Club football's biggest rivalry was back in session at Camp Nou last night, as Barcelona beat Real Madrid 3-2 in a typically wild and wonderful Clasico that marked the first of Tito Vilanova's reign.
The Spanish Super Cup first leg was billed as the dawn of a new era in the Barca-Madrid rivalry. What we got instead was a faithful account of their comings together last season, and the strong suggestion not much will change in the dynamic between these two Spanish behemoths moving forward.
Guardiola may be gone, but the team he left behind remains largely in his image. Jose Mourinho, meanwhile, is far too assured in his principles to contemplate big changes to a pragmatic approach that won La Liga last season.
Vilanova's first Clasico selection saw three changes from the Guardiola team beaten 2-1 by Madrid last April—Gerard Pique was in for Carles Puyol, and Pedro and Alexis Sanchez preferred to Tello and Thiago Alcantara.
Mourinho had Raul Albiol in for the injured Pepe, but otherwise his only change from the last Clasico was Jose Maria Callejon in place of Angel Di Maria.
Both teams adopted their familiar personalties immediately—with Barca's patient pass-and-move contrasted with Madrid's deep-lying defensive setup and reliance on the counterattack.
Barca, as ever, dominated possession. The early signs suggest Vilanova's team have made the smoothest of transitions from Guadiola's rule to his, and will be everything we've come to expect from them this season.
What they lacked against Madrid was the killer instinct. Too often Barca advanced without making a decisive pass, and too often failed to test Iker Casillas in the Madrid goal when the opportunity presented.
There was the familiar tendency to overplay. And a lack of sharpness in front of goal that saw even Lionel Messi guilty of profligacy. In total, Barca managed 16 attempts—with only six on target.
But even a blunt Barca, by their high standards, managed to score three times past Mourinho's Madrid.
The first saw Pedro race clear to finish with a flourish. The second was Messi's from the penalty spot. The third was a tiki-taka tour de force that owed everything to Andres Iniesta's genius in laying on his midfield brother-in-arms Xavi.
Madrid's opener was perhaps the only contribution of note from Cristiano Ronaldo, who headed home at the near post from a corner. Their second was the result of a howler from Victor Valdes in the Barca goal, which allowed substitute Di Maria to steal in and keep Madrid's hopes alive for the second leg.
If Barca go down in the Bernabeu next week, they'll have only themselves to blame for their wastefulness at one end of the pitch and generosity at the other.
Vilanova's team were undeniably superior at Camp Nou. Iniesta was the pick of the midfielders and there were enough glimpses of Messi's mesmerising gifts to justify his influence being far greater than Ronaldo's—despite the latter scoring his fourth goal in four games at the home of Madrid's great rivals.
But for all Barcelona's fluid play and dominance, it's a lesson well learned in their recent past that the best team doesn't always prevail.
Madrid beat Barca to the title last season. Chelsea miraculously conspired to knock them out of the Champions League.
For Vilanova's team to avoid similar disappointment this time around, they'll need to be more ruthless in front of goal. And also to make better use of the territorial advantage they enjoyed against Madrid on Thursday night.
Madrid's challenge is to maintain the intensity they displayed in the second half at Camp Nou. Anything short of that and they're vulnerable to being besieged. Mourinho must also find a way to get more out of Mesut Ozil and Ronaldo—both of whom were peripheral figures against Barca.
Vilanova and Mourinho both have work to do. Next week, at the Bernabeu, we'll see how quickly they can go about it.
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