Barcelona vs. Real Madrid: 7 Lessons from Copa Del Rey Quarterfinal
No wonder they call it El Clasico.
When Barcelona and Real Madrid play, anything can happen. On Wednesday, everything almost did.
Barca and Real drew 2-2 in the second leg of Spain’s Copa Del Rey quarterfinals, a result that sends Barca to the semifinals with a 4-3 aggregate victory. After 90 minutes of goals, close calls, controversy, bad blood, bookings, misses, a two-goal comeback and one gorgeous golazo, the latest El Clasico must be considered nothing less than a classic.
The arch-rivals’ third meeting of the season featured nearly equal doses of the beautiful game and bitter feuding. Barca, clearly relishing their role as Real’s footballing big brother, delighted the home fans with two quick-fire goals in five minutes near the end of a first half dominated by the visitors. Real, clearly not ready to take their lot lying down, roared back after the break, suddenly finding their finishing boots after putting on a clinic in wastefulness during the first 45.
Throughout the 90 minutes, the teams traded volleys in a show of escalating one-upmanship. Real Madrid’s Lassana Diarra entered the book early in the match and narrowly avoided a second yellow late in the half for a powerful and reckless challenge on Lionel Messi. It served as the match’s chief flashpoint, but it was hardly the only one.
In all, the teams gathered nine bookings, with eight going to Real and a pair to defender Sergio Ramos, who was sent off for an ironically innocuous aerial challenge in the 88th minute. But it wasn’t just Real. Barca’s Cesc Fabregas inflamed the flammably unstable Pepe with a sliding tackle from behind, and Messi—in what was apparently a serving of one-week-old revenge—even got in the act with a robust challenge on the same man just after halftime.
At that point Messi’s unexpected outburst of physicality felt like a fitting show of superiority from Barca. Dani Alves had given the hosts a seemingly unassailable two-goal lead on the stroke of halftime with a glorious first-time strike from one corner of the box into the top corner at the opposite post.
But Real made it a game—and threatened to take the tie—with two goals in four second-half minutes. Cristiano Ronaldo put the visitors on the board with a typically expert finish in the 68th minute before substitute Karim Benzema drew Real level with another outstanding strike four minutes later. If not for a ruled-out headed goal by Sergio Ramos, Real would have been ahead, both in the match and on aggregate.
It wasn’t to be. Instead, Barcelona extended their unbeaten run to seven matches on their most bitter rivals. Real and Jose Mourinho—who is still winless as a manager at the Camp Nou—were left wondering, yet again, what it will take to beat Barca.
Real and Mourinho lead Barca by five points in La Liga, and they might have the best squad in Europe not named Barcelona. Real and Mourinho might find a way to beat Barca, eventually, and it might even come on a stage bigger than a midweek Copa Del Rey quarterfinal.
But for one more night, a classic El Clasico left Barca a cut above.
Barca Still Own Real
It's not only possible to debate who outplayed who Wednesday night. It's appropriate.
Real dominated the first half and could have held a two-goal lead within 10 minutes. In fact, one could argue that Real outplayed Barca on the night.
But the result was a draw, and the result of the result was progress for Barcelona. Real might have outplayed Barcelona, but Barcelona advanced anyway.
Real have now gone seven matches without a win against Barcelona, and despite their stretches of superiority Wednesday night, a breakthrough feels farther away than ever.
Simply put, Barcelona own Real Madrid. Wednesday's wild match only confirmed it.
But Real Showed Heart
If they do finally take down Barcelona this season, Real Madrid surely will cite this match as a turning point. The reason is heart.
Real showed heart and grit in coming back. That they equalized after trailing by two goals on the night—and came within one on aggregate—suggests that Jose Mourinho's men have the mental capacity to topple Barca. That Cristiano Ronaldo started the fight back with a goal after seeing Sergio Ramos' header ruled out can only serve as a good sign.
But if they are to overtake Barcelona, Real must show the same qualities for more than 45 minutes at a time.
The Value of Finishing
Gonzalo Higuaín came close in the opening 10 seconds and again in the third minute. Ronaldo fired wide from inside the box four minutes later. Mesut Ozil hit the post in the 25th, and Higuaín failed to convert again two minutes later after an error by Barca keeper Jose Manuel Pinto.
With better finishing, Real easily could have held the two-goal lead instead of Barcelona. Instead, Barcelona showed them how it's done.
First, Lionel Messi tore through the Real midfield and laid off a killer pass for Pedro, who had no trouble beating Iker Casillas. Then Dani Alves sent the Camp Nou into rapture with a thundering shot from the far corner of the box into the top corner at the opposite post.
Real eventually found their finishing boots, but by the time that happened, they were needed for a rescue job, not the planned hit-and-fade.
It all could have been so different.
Barcelona Started Slowly, Again
Higuaín's first-minute chance resulted from an errant back-pass and Gerard Pique's slow reaction. Two minutes later, Barcelona nearly conceded from a free kick.
Barcelona could have trailed by two goals after three minutes. Pep Guardiola must have been ripping the last few hairs from his head inside the manager's box.
But as the current season has, at times, shown, Barcelona are vulnerable to sluggish starts. The opening exchanges of last week's first leg played out similarly, with Ronaldo's goal rewarding Real's early dominance. And back in September, Alexandre Pato gave AC Milan a first-minute lead against Barca on Matchday 1 of the Champions League.
One slow start is forgivable. Two or more are distressing—and possibly habit-forming.
Barcelona's opponents, most of all Real, should take note.
Pinto Is a Liability
Ironically enough, Pinto wasn't at fault for either of Real's goals. It was the mundane that caused Barcelona's 36-year-old backup keeper so much trouble.
Ozil hit his 25th-minute near-miss sweetly, but Pinto appeared to give up on it far too quickly. As the ball caromed off the intersection of the upright and the crossbar, Pinto was five yards away—not, as he should have been, flying through the air.
But Ozil's missile was only the beginning. Two minutes later Pinto got himself back into trouble with an ill-advised attempt to pass the ball out of the back. Such a move fits well with Barcelona's pass-first-pass-second ethos, but in that situation, it nearly led to the opening goal.
As Barcelona progresses in multiple competitions, Guardiola must weigh the value of resting first-choice keeper Victor Valdes against the possibility of another Pinto error.
Puyol Was Exposed in the Second Half
Carles Puyol was the biggest loser in Real's second-half comeback. The 33-year-old Barcelona defender struggled with the speed of Real substitute Karim Benzema and appeared vulnerable to long balls over the top.
At 33, Puyol isn't getting any faster. Rightfully considered a legend, Puyol's days of playing at the highest level could nonetheless be running out rapidly.
Both Managers Performed Well
That the match ended in a draw was no coincidence. Both managers, to varying degrees, got their tactics right.
Real started strongly—with Xabi Alonso performing especially well in a screening role directly in front of the defense—but needed a change after falling behind by two goals. Mourinho brought on Esteban Granero to replace the reckless Lassana Diarra and Benzema for the ineffectual Higuaín.
After an injury to Andres Iniesta, Guardiola introduced Pedro and sent Cesc Fabregas to the midfield. Fabregas helped draw defenders during the play that produced Barca's first goal, which was scored by Pedro.
Not everything played out so perfectly. Barcelona sagged under Real's pressure at times in the second half and never quite settled into their possession-and-passing strategy. Real didn't always remain compact in the midfield.
But for the most part, both managers made the right decisions.