Typically, Messi drifts back toward midfield, forcing defenders to choose between two unpalatable options: straying out of position to follow him or letting him run free. A supporting player then breaks into the free space and disorganization left in his wake. A quick one-two often results in a chance on goal. On Saturday, Messi received almost no support.
Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola fielded Tello and Alves wide to stretch Real Madrid, but by doing so isolated them from Messi’s vortex. Neither Iniesta nor Xavi got forward enough to make up for it. The Tide turned only when Barcelona placed Alexis Sanchez directly in that position. Barcelona held possession, but on Real Madrid’s terms. Jose Mourinho’s defensive six stayed sound, blunting penetration. The few times Barca sneaked through they did not capitalize. When Real Madrid did get the ball, they counterattacked ruthlessly.
Eric Abidal’s absence hurt Barcelona’s defensive organization. Guardiola’s solution to not having a true left back was to field a three-man defense, and to bring back Sergio Busquets into a four-man line when under threat. This transition did not happen quickly enough to cope with Real Madrid’s counterattacks, as seen on Real Madrid’s winner. The goal epitomized Mourinho’s brilliance: convincing the world’s greatest players – Ozil and Ronaldo – to perform simple tasks with maximum efficiency.
Reversing roles, it was Guardiola who thought too much, tinkered and tried to control every facet. Mourinho calmly deployed his typical team and left the Camp Nou with a victory which, though gratifying and comprehensive, will have little shelf life. All but clinching the league on enemy grass is an undoubted blow, but to dislodge Barcelona truly as Spain’s (and Europe’s) best club, Real Madrid must do so in Munich.
Winning the Champions League is crucial for the club’s stature. Real Madrid has won nine European Cups. Expanding that total is the goal, every season. Since Madrid’s last in 2003, Barcelona have won three times. Another triumph would make it three in four years and the first successful trophy defense in the Champions League era. Such a feat would make Real’s league title a hollow footnote, much like the Copa Del Rey was last season.
It is especially crucial for Jose Mourinho. The league is nice. Nice won’t cut it at Real Madrid. The club’s last two coaches to win the league, Fabio Capello and Bernd Schuster, did not complete the following season. Mourinho was hired to win the Champions League. If he does it, he can leave the club in June as undisputed European soccer god. If he fails he must stay, or accept that the “special” experiment has been a failure.
It is crucial as well for Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portuguese may be one of the five best soccer players ever, but Messi’s pedestal casts a shadow over him. If Real Madrid wins the Champions League, Ronaldo bests Messi for the Ballon D’Or. Their career accomplishments look equal and the debate between them is genuine. If Barcelona bounces back and wins, Messi earns his fourth-straight Ballon D’Or. The only question left is whether he’s the best of all time.
Saturday’s trophy will look great in a display case, but Barcelona still hold the upper hand.
[Photo via Getty]