Real Madrid 1-1 Barcelona: Real fight back impressively, but gap remains eight points

April 17, 2011

The starting line-ups

A penalty each from the two Pichichi contenders saw honours even at the Bernabeu.

Jose Mourinho left out Mesut Ozil and brought in Pepe to give extra grit in the centre of midfield. Raul Albiol started at centre-back, and Karim Benzema got the nod upfront.

Pep Guardiola welcomed back Carles Puyol, allowing Sergio Busquets forward into his natural position. Elsewhere, it was as expected.

The first half was a bit of a non-event – the game started at a very high tempo, but for long periods there wasn’t a lot of good football played. Barcelona’s short passes were often misplaced early on, whilst Real’s longer balls were also wayward.

Pepe

The key tactical factor was Mourinho’s use of Pepe ahead of the back four. This always seemed likely to be a tactic at one stage in this four game series, but it was a slight surprise that it was used for this game, where Real Madrid pretty much had to pick up three points.

Pepe had a very good game – he was possibly the best player on the pitch. He didn’t man-mark Lionel Messi, he simply kept a sensible distance between the back four and the other two midfielders, and denied Barcelona space in that zone. He also provided the raw physical power that Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira lack, and put in some fierce tackles throughout the game. Messi still got space, of course – it’s impossible to completely stop him – but nothing like the time on the ball he enjoyed in the 5-0.

Approaches

Barcelona’s formation was nothing unexpected, though their strategy was slightly different to usual. First, since they didn’t absolutely need the win, the focus on possession was even more obvious at points in the first half. They kept the ball when often they would have looked to play the killer pass, and through balls came even later than usual in their attacks. This was also partly because Real pressed in the midfield – moves often went back to the defence, across to the opposite flank, and then re-entered the midfield.

There was also less obvious pressing from the front three – David Villa and Pedro Rodriguez seemed to drop deeper than usual and sometimes left Messi as the highest player up in a 4-1-4-1 in the defensive phase of play. Again, this owed something to Real’s strategy with the ball, which was to bypass the first press by playing long, direct passes, especially out to the flanks – Villa and Pedro rarely had to pressure Marcelo and Sergio Ramos.

Real’s strategy with the ball didn’t seem particularly effective as they created few goalscoring chances in the first period, but Ronaldo was an obvious threat and won a couple of free-kicks on the edge of the box in dangerous positions. Angel di Maria was less visible on the left, but Sami Khedira offered another option through the centre with storming runs forward. He lacked the creativity of Ozil, but in the early stages his energy was more useful than Ozil’s creativity would have been.

Ozil also put pressure on Barcelona when they had the ball deep in midfield – Real didn’t press particularly well as a unit, but Mourinho seemed happy just to make Barcelona work quicker in the centre of midfield, and the side was much more compact than at the Camp Nou.

Real were also a constant threat from set-pieces. The difference in height was obvious (an average of three inches per player, according to one source) and Barcelona looked a little desperate at times when the ball came into the box.

Second half

The key event of the game came eight minutes after the break, when Raul Albiol was dismissed for pulling down Villa in the box – a penalty, converted by Messi, followed. Though the individual defending can be criticised, the fact that Villa got in behind the defence was no coincidence. Balls chipped over the top of the defence for him was Barcelona’s main route of attack throughout the game – this pass had come from Busquets in his own half, though usually it came from further forward, when Real lost one of of Xavi, Iniesta or Messi.

Barcelona were casual after the goal – maybe too focused upon keeping possession and not determined enough to get the second goal.

Mourinho changes

The formations from 67 minutes onwards, with Real down to ten men

Huge credit must go to Mourinho for the changes that got Real back in the game. Playing Barcelona is hard enough with eleven, so going down to ten men and being subject to Barcelona’s keep-ball session is not a situation many sides come out of well, but Real effectively ‘won’ the 10 v 11 game, which is extremely impressive.

Mourinho’s first move was odd – Ozil on for Benzema, as Real looked to steady the ship having gone a goal and a man down. It was nearly 15 minutes after the goal when Mourinho brought out the ‘ten man strategy’ he had prepared for. He got rid of Alonso, who wasn’t mobile enough for the plans, and di Maria, who had contributed little. On came Emmanuel Adebyor, who provided a focal point for the attacks, plus Alvaro Arbeloa.

Arbeloa may have seemed a strange choice to get Real back in the game, but it worked very nicely. He went to right-back, Sergio Ramos came inside, and Pepe could return to his central midfield role, having been forced to drop in at centre-back after Albiol’s dismissal. He continued to stamp his authority on the game, and along with Khedira provided tremendous energy in the centre of the pitch, meaning Real weren’t completely dominated despite having a man less.

Amongst all this, Barcelona were given problems with Puyol departing through injury. Busquets filled in at centre-back and Seydou Keita came into midfield.

Ronaldo moved to the left and Ozil went to the right. The German was the star man after his introduction – he provided quality on the ball, played intelligent passes and was effectively the link player Real had missed early on. He also worked very hard, and it was his pressure on the edge of the Barcelona box that won the ball and resulted in Dani Alves fouling Marcelo for the penalty. Marcelo continued to get forward even after Albiol’s dismissal, and Real stretched Barcelona admirably for the final 15 minutes.

Conclusion

Neither side played particularly well here. Barcelona lacked their usual fluency – neither Xavi nor Iniesta had great games, Pedro was quiet, and Villa is clearly lacking confidence in front of goal – that’s ten games without scoring for him.

Real’s use of Pepe worked excellently, and they upset Barcelona in midfield with a physical battle. Admittedly, this meant that (without Ozil) they weren’t as much of a goalscoring threat as they would have liked, but there was surely always a plan to keep it tight early, then introduce another attacking player as the game went on. They essentially managed to do that despite going down to ten, by squeezing every last drop of energy from Pepe and Khedira in the centre.

Ultimately, however, this was a great result for Barcelona. A five point gap (with the mental blow of losing to Real) would have made things interesting, but eight points – plus a bonus ‘half point’ for the head-to-head record – means this is probably the day we can close the book on the title race in Spain.

Real Madrid 1-1 Barcelona: Real fight back impressively, but gap remains eight points

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