Real Madrid 1-0 Barcelona (AET): Ronaldo header wins Real the Copa del Rey

April 21, 2011

The starting line-ups

A tight, scrappy game was won by Cristiano Ronaldo’s 103rd minute goal.

Jose Mourinho had to reshuffle his defence with Raul Albiol suspended. Sergio Ramos moved into the centre, and Alvaro Arbeloa came in at right-back. Mourinho also chose to play no true striker – Karim Benzema was dropped with Mesut Ozil back in the side on the right. Ronaldo started ufpront.

Carles Puyol was not risked for a second time, so Javier Mascherano dropped into the centre-back position he’s played a couple of times recently. Jose Pinto was used over Victor Valdes in goal. The rest of the side was as expected.

The game started off very scrappy – there were a lot of free-kicks early on, a few scuffles amongst players, and a stop-start nature to the contest as a whole. This, of course, favoured Real Madrid – who were keen to break up Barcelona’s natural rhythm and make the game more of a battle.

Real press

Tactically, they sprung a slight surprise by pressing Barcelona in the midfield zone early on. Pepe, superb in his holding midfield position at the weekend, swapped roles with Xabi Alonso – so whilst Alonso sat between the lines in a 4-1-4-1 system, Pepe used his energy and strength higher up the pitch, particularly against Xavi Hernandez.

This worked very well for Real. Barcelona’s passing was very poor in the first period, and they missed having Xavi constantly free in space to dictate play. They attempted to get out of the press by dropping Busquets into the defence at times and switching to 3-4-3, but they encountered the same problem – they couldn’t get the ball forward to their attacking trio, and Lionel Messi moved deeper and deeper to pick up the ball, making him less of a goal threat.

Attacking play

Messi’s absence from the final third was particularly obvious because David Villa was woefully out of form and Pedro Rodriguez wasn’t much better before half time. It’s difficult to remember Barcelona creating a good opportunity in the first half.

Real went closest to scoring. Their main tactic was to quickly hit the ball wide and try and catch Barcelona out in the full-back positions – and this resulted in their best chance of the opening period. A long ball into the Barcelona left-back zone brought Pinto out of his goal to clear – then Ozil and Ronaldo worked a crossing opportunity, dragged Gerard Pique out of the back, and Pepe towered over Dani Alves to head against the post. Mourinho was by far the happier manager at half time.

Second half

It was strange, then, that in the second half Real appeared to press less keenly. This is natural as the game goes on (especially at this stage of the season, and when the game ends up going into extra time), and Real’s intensity did dip a little after around 15 minutes anyway. However, this seemed much more of a deliberate tactic, as if Real wanted Barcelona to come onto them more, in order to leave more space at the back to exploit.

The obvious danger in that strategy is that Barcelona imposed themselves on the game. Messi, almost anonymous in the opening period, started to become the game’s key player in his playmaking position, whilst Xavi and Andres Iniesta kept the ball much better, moving up the pitch and making Barca more of a threat.

Key battles

With the two sides matching each other in midfield – and this stand-off only altered when Messi came deep – it was difficult to see where a goal was going to come from. However, whilst the first half was so scrappy that it was hard to identify key battles, the second half had more of a set pattern.

Iniesta v Khedira was a promising contest. Khedira’s job was to close Iniesta down, but he was also the Real central midfielder who had a responsibility to get forward, so it seemed that a chance may be created with one of these players getting in behind the other.

Pedro moved from the right to the left and used his pace up against Arbeloa, cutting inside and hitting the ball into the side netting early on in the second period. His movement is much better than Villa’s, and this also opened up space for Adriano on the overlap – he caught Ozil sleeping a couple of times.

The formations after Adebayor replaced Ozil

Pedro also had the ball in the net later on, but it was disallowed for offside. Barcelona played with more width in the second half, and that event was classic Barcelona – a through ball between centre-back and full-back, for a wide forward coming inside.

That side of the pitch was the key battleground, and Ozil was replaced by Emmanuel Adebayor, with Ronaldo coming to the right. In basic terms this was an attacking move – introducing a true striker – but it also helped Real defensively. Ronaldo pinned back Adriano and Barcelona were less of a danger down that side.

This was the only substitution before Ronaldo’s goal, and for such a tight, cagey game, it was a surprise that neither manager utilised their bench more. Pedro’s switch to the left and then Ronaldo’s switch to the right were the most significant developments, but positionally, little changed amongst the rest of the players.

Extra time

Ronaldo up against Adriano was now the game’s key contest. He went very close to opening the scoring with a move that typified Real’s approach – Pepe put Xavi under pressure and helped win the ball, Alonso picked it up and hit a diagonal ball out to the flank, Ronaldo sped past Adriano and flashed a shot just wide.

Ronaldo eventually got the better of the Brazilian to score – but it was in the air, rather than on the ground. Angel di Maria got past Alves and lofted a cross to the far post, where Ronaldo produced a powerful header back across goal. It was very similar to Pepe’s effort in the first half, and has been a route of attack all season for Real - in Mourinho’s first home game against Osasuna, it was notable how Ronaldo and Benzema (fielded wide) came in from their flanks to provide an aerial threat at the far post.

Guardiola couldn’t change things at 1-0 down. David Villa was removed with Ibrahim Afellay on in his place, but Real were always likely to drop deep. Barcelona really needed more of a presence in the box, but Guardiola didn’t have a true physical striker at his disposal. Real weren’t really hanging on – they saw out the extra time period confidently.


A tactical victory for Mourinho – he used Pepe higher up the pitch, used Ronaldo as a striker, told his side to press in midfield early on, and disturbed Barcelona’s passing with a proactive attitude without the ball.

Barca were well on top between 45 and 70 minutes, but Real defended well in this period, with Pedro against Arbeloa looking likely to produce a goal.

Real’s main strategy was to get the ball wide quickly, and in producing three great chances through this route (the Pepe header and the two  Ronaldo efforts in extra time), they probably created more true goalscoring opportunities than Barcelona.

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