FC Barcelona made a huge stride towards the Liga title with a 2-0 victory over Real Madrid. In a game of two halves, goals from Lionel Messi and Pedro proved enough for the Catalans to move three points clear of Los Blancos in the race for the title.
Xavi – The Pass Master
El Clasico was billed as the mother of all matches and the two sides did not disappoint. Pep Guardiola surprised everyone when he chose to play Dani Alves on the right wing in an attempt to neutralise the threat of Cristiano Ronaldo. Andres Iniesta was left on the bench as was Thierry Henry. The move took everyone by surprise and it looked as if the plan had backfired in the early going.
The first half was a scrappy affair with neither team able to assert themselves. The home fans were extremely vociferous and the Madrid players responded with a brilliant start to the game. Cristiano Ronaldo was creating problems on the left and the Madrid based team looked the more dangerous of the two in the early exchanges. In what was clear from the outset, Madrid had a very obvious game plan of denying the Barca players any time on the ball. The forwards and the mid fielders were hassling and harrying the Barca players and it was evident that they were succeeding as there were some very uncharacteristic mistakes from the Catalans.
Madrid were holding onto possession quite well though they lacked the killer ball in the final third. With both Gonzalo Higuain and Cristiano Ronaldo opting for a shoot first strategy, many half chances were either wasted or denied by the hard working Barca defense. Marcelo looked threatening on the right wing but his play in the final third left a lot to be desired. Xabi Alonso had a great chance to put Madrid ahead but he managed to flick the ball well over the bar. It wouldn’t have counted though as the Spaniard was adjudged off side by the linesman on the far side.
With their backs to the wall, Barca resorted to a counter attacking strategy with Lionel Messi nearly catching the Madrid defense out with a brilliant run past the Madrid defenders. He looked to have a valid shout for a penalty when he dragged a ball back and was tripped by Raul Albiol but the referee waived play on and Madrid pressed for an early opener. The Barca mid field looked slightly ragged but responded well to the continous pressure applied by Madrid. In what was Barca’s only real opportunity of the first half, Xavi delivered a brilliant floated ball into the box for Lionel Messi. La Pulga, being closed down quickly by Raul Albiol, coolly chested the ball onto his right foot and slotted it past a helpless Iker Casillas to give Barca a slightly undeserved lead. That would prove to be the only real goal scoring opportunity of the first hald for both sides, though Gonzalo Higuain blasted a decent chance into the stands. It seemed like a war of attrition with no fewer than five yellow cards being shown by the referee.
Even though his team hadn’t hit their stride, Pep Guardiola went in to the break as the happier of the two managers with Lionel Messi’s 40th goal of the season giving his team a one goal advantage. The second half saw Guardiola tinker the formation a bit with Dani Alves returning to his familiar role at right back, with the ageless Carles Puyol shifting forward. Madrid started the first half on a positive note with Marcelo testing Victor Valdes, who made a good save to deny the Brazilian. But that proved to be a false dawn for Madrid as Barca doubled their lead though a brilliant finish by Pedro. Once again it was Xavi who was the orchestrator as he played a pin point pass behind the Madrid defense to release Pedro on the right. The young Spaniard made a clean run towards the Madrid goal and took a calm shot from the edge of the box which nestled into the bottom right corner. Pellegrini’s reaction was immediate as he brought on veteran mid fielder Guti and the Spaniard almost made an instant contribution as his brilliant pass found Rafael Van der Vaart clean through on goal. The Dutchmen however, failed to capitalise as his shot was saved brilliantly by the excellent Valdes.
With a two goal lead, Barca looked far more confident and began to impose themselves on the game. The short passing game was in full flow and they started to gain more possession in mid field to the detriment of Madrid. Cristiano Ronaldo got a couple of free kicks near the Barca box but his renowned dead ball skills deserted him at the wrong moment. He shot the first straight at Victor Valdes and hit the other one straight into the wall. With Madrid looking increasingly desperate for a goal, cracks began to surface in their defense and Barca almost took advantage. Guardiola brought on Andres Iniesta in the 63rd minute but it was the Xavi-Messi combo once again as the Spain international played a lovely ball for Messi who shot brilliantly across the face of goal only to be denied by an equally brilliant Iker Casillas. It was the same duo at it again in the 77th minute, only for Casillas to make another wonderful save of a first time shot by Leo Messi.
With Barca holding onto to possession and looking dangerous on the counter, Madrid hopes grew slimmer and slimmer as the game went on. With the game slipping out of their hands, Pellegrini brought on Raul and Benzema in an attempt to unlock the resilient Barca defense. The plan looked to have worked as Raul beat Victor Valdes only for the goal to be chalked off for a harsh handball against Benzema. Madrid pushed for their first goal of the game and kept Valdes busy towards the end of the game but the Barca custodian was up to the task, albeit the shots lacked venom and accuracy.
Barca held on for a crucial victory, their fourth consecutive against Madrid, and finished the game as the better team. With this the Catalans not only took a valuable three point lead in the standings but also the head to head record in case both teams finish level on points at the end of the season. With seven games left to play, the league is still not decided but the Catalans might just have struck a decisive blow in the battle for supremacy.
TheHardTackle’s PLAYER OF THE MATCH
Xavi Hernandez (FC Bacrelona)
The playmaker had a sedate start to the game but imposed himself as the game went on. He marshalled the mid field superbly and was responsible for both the goals. His composure was extremely important in a game where Barca started poorly and were under constant pressure for the first half of the match. He was unlucky not to have two more assists to his name as Iker Casillas denied Leo Messi on both occasions. A truly superb display by the master.
TheHardTackle’s REFEREE REPORT CARD
Name: Manuel Enrique Mejuto González
Grade: B (Average)
The referee was guilty of being too card happy as he dished out a total of 8 yellow cards. Some of his decisions were suspect and hampered the flow of the game. The foul on Ronaldo outside the box was not given and what seemed a valid penalty call on Messi was waived off. He handled the game fairly decently given the pressure but at times his decisions were baffling.
REAL MADRID 0-2 FC BARCELONA
Venue: Estadio Santiago Bernabeu
Real Madrid line-up: Casillas, Garay, Albiol, Gago, Arbeloa, Ramos, Van der Vaart (Raul 69’), Marcelo
(Guti ’56) , Alonso, Ronaldo, Higuain (Benzema ’80).
Manager: Manuel Pellegrini
Cautions: Alonso, Raul Albiol, Ronaldo, Garay.
Sent Off: None
Barcelona.s line –up: Valdes, Milito (Marquez ’79), Pique, Maxwell (Iniesta ’63), Puyol, Busqets, Keita, Xavi, Pedro, Dani Alves, Messi.
Manager: Josep Guardiola
Cautions: Messi, Alves, Xavi, Maxwell .
Sent Off: None
Scorers: Messi (‘33), Pedro (’53).