I have to admit, I wasn’t entirely convinced of a FC Barcelona victory at the Santiago Bernabeu but it goes without saying—well, I just did (hmm, wrote)—that I am pleasantly surprised.
Jose Mourinho’s decision to play Pepe as an additional defensive midfielder proved both a stroke of genius and a risk in itself.
Because what’s made Pepe such an effective player against FC Barcelona in the previous Clasicos, namely his aggressiveness, has come back to haunt Mourinho.
Never the most composed of tacklers, he is always close to getting himself booked. If steered into the right direction, Pepe can be a nightmare for any midfield but style-wise, he is more akin to Manchester City’s Nigel de Jong.
In addition, Sergio Ramos is also always a candidate for a booking. Not because he is as über-aggressive as his Blanco cohort; Ramos is simply overeager. I wrote an article a while ago and singled both Pepe and Ramos out for future bookings and tonight I was vindicated.
I’m not a psychic; it’s just common sense and some statistics. C’mon—Sergio Ramos broke the red-card record in Madrid and he just started playing there in 2005. It took Fernando Hierro his whole Merengue career to set this record.
So why is it Jose Mourinho’s fault?
In a one-off game his strategy might work—heck, even over two legs provided his team scores and leads. Neither happened tonight. All evening long, Real Madrid conceded the ball and possession to FC Barcelona in hopes to exploit holes in the defense with their rapid counter-attacks.
But instead, Pepe was sent off, Sergio Ramos earned another yellow card which will render both spectators in the next Clasico.
Now, Real Madrid have to take the game to FC Barcelona, at the Camp Nou of all grounds.
So far, Jose Mourinho only tried once to face FC Barcelona on equal footing—back in November when Real Madrid were humiliated 5-0. The 0-2 loss means that Mourinho and Madrid will essentially chase the game from the start.
He cannot afford to stick to his original game plan—the only one that has worked for him against FC Barcelona thus far.
A squad as expensive to assemble and as talented cannot win the Champions League by being passive bystanders. Before anyone argues it worked with Inter Milan, the difference lies in the small details.
Last year, Inter Milan beat FC Barcelona 3-1 at home; they could afford to park an Airbus in the Camp Nou. After all, Inter Milan had a two-goal cushion that Real Madrid do not have. It was FC Barcelona that chased the game.
A single-goal difference wouldn’t have been as dramatic, as Real Madrid could’ve waited for 90 minutes to score the equalizer at the Camp Nou. But with a two-goal deficit, defending for 90 minutes will only play to the advantage of FC Barcelona.
Not to suggest that the tie is over, but I have yet to see a Real Madrid that can beat FC Barcelona at their own game and not vice versa.