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Real Madrid V Barcelona: Pepe's Stamp on Lionel Messi Shows Dark Side of Clasico

Tony MabertContributor IJanuary 19, 2012

MADRID, SPAIN - DECEMBER 10: Pepe (L) of Real Madrid duels for the ball with Alexis Sanchez of FC Barcelona during the la Liga match between Real Madrid and Barcelona at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on December 10, 2011 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)
Jasper Juinen/Getty Images

Against Barcelona at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, Real Madrid got almost everything right.

As they set about beating their most bitter rivals in the Copa del Rey for a second season in a row en route to retaining the trophy, the game plan seemed to be working.

Jose Mourinho sent out a well-organised defensive unit, with the rugged Hamit Altintop replacing the more sprightly Alvaro Arbeloa at right-back and Fabio Coentrao curbing his attacking instincts on the opposite flank. Mourinho's players were frustrating the visitors into squandering their superior possession, and Real absorbed the pressure before hitting them on the break to lethal effect. 

With 11 minutes on the clock, Cristiano Ronaldo galloped forward and latched on to Karim Benzema's through ball. He bamboozled Gerard Pique with a step-over, and nutmegged the goalkeeper to register only his fourth goal in 14 career appearances against Barcelona.

The recent baffling criticism directed at Ronaldo was immediately forgotten, as the Bernabeu crowd made the stadium the cauldron its architects always had in mind when designing those steep stands.

But it still wasn't enough. Real were still not able to break their home hoodoo against their Catalan nemesis. The reigning Spanish and European champions engineered a second-half comeback that means they still have not been beaten in their seven visits to the Bernabeu since May 2008.

The reason for Barca's comeback—or at least the catalyst for it—was Pepe. Mourinho made his customary move of putting his wily enforcer in midfield and letting him off the leash in a Clasico. 

The Brazil-born Portugal international stole a march in his own duel with Sergio Busquets to be the most irksome individual on the pitch every time they meet, by getting booked after just 17 minutes for a cynical and needless bodycheck on his personal foe, thereby limiting his effectiveness in the role of midfield destroyer for the rest of the match.

Then, just four minutes into the second half, the visitors were gifted an equaliser. From a corner which should have been a routine clearance for the 6'2" defender, Pepe was caught napping horribly and could only look on as Carles Puyol sent a diving header past Iker Casillas. If Pepe had been wearing a hat, he would surely have removed it and bowed his head in deference to the Barca captain, as he was allowed to undo all of Real's good work in the first half in an instant.

But were that his worst offence of the evening, perhaps even then his performance would not now be the main focus of the intense scrutiny every edition of the Clasico is put under in Spain.

Midway through the second half as Barca began to increasingly dominate the play (they ended the match with possession stats of around 70 percent, depending on the source), Messi was bundled over by substitute Jose Callejon. Up until that point, the little Argentinian—who recently retained his FIFA Ballon d'Or title ahead of Ronaldo and teammate Xavi Hernandez—had been having a quiet game by his standards, but that did not stop Pepe from trying to handicap him. With Messi on the floor catching his breath after that foul, Pepe skulked over and—in what appeared to be a clearly pre-meditated manner—trod on the Barca forward's hand. 

The officials all missed the incident, but the television cameras did not. If referee Cesar Muniz Fernandez does not put the incident in his match report, then the Spanish Football Federation will surely have no choice but to act. Only earlier this month, Schalke's Jermaine Jones was handed an eight-week ban by the German federation for stamping on Borussia Moenchengladbach midfielder Marco Reus' boot with his own, a far less shocking offence. 

Pepe's reprehensible action could quite easily have broken one or more bones in Messi's hand. Instead, it only served to spur on the diminutive forward. Less than 10 minutes later, it was his weighted scoop over the top which was chested down and finished by—of all people—Eric Abidal to give Barca a significant advantage going into the second leg next week.

According to one Spanish colleague, the Madrid bar he was watching the match in was almost as loud with cheers when the first replay of the unsavoury incident was shown as when Ronaldo scored the opening goal. 

Even Mourinho, the game's finest purveyor of diversionary dialogue used to deflect the attention away from his players, could not talk his player out of the spotlight on this occasion. 

After his initial plea that he had not seen the incident was not enough to stop the questions, Mourinho was forced to admit: "Obviously if it is intentional, it is punishable." 

If Pepe is even available for the second leg, Mourinho will have to give his favoured deployment of Pepe against Barca a thorough rethink. The 28-year-old's discipline, temperament and intelligence on the pitch has been called in to question on far too many occasions—more than a coach who pores over the finer details would care to see, not least his red card in the first leg of last season's Champions League semifinal.

At the time, Real were level in the tie at 0-0 after an hour at the Bernabeu. Following Pepe's early bath, decided as much by his reputation as that particular act, they lost 2-0 on the night and 3-1 in the tie.  

A club of Real's stature simply cannot afford to contain such a volatile variable if he has nothing else to offer. He has notable talent as a footballer and is an impressive athlete, but his reputation is not unjustified.

While Busquets may be as objectionable a character, his own brand of villainy rarely extends further than hammy deception of the officials, something of which several of his own teammates are guilty. Pepe has that unsavoury part of the game nailed too, but he also brings a degree of thuggish behaviour to the table that should never be seen in one of world football's marquee fixtures.

For the sake of Real in particular and El Clasico as a whole, let us hope that the unhinged Pepe is not let loose in the second leg. 

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