Real Madrid 0-2 Barcelona: two goals for Messi

April 28, 2011

The starting line-ups

Lionel Messi scored a poacher’s strike and then a superb solo effort to give Barcelona a major advantage in the tie.

Jose Mourinho named his expected side – Lassana Diarra was in for Sami Khedira, whilst Raul Albiol came in for the suspended Ricardo Carvalho.

Pep Guardiola also chose the side expected in the preview. Carles Puyol returned from injury to fill in at left-back, whilst Seydou Keita replaced the injured Andres Iniesta.

The game was scrappy, dirty and not particularly pleasing on the eye. For much of the contest, the objective of both sides seemed to be to get opposition players sent off, rather than actually try to score a goal. Tactically, it wasn’t fascinating for long periods.

Real without ball

The main question before the game was how Real would play without the ball. In the league they sat back deep and let Barcelona have possession, then in the cup they pushed up, pressed and got in Barcelona’s faces. Having played much better in the cup final – a game they won – it seemed the latter would be their approach here.

They were much more conservative, however, sitting relatively deep and concentrating on nullifying Xavi. Pepe, probably the best player across the previous two contests, continued to track him across the pitch. Cristiano Ronaldo was visibly annoyed with Real’s tactics – at one point desperately trying to close down three Barcelona players, with no help from his teammate. Real were letting Barcelona play.

Barcelona possession

So, with Barcelona enjoying around 65% of possession in the first half, the game’s major issue in the was this – how could Barcelona transform their dominance of the ball into goals. They essentially had three problems to try and get around here. First, Xavi was being man-marked. Second, Iniesta wasn’t playing. Third, since Barcelona were only dangerous in the cup final when they played with width, David Villa and Pedro Rodriguez stayed very wide, making them less of a direct goal threat, whilst Messi was very deep.

Barcelona were essentially playing no centre-forward, and with Real packing the area in front of the defence with three holding midfielders, shots from long-range and interplay through the centre of the pitch were also unlikely to result in a goal. Therefore, there were three ways Barcelona stood a chance of scoring – (a) with a wide forward cutting in – as Villa did when he flashed an early shot past the post, (b) with midfield runners – what Xavi did when he had the best chance of the first half, and (c) Messi beating players to get into the box himself. That didn’t happen in the first half, but it would have a very obvious impact later on.

For their part, Real rarely threatened in the first period, aside from one moment when Valdes struggled to hold onto a long-range Ronaldo shot.

Xabi Alonso's passing was disappointing

Second half

Mourinho made a change at half time, bringing Emmanuel Adebayor on for Mesut Ozil – who completed just two passes in the first half – and pushing Ronaldo to the right of midfield. This change has been questioned in the immediate aftermath of the game, specifically the decision to bring on Adebayor over Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuain, but it made perfect sense – Adebayor had a very big impact in the previous two Clasicos from the bench. He was the logical choice.

Unfortunately, Real couldn’t really take advantage of his strengths. He won a long ball after 40 seconds of the first half, but generally had no support to get on the end of flick-ons. Real’s expected approach – get the ball wide, then hang up crosses (something that worked so well in the cup final) broke down before it even begun, because Xabi Alonso exerted little influence on the game, and his long balls to the flank were often wayward, as the chalkboard on the right shows.

Red card

The key moment of the game was Pepe’s red card. It meant that Real were forced to switch to a 4-4-1 shape, and had three direct consequences.

First, obviously, it meant Barcelona enjoyed even greater dominance of the ball, now with an extra man in midfield. The game was even more about Barcelona’s conversion of possession to chances.

Second, it meant that Xavi was no longer being man-marked, and he was free to move up the pitch into more attacking positions – he provided the ball out wide for substitute Ibrahim Afellay for the first goal.

Third, it meant that Alonso had to move forward slightly into a 4-4-1 and Real were now much more vulnerable between the lines, meaning Messi got more space and more time on the ball, eventually scoring both goals. It’s particularly obvious on the second goal that there is a huge gap between the two Real banks of four. Making tactical criticisms of such a wonderful goal is probably unfair, but an extra man in that zone may have stopped Messi, or at least forced his run wider before one of the defenders truly stopped him.

No Mourinho changes?

By this time, Mourinho had been sent to the stands, and it was surprising that he (or one of his coaches) didn’t choose to make a substitution after Pepe’s dismissal. There are two strands to this criticism – there’s the obvious fact that Real were now without one of their key players, someone who was widely recognised as playing an important role in stopping Xavi, and Real now faced a problem in midfield. There’s also the more simple argument that with Barcelona keeping the ball and tiring Real, some simple fresh legs may have been useful. Afellay demonstrated that on the other side.

These are the passes received (rather than played) by Lionel Messi - it's interesting how deep they are, and how rarely he picks up the ball in the final 25 yards of the pitch

Admittedly, Mourinho’s options from the bench were limited, but he could have removed one of his three forwards, put on Esteban Granero as a third central midfielder, and played no-one on the right of midfield – Carles Puyol wasn’t a huge attacking threat from left-back. That’s no criticism of Puyol (who had a great game) – merely a recognition that leaving him free at left-back would have been preferable to giving Xavi and Messi more time on the ball. It’s easy to be wise in hindsight, but making no substitutions whatsoever after the goal was a surprising decision from Mourinho, and he rather gave Guardiola and Barcelona time to assess the situation before pouncing.

Other factors

Three other points of note.

Puyol and Keita were drafted into the side as something of an emergency, but in a tough, physical game like this, their strength came in handy. Puyol and Keita are much more physically imposing players than Adriano and Iniesta, and though there was less technical quality from those positions, it didn’t turn out too badly.

Barcelona sat deeper than usual at the back, which caused Real problems. Alonso was unable to hit balls over the top of into wide positions, whilst when Ronaldo (in the first half) and Adebayor (in the second) played high up against the defence, there was a big gap between them and the midfield. On a related note, Dani Alves was very conservative.

The quality of Real’s set-pieces was dreadful. Alonso’s balls into the box were often weighted wrongly, whilst Ronaldo’s shots were usually wasteful. This seemed like Real’s best chance of scoring a goal, yet they constantly produced little.


There were two stages here. First, Real let Barcelona have possession, but relatively few chances were created. The second phase came after the red card to Pepe – which must go down as the turning point in the game. It freed up space for Xavi and Messi, Barcelona’s two best players, Mourinho didn’t respond, and Barcelona eventually scored two crucial goals.

Chalkboards from the excellent Total Football iPhone app

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