You put plans in place, you work hard leading up to the game and you hope that everything comes together on the night.
You never expect things to turn out quite like that.
Barcelona put on a true footballing master class tonight as they dismantled La Liga leaders Real Madrid 5-0 in this one sided encounter. Going into the game, one of the most highly anticipated in recent memory, much of the hype centred on the fact that the superiority of both teams over the rest of La Liga made this effectively the first game in a two-legged title decider. If that is the case, Barcelona showed that they are firmly in control of this season’s title race.
Of course this assessment of the title race is an exaggeration, and of course every team are entitled to an off night from time to time, but the fact that Madrid were demolished by their major title rivals will come as a serious shock to the Bernabeu faithful. There had been speculation that Madrid boss Jose Mourinho would change his preferred 4-2-3-1 system, dropping playmaker Mesut Ozil in favour of an extra defensive midfielder, most likely Lassana Diarra. That speculation proved to be unfounded, as Madrid started with Ozil, Ronaldo and Angel di Maria behind Karim Benzema.
Unfortunately for the visitors, their tried and trusted system had little impact against a Barcelona side who refused to give their opponents the ball, maintaining possession of around 70% throughout the first half, with midfield maestro Xavi particularly impressive as he showcased his unrivalled passing range. It was Xavi who gave the home side the lead inside ten minutes, profiting from a favourable bounce after a superb through ball from Andres Iniesta and clipping the ball over Iker Casillas from close range.
It was no less than the home side deserved, with the front three of Lionel Messi, David Villa and Pedro all proving constant threats with their probing runs and intricate passing. Even before Xavi’s goal, Messi had hit the inside of the upright with a superb curling effort from a tight angle, while eighteen minutes in it was Pedro who doubled Barcelona’s lead. After great work from Villa took him towards the touchline down the left, he drilled a pass across goal that left Pedro with a simple tap-in.
While it may seem premature to write off a team the quality of Real Madrid inside twenty minutes, it was clear that from the moment Pedro scored, the game was virtually over. Barcelona simply did not give Madrid a chance of having enough of the ball to build any meaningful chances, with a Ronaldo free kick that went narrowly wide and a penalty claim that fell on deaf ears the only chances they could point to in the first half, as the hosts went in two goals to the good at the break.
Mourinho appeared to have little to say to his side, sending them back out onto the pitch early to spend a few minutes alone under the gaze of the Catalan crowd. He also made one change, making the switch many had expected before the kickoff by replacing Ozil with Diarra, but it made little impact as normal service was resumed soon after the restart.
Barcelona simply had too much for their opponents all over the pitch, creating chance after chance as they ran the Madrid defence ragged. Two minutes into the half Messi had a goal ruled out for offside, then Xavi latched onto a Messi through ball to touch the ball past Casillas before shooting into the side netting, and then two perfect through balls from Messi gave Villa the chance to fire in a quickfire double. Playing in his first Clasico since his summer move to Barcelona, the diminutive striker hit his first from just inside the Madrid box, firing across Casillas and into the far corner after latching onto Messi’s defence splitting pass on 55 minutes.
Three minutes later, Messi produced an even better pass, cutting onto his left in the centre circle and sliding an inch perfect pass into the left channel that saw Villa beat Ramos to the ball and poke a shot under the onrushing Casillas to score his second and Barcelona’s fourth. At this point, the Nou Camp faithful were surely dreaming of seeing their team continue to go for the throat, perhaps score six to inflict their largest ever El Clasico victory on their eternal rivals, or maybe go even further and match the eight they scored against Almeria last week. Instead Barca seemed content to relax, take a step back from the pressure to attack, and simply enjoy what they enjoy best; long periods just revelling in possession of the football.
Madrid seemed desperate for the game to end, offering nothing going forward and seemingly relieved that Barcelona had stopped pressing so vehemently, but the introduction of Bojan with fifteen minutes to go sparked the home side back into life. The man to make way was Villa, who was given the rapturous response his exploits deserved as he left the field, taking the time to celebrate with his replacement and wish the youngster well as he entered the fray.
Within seconds Bojan was in the thick of the action, put clean through by a clever through ball, but losing his footing at the vital moment to allow Pepe to recover, and soon after forcing a smart stop from Casillas to beat away his fierce drive from the edge of the box. A few minutes from the end, Guardiola also withdrew fellow goalscorers Xavi and Pedro to similarly warm send-offs, and there was still time for one of the substitutes, young winger Jeffren, to score a fifth.
Bojan broke down the Barca right and clipped an inviting cross into the six yard box and Jeffren beat Iniesta to the ball to stab past Casillas and compound the visitors’ misery. Then, just as it appeared it couldn’t get any worse for Madrid, the foolish Ramos made it even worse by picking up the first red in a game that had already featured twelve yellows.
No doubt borne out of his frustration at the way he and his teammates had been so soundly beaten, Ramos launched himself at the dribbling Messi, also taking out his own teammate Diarra in the process. It was a shocking tackle from Ramos that was at best reckless, and looked very much like a move designed to injure Messi, who thankfully appeared to avoid any serious harm. Just in case the ref had any doubts over sending off Ramos, who had already been booked, the childish defender then shoved Barcelona captain Carles Puyol in the face to guarantee he saw a straight red, and then shoved fellow international teammate Xavi on the sidelines as he left the field in disgrace.
Soon after, the referee’s whistle brought down the curtain on a virtuoso performance from the hosts that saw them leapfrog their shell shocked visitors to move to the top of the table, two points clear of their rivals and boasting a considerably better goal difference thanks to the ten goal swing provided by the victory. Barcelona fans, and many neutral observers will have been thrilled to witness the sort of victory that comes along once in a blue moon, particularly against a team with the talent that Madrid possess and in the form Madrid were going into this game.
For Madrid, and Jose Mourinho in particular, they will not have been able to get out of the Nou Camp quick enough. The Portuguese boss is still yet to win at Barcelona’s ground, and will no doubt be thankful for home comforts come Saturday when his side face Valencia. Mourinho was keen to point out before the game that a defeat “would not be decisive” in the title race, although in this form, it’s difficult to see Barcelona dropping points any time soon.