, and six on goal, this was one of the busiest games of the season for Valdes.
He initially looked up to the challenge, reacting well to a powerful Cristiano Ronaldo header, but he could've done better with the Pepe header that Sami Khedira eventually converted.
His other mistake was on Ronaldo's goal. Granted, it would've been incredibly hard to prevent a goal in that scenario, but Valdes' positioning did him no favors.
If he had wanted, he could've stayed in his goal and taken his chances with narrowing the angle and choosing the right side on an eventual Ronaldo shot.
Alternatively, he could've charged all the way out at Ronaldo, hopefully getting the ball, but more likely getting himself sent off. At the very least though, he would likely have prevented Madrid from scoring.
But the position Valdes chose was the worst of both worlds. His decision to come out but stop just in front of Ronaldo left him helpless and in no-man's land.
Had Ronaldo taken an incorrect first touch, Valdes positioning would've enabled him to save the ball. But a player of Ronaldo's class was never going to do that.
All Ronaldo had to do was take a touch that took Valdes out of the equation, and then the ball had a clear path to the back of the net. Game. Set. Match.
Sergio Ramos Bounced Back Excellently from Abysmal Bayern Munich Performance
If you were on hand to see Sergio Ramos' performance versus Bayern Munich, then you can pat yourself on the back, because you now know what Ramos looks like both at his very worst and very best.
In Germany, Ramos could do nothing right. His poor defense presented Franck Ribery with the scoring opportunity he converted to put Bayern in the lead, and Ramos' poor defending throughout the game ensured Mario Gomez had plenty of opportunities to score.
But at Camp Nou, Ramos could do no wrong. He almost single-handedly shut down Lionel Messi for 90 minutes, and fought for anything and everything in air.
Of course, Ramos wasn't the only member of Real's defense who excelled. Alvaro Arbeloa did an excellent job of shutting down Tello, while Pepe put great pressure on the likes of Thiago Alcantara and Xavi.
Even Fabio Coentrao, who struggled a bit more than the rest versus Iniesta, did his fair share to ensure that Iniesta didn't overpower him the way Philipp Lahm did in the middle of the week.
But Sergio Ramos led by example, and showed that he can indeed be the general of his team if the occasion calls for it.
If he plays like he did versus Barca against Bayern Munich, Real Madrid should have little trouble progressing to the 2012 Champions League final.
Mesut Ozil Was the Difference-Maker
Of all my predictions for this match, I saved my boldest one for last. I said that Ozil would be the man to win this game for Real Madrid.
And indeed he was. Sergio Ramos may have stolen the show on defense, and Cristiano Ronaldo may have been the guy to score the goal that won the game, but Mesut Ozil was the engine that kept Real Madrid ticking from start to finish.
He made threatening runs at Barca's defense when Benzema and Di Maria struggled to do so, and it was his world-class pass to Ronaldo that created the scoring opportunity for Ronaldo's conversion.
Ultimately, this victory couldn't have been achieved without the entire team performing at the high level it did. Both collectively and individually.
But it was Ozil who provided a good amount of offense that was on short supply in the first half, and it was Ozil who was responsible for the winning goal of the game.