Barcelona 1-1 Real Madrid: Barca progress

May 4, 2011

The starting line-ups

Barcelona rarely looked under real pressure and completed a 3-1 aggregate victory.

Pep Guardiola named the expected XI – Andres Iniesta returned from injury to replace Seydou Keita. Javier Mascherano continued at centre-back, with Carles Puyol at left-back.

Jose Mourinho switched to his 4-2-3-1 system but made two surprise selections. Kaka was in ahead of Mesut Ozil, whilst Gonzalo Higuain started upfront. Mourinho was not in attendance at the stadium (as far as is known at time of publishing) so assistant Aitor Karanka was in charge for the night.

Pleasingly, the game was less scrappy than the first leg – there were fewer squabbles and more goalscoring chances.

Real press upfront

Fearful of Barca dominating possession and killing the game, Real pushed up and pressed Barcelona. They did this reasonably effectively – they forced Barcelona into rare mistakes at the back, and combined with a pitch that looked particularly rain-sodden towards the end Barcelona were defending in the opening period, it seemed a Real chance might come from the pressing.

The other major tactical news was the use of Cristiano Ronaldo on the left, up against Dani Alves. This is where he has been used for much of the season, but Mourinho had been reluctant to use him on that flank because of Alves’ attacking threat. With Ronaldo ineffective when on the right in this series, he was given a go on the left – and whilst Ronaldo will be disappointed he didn’t influence the game more, he was a constant threat when he picked the ball up on the flank. He was assisted by Marcelo, who was positionally brave and created overlaps, allowing Ronaldo to come inside. Alves was beaten a couple of times, and Mascherano had to come over from centre-back to help out.

Midfield

The battle was 3 v 3 in the centre of midfield, where Real’s pressing continued. Pepe had been the key man in the previous two games, playing high up the pitch and aggressively patrolling the midfield zone, and Real missed his presence. Kaka stuck tightly to Sergio Busquets – maybe too tightly at times, as he was himself marked by Busquets when Real won possession.

Xavi was closed down by Xabi Alonso, the left-sided holding player (in itself a more positive strategy from Real – it had been Mesut Ozil (in the Kaka role) who had been given that job back in the 5-0). In that game, Xavi took advantage of Ozil’s natural tendencies by moving higher up the pitch – here, he took advantage of Alonso’s by dropping deeper and linking with Busquets. Alonso didn’t always track him, so Xavi’s passing dominance was even more obvious than usual – he completed 126 passes. The next highest was Busquets on 80.

Closing down deeper

Diarra was broadly tracking Iniesta but also had to provide the energy and physicality of Pepe. He had a good game overall but was lucky that he was only shown a single yellow card, as he broke up play with eight fouls.

Diarra and Carvalho both closed down quickly, but conceded fouls in doing so

The same was true of Ricardo Carvalho, a result of Lionel Messi dropping deep in his false nine role in order to make the battle 4 v 3 in midfield. Real couldn’t pass Messi onto a midfielder, and so Carvalho had to come out of defence and try and nick the ball from in front of Messi, with nearly disastrous consequences.

When Carvalho wasn’t diving in, Messi enjoyed time on the ball, space between the lines, and also held off challenges to create chances. Barcelona had a spell of concerted pressure just before the break, which largely came from pressing of their own.

Second half

Barcelona went ahead early on in the second period, when Iniesta’s great through ball found Pedro Rodriguez to finish smartly. This put the home side well and truly in command of the game.

Guardiola’s strategy worked well – he could have instructed his side simply to try and keep possession of the ball, but with Real pressing high up, it was right to try and exploit spaces at the back. The goal was a direct result of this – Real had five players around the opposition penalty area when Victor Valdes had the ball, and he sidefooted a pass out to Alves on the right flank – Barca had 5 v 5, and made the most of the situation.

Subs

Real immediately changed things with the introduction of Adebayor for Higuain, presumably to try and take advantage of Adebayor’s strength and aerial dominance. Ozil replaced Kaka soon after – the fact Real replaced the two players who were surprise inclusions suggests Mourinho made a mistake with his starting XI.

Ozil went to the left, allowing di Maria into the centre of the pitch – and Real’s pressing looked reinvigorated. Their goal came because of that pressing – Marcelo tracked Pedro deep into the Barca half, put pressure on the ball and forced a risky pass, then Alonso pressed Xavi and nipped in ahead – winning the ball and launching the attack that ended with Marcelo’s finish.

Both sides pressed high up, and intercepted passes in the opposition half

This prompted a nervous spell for the home side, but they eventually regained their passing ability and saw the game out well. Real had threatened to come back in the game, but Marcelo’s goal was actually their final attempt of the match. They were unable to close down for the entire game, the pressing dropped towards the end and passes became long, tired straight balls forward.

Barcelona weren’t too fussed about scoring a second, brought on Seydou Keita and Eric Abidal to see the game out, and 1-1 looked likely from 80 minutes onwards.

Conclusion

Real’s European Cup bid may have come to an end in Barcelona, but they really lost this tie back in Madrid. With the obvious caveat that Barcelona didn’t need to win the game, a 1-1 draw away at the Nou Camp is a fine result – it was the 0-2 home defeat that cost Real. Mourinho’s tactics from the start in the first leg seemed surprising at the time and misguided in hindsight, and his failure to adjust after Pepe’s sending-off was the deciding factor in the tie.

On the other hand, Guardiola will consider this a job well done. It’s difficult to remember a period in the 180 minutes when Barcelona looked second best – they played their natural game to an extent, but were also more reserved in certain ways – particularly with the use of the full-backs, who remained in position for most of the tie and largely prevented quick Real breaks down the flanks – the strategy that was so effective in the cup final.

It wasn’t a contest dominated by tactics, but it was a good advert for pressing and playing high up – both because Barcelona won, and because Real looked far better when they played a proactive game themselves.

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Barcelona 1-1 Real Madrid: Barca progress

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