|photo by JD Hancock||via PhotoRee|
Columnist Scott is up in arms, and this time rightfully so:
Shameful. That's the only way to describe Real Madrid’s performance against Barcelona in the first leg of a quarter-final pairing of these two Spanish giants in the Copa del Rey. Such was my disgust with everything Madrid did after the first 15 minutes of play that after the game I literally changed out of the Real Madrid jersey that I had so proudly donned only two hours previously.
And it all started so well.... Although Barcelona had most of the initial possession, I was snug in my home office watching on ESPN3 with my Leffe Blond beer at my side (6.6% alcohol, “smooth and fruity, with a spicy aftertaste and a hint of bitter orange”), relishing the rat-a-tat-tat Spanish commentary and ready to watch what was clearly going to be another Copa del Rey victory over the vile Catalonian separatists. But it was not to be…
Losing at the Camp Nou is one thing, given that site’s boisterous energy, still tinged with the history of being the only place anti-Franco Catalans could voice their opposition to that oppressive regime. But it has been over 35 years since Juan Carlos stepped aside in the wake of El Generalisimo’s death and oversaw a transition to a parliamentary monarchy, so you would think that Los Blancos could at least defend La Casa Blanca known as Estadio Santiago Bernabeu! No. Instead they hung up their cleats after going up 1-0 and only donned them again to stamp on poor Lionel Messi’s hand. Shameful.
As I said, the game was controlled from the start by Barcelona, but Real Madrid were employing the Jose Mourinho-style pressing and hustling with some success. I was positively giddy with the anticipation of what could be when Cristiano Ronaldo sprinted all the way back to his own 18 yard box to execute a perfectly timed slide tackle after hustling defensively up front, too. This pressing morphed into the first sustained possession by Real Madrid in the 7th minute. But it was another counte attack by Los Blancos that allowed Ronaldo to silence the disparaging whistles of late when Karim Benzema’s long pass set CR7 free down the left flank. A burst of speed and a crafty step-over move later, the immaculately-coiffed Portuguese temporarily exorcised the blue and maroon striped demon with his low, driven left-foot shot that billowed the net after sneaking by the somewhat awkward Jose Manuel Pinto. All seemed to be going according to plan.... But could Real sustain this level of play and energy, or would they crumble as they did in their last league game against their archrivals?
That question seemed to be answered immediately when, in the 15th minute, a stranded Iker Casillas was saved by the bar. And then, despite the end to end action that defined the game around the quarter hour mark, Ronaldo began to slowly but inexorably disappear from the game after having done it all for Real Madrid during the first 12 minutes. A familiar cloud of doom seemed to be approaching, and its inevitable arrival was announced by Pepe’s yellow card at the 17th minute. What followed was a downward spiral of Real Madrid’s decreasing confidence, Barcelona’s increasing confidence, and the former’s increasingly shameful play.
The 24th minute saw only a glimpse of Ronaldo vanishing over the horizon as he was ostensibly too unselfish when trying, unsuccessfully, to find Benzema with a pass when he could have carried on through to goal himself. Casillas was tested again at his near post in the 25th minute and Andres Iniesta was unable to hit the target in the 28th minute after some excellent Barcelona build-up from the back. That the cloud of doom was directly over the Bernabeu was obvious when, in the 32nd minute, Real’s goalkeeper had to perform a diving header to stifle a Barcelona attack. It seemed as if the heavens would open up any minute and shots and goals would rain down on Madrid.
The second half started with yet another sloppy pass by Real Madrid, leading to more possession by Barcelona, another offensive threat and, ultimately, a corner for the visitors. Given that everybody in the world knows that Carles Puyol scored the winning goal with a header in the World Cup Final against Netherlands in 2010, why in the world was he left open to head in the tying goal in this game? One goal was never going to win it anyway, and maybe that clap of thunder would awaken Ronaldo from his stupor, but to concede in that fashion was dispiriting.
Unfortunately, things only got worse from there. Madrid’s only real chance thereafter was Benzema heading against the post from Hamit Altinop’s cross, after the Turk juked Iniesta out of his shorts. The fact that Altinop’s unshaven look made him appear like a 19th century criminal was apropos given what followed in the second half: in between chasing the ball, fouling Messi & Co. whenever possible, and desperately trying to defend wave after wave of Barcelona’s offensive surges, Real Madrid lost their collective cool, with a few players in particular (Pepe and Fabio Coentrao) transforming into petulant children acting out because they weren’t getting their way. Pepe got things going in the 63rd minute when he faked an eye injury and forced play to stop so medical staff could tend to a fictitious lesion – just the type of loathsome behavior that draws reasonable criticism from soccer-haters.
About that time, Coentrao wanted to one-up Pepe, so he shoved Messi’s head down when getting up from a tackle. And you gotta hand it to Messi – he does not go down easily. But when Pepe purposefully stamped on his hand in the 68th minute, the diminutive Argentine abandoned stoicism and writhed with pain. I agreed with the near-shouting demands from the Spanish commentators who were crying for Pepe’s helpfully-exposed scalp. Wayne Rooney is reported to have tweeted “Pepe. What an idiot.” Coincidentally, my notes contain that exact second sentence except I included an overwhelmingly appropriate profane adjective. When Pepe was finally substituted in the 80th minute, I applauded.
And when Messi picked out Eric Abidal in the 77th minute, allowing the Frenchman to slot home the winner, so sublime was the vision and pass, and so disgusted was I with my team, that I found myself nodding approvingly and muttering that Real Madrid didn’t deserve to win even if they did manage to pull level.
After a few days I will forgive Real Madrid for their poor play and disgraceful actions. And I don’t disagree with Mourinho’s pressing tactics. But Los Blancos need to find a way to keep their cool and play their game against Barcelona. They are 5 points clear at the top of La Liga table for a reason – they are an excellent team that has played better over the first half of the season. They just need not to lose their composure when they play Boogeyman FC next time. Because the way they lost it this time was…shameful.
This is farlieonfootie for January 20.