Barcelona 2-2 Real Madrid: two goals each for Ronaldo and Messi
Both sides appeared content with a point from an entertaining match.
Tito Vilanova surprisingly named Adriano at centre-back rather than Alex Song, in the absence of Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol. Andres Iniesta returned to the side in place of Alexis Sanchez.
Jose Mourinho went for a familiar side – with no Luka Modric or Michael Essien, it was essentially the Real of last season, with Mesut Ozil as the number ten.
It was the usual pattern – Barca dominating possession, Real a threat from quicker attacks and set-pieces.
This was a simpler tactical battle than recent Clasicos. There was no hint of Barcelona playing three at the back, as they did frequently under Guardiola in these matches, despite injury problems at the back. It was a clear back four, with Busquets staying in midfield rather than dropping between the centre-backs.
There was a modification to Barca’s 4-3-3 on the left, however. Against Benfica in midweek that was the zone they looked to play in, but with Iniesta rather than Sanchez they played in a different fashion. Iniesta played in an odd role – either a deep and central left-winger, or a high and wide central midfielder. He concentrated on dragging Alvaro Arbeloa out of position. Cesc Fabregas played a free, varied attacking midfield role – trying to find space between the lines and breaking forward into attack.
Real were a simple 4-2-3-1, and while they’ve often looked more like 4-4-1-1 or 4-5-1 without the ball in this fixture under Mourinho, tonight they made more of an effort to retain their shape. Cristiano Ronaldo and Mesut Ozil stayed high up the pitch while Angel Di Maria was dragged deeper, but obvious battles were apparent across the pitch in an open encounter, with both sides having a spare man at the back. Xabi Alonso moved higher up the pitch than usual, trying to press Xavi Hernandez – although the Barcelona captain remained in a deep position close to Sergio Busquets, so Alonso gradually stood off.
The game was not so much about the midfield battle, which Barcelona were always likely to dominate by virtue of having extra numbers, but about what the teams were attempting in the final third. Barcelona’s initial attacking threat was minimal – despite plenty of the ball they failed to offer penetration, partly because of the lack of forward running. Lionel Messi came towards the ball, often tracked by Sergio Ramos, but Pedro Rodriguez was the only man making runs in behind the defence – Fabregas was bursting from a deeper, more obvious position, while Iniesta drifted infield rather than towards goal. Barcelona played in front of Real, which meant the away side were happy to keep a high line and remain compact.
Iniesta’s unusual positioning was a key factor in Barcelona’s moves. Alvaro Arbeloa tried to stick very tight to him – often tracking him well into central midfield zones – which meant space opened up for Jordi Alba to break into. As against Benfica, he was more attacking than Barcelona’s right-back (Martin Montoya replaced Daniel Alves because of injury midway through the first half) and overlapped well. It felt as if Barcelona could have made more of Arbeloa’s aggressive positioning if Fabregas had moved more towards that side, but he remained central.
Pedro was high up on the right, offering width and tricky wing play. With Messi quiet in the opening minutes, Pedro seemed the major threat, although it took involvement from Iniesta for him to contribute to a goal. Iniesta drifted across to the right to take up a similar position to the ones he was taking up on the left – this dragged Marcelo narrow and opened up space for Pedro to cross.
Real Madrid approach
Real carried out their gameplan more effectively than Barcelona in the first half. First, there was the shape without the ball – which was positive and high up the pitch. As the game went on it became more scrappy, but in the opening minutes Real won the ball cleanly and launched quick attacks. Alonso hit a couple of diagonals into wide positions, and the role of Mesut Ozil was important – although his contribution on the ball in the first half was minimal, his movement into wide zones helped overload Barcelona in the full-back positions, and Real could get crosses into the box.
Ozil’s positioning on the right played a part in Real’s opener, when they worked the ball across the pitch for Ronaldo to score. Interestingly, it was the third time Real had looked threatening in the zone outside Alves – first Marcelo moved there untracked but didn’t receive a pass, then Karim Benzema had drifted to the back post for a cross he didn’t connect with cleanly. Barcelona were less vulnerable in that zone once Montoya replaced Alves.
Benzema’s finishing was poor, but his hold-up play was impressive and he helped encourage his teammates up the pitch – although Real often played directly, they also got numbers into the final third and put pressure on Barcelona. Set-pieces were an obvious danger for the home side, whose average height was even smaller than usual – Ramos headed wide from one corner.
There was little progression in the tactical battle in the second half. Messi was more involved, and Fabregas seemed to stay wider to the left, trying to take advantage of the space in behind Arbeloa. The first tactical change was Vilanova removing Fabregas and introducing Sanchez, who mastered the out-to-in run from the left on Tuesday night, although wasn’t involved much here.
Ozil became more of a presence in the second half, drifting wide, prompting counter-attacks and also assisting Ronaldo’s goal. The German’s influence upon games at the Nou Camp is often questioned, but that’s two consecutive Liga fixtures at this stadium where he’s assisted a Ronaldo goal, and his overall contribution was good.
Barcelona had a lot of the ball in the final 20 minutes but didn’t create significant clear-cut chances when Real had men behind the ball. Their most presentable chance was when Pedro broke quickly down the right in behind the defence, and they went closest when Montoya hit the bar from long range.
The significant Real changes were like-for-like – Gonzalo Higuain for Benzema, Kaka for Ozil. Vilanova didn’t elect to use his third substitution, while Mourinho used Michael Essien for Angel Di Maria in the 88th minute, seemingly pushing Kaka right and going for a 4-5-1 system. He was happy with a point.
Not an overly tactical match – both sides played their usual system, with a minor caveat on the left side of Barcelona’s attack (although that was fairly standard in big games under Guardiola when he used Iniesta wide in the front three). Couple that with the lack of significant tactical shifts or substitutions, and this was basically two sides playing their own game rather than thinking about the opposition.
The game was played a decent standard, yet there were only five shots on target – and four goals. This fixture is often cast as Messi versus Ronaldo, ignoring their talented teammates and the overall tactical contest, but if there has ever been a Clasico that was primarily about the goalscoring of those two players, this was it.