A seed of doubt has been sown in the minds of these Barcelona players. You could see it start to take root during their 2-0 loss away to AC Milan in the Champions League, and Tuesday’s 3-1 Copa del Rey humiliation at the hands of archrivals Real Madrid will only come as added fertilizer.
Madrid, meanwhile, couldn’t have expected a better performance ahead of kickoff. Level at a goal apiece coming into the second leg, they had conceded at home and were facing a difficult task at Camp Nou, knowing they had to win outright or record a high-scoring draw in order to progress.
Well, examination passed.
Once again Cristiano Ronaldo came up big on the big stage, and manager Jose Mourinho’s aggressive man-marking frustrated Barcelona no end, especially in the first half when the tie still rested on a knife’s edge.
And if Lionel Messi was a shadow of his usual self against Milan, he was completely invisible in this match.
The following slides reveal six things we learned following the second leg of this Copa del Rey semifinal. Not surprisingly, none of them reflect all that well on Barcelona.
You can’t play 50-plus games per season, never mind international matches, and expect to retain a consistently high level of play—especially when the bar is set as high as it is for Lionel Messi.
The Argentine maestro has appeared visibly tired in recent matches (he was a shadow of himself against AC Milan in the Champions League last week) and was rubbed off the ball with relative ease on several occasions on Tuesday.
With Barcelona having all but locked up the Primera Division title, look for Messi to be given some extra nights off during the stretch run, although by then it could be too late for the Catalans’ European ambitions.
Vilanova, who replaced Pep Guardiola ahead of this season, had lost just once in La Liga while in charge of Barcelona before undergoing surgery to remove a cancerous tumor on a saliva gland in December.
Initially expected back early in the New Year, he is now unlikely to step back into the dugout until April. In the meantime his stand-in, Jordi Roura, has overseen both Barcelona’s exit from the Copa del Rey and the 2-0 defeat to AC Milan that threatens the club’s European campaign.
Obviously, Vilanova’s first concern should be with his health, but for the Barcelona players and fans he simply can’t return to coaching soon enough.
We saw it against AC Milan last week, and again against Real Madrid on Tuesday.
When the opposition comes out and aggressively man-marks the Barcelona players, the Catalan giants tend to struggle.
Against Milan at the San Siro it was Stephan El Shaarawy sticking like glue to Dani Alves; against Madrid at Camp Nou it was Cristiano Ronaldo keeping track of Alves and Alvaro Arbeloa running up and down the opposite flank alongside Jordi Alba.
If you take Barcelona’s full-backs out of the game you take their width away. And while it requires incredible concentration to adhere to marking assignments, when executed properly Barcelona can be dealt with considerably more easily.
Once again Barcelona saw the majority of the ball, and once again all their position came to nothing.
At the halftime whistle the hosts were judged to have enjoyed upwards of 65 percent possession, and yet they not only trailed by a goal but had created very little.
While perimeter passing inflates the much-ballyhooed possession statistic, it doesn’t mean much. When Madrid were on the ball they tended to be quicker and more intentional in their passing, and it paid off, in particular with Ronaldo’s second of the night following an effective counterattack.
Real Madrid manager Jose Mourinho started his first-string team against Barcelona in the Copa del Rey on Tuesday and is likely to do so again when La Liga’s second Clasico of the season kicks off on Saturday.
That’s two matches in four days played at an exhausting pace, and all the while Sir Alex Ferguson will have been sitting at home, pondering just how to rotate his side as he prepares to host Madrid in the second leg of United’s Champions League Round of 16 tie against the Spanish giants.
The Red Devils, sitting comfortably atop the Premier League table, are at home to Norwich on Saturday, and the team Ferguson puts out is unlikely to be anything close to the XI he starts next Tuesday.
When Cristiano Ronaldo opened the scoring after 13 minutes in Barcelona, he became the first player ever to score in seven successive Clasico contests. The goal, which gave Real Madrid the 2-1 lead on aggregate, was also his sixth in six matches at Camp Nou and 39th in 40 matches in all competitions so far this season.
His second of the night, scored in the 57th minute, pretty much finished off the tie.
Lionel Messi, by comparison, came into Tuesday’s match with just three goals in his last seven Clasico appearances, but with 49 goals in 39 matches in all competitions he has a healthy scoring lead over Ronaldo.
But Ronaldo’s reputation as a big-game player continues to grow with every big game he plays. It’s hard to believe he was once considered a player who wilted under pressure.
In addition to scoring against Manchester United in the first leg of this season’s Champions League Round of 16, he almost single-handedly guided Portugal into the quarterfinals of the 2012 European Championship. And in 2008, he scored in the Champions League final against Chelsea.
And then, of course, there is his record in El Clasico.