After an intense 20 days and 4 Clasicos, it has finally come to an end. FC Barcelona has reached their 17th European final, breaking the record of 16 which they shared with Real Madrid. After the previous three cagey games, Real Madrid were forced to come out and attack because of the first leg outcome. The result was an open and attacking game from both sides, finally restoring some sort of dignity to El Clasico that was diminished by the events of first leg of the semi finals.

The game plans

Madrid had to come out and attack out of necessity and they started with Di Maria, Kaka, Ronaldo and Higuain on the pitch. Madrid had both Ronaldo and Di Maria running against Puyol and Alves respectively. Unlike most matches, Alves was less involved in attack and was more restricted at the back. Barca knew that committing the fullbacks forwards will leave them vulnerable to diagonal balls from deep to Ronaldo and Di Maria. Alonso had to shoulder the responsibility of defensive work with Diarra, in the absence of Kedhira and Pepe.

Kaka was anonymous throughout the match. Lack of possession did contribute to that, but his game lacks the aggressive pressing needed in these situations. Xavi and Busquets easily bypassed him and every time they broke the line, they looked dangerous. The lack of additional defensive midfielders was evident in the match.

Kaka couldn’t influence the game in the midfield

With Diarra and Carvalho constantly fouling to break up play and the defense frequently drawn out of position by Messi and Iniesta, there was lots of space to play in the middle. Puyol did an excellent job as left back. Pedro and Villa stationed themselves wide and stretched the defense. The biggest difference was Iniesta who simply was gliding through defenders and causing all kind of problems in the middle.

Barcelona controlled the match

With this attacking formation, the midfield had more space and it was evident that the team that controls the midfield will eventually control the game. And with Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets operating in that space, it was always going to be difficult for Madrid. Messi, Iniesta, Villa and Pedro combined and forced Casillas to produce 4 top class saves to keep Madrid in the game. Barcelona had one man to blame and Madrid had one man to thank in the first half, and that was Casillas. Barcelona’s passing was close what they managed in the first Clasico in November – fast, sharp and precise. Barcelona didn’t need to push things and they decided to control the game and keep possession. They control the game so effectively that Madrid had zero shots on goal in the first half.

Xavi ran the show once again

Madrid committed more fouls and Messi was the recipient of most of them. He ended up being fouled the most in a Champions league game – a record. It seems as if he can’t be kept out of record books in any way.

  • Xavi completed 86 (of 89) passes in the first half, vs just 106 for the whole Real Madrid side
  • Messi was fouled 11 times. Ronaldo had no shots. Both are UCL records
  • Barcelona completed 643 passes to Madrid’s 258
  • Shots On Target/Total Shots – Barca 6/12; Madrid 1/4 shots
  • Real Madrid committed more fouls against Barcelona than any team in a CL match this season

Real Madrid tried everything

With the game at 0-0, Madrid pushed the tempo up a notch and put Barcelona under a bit of pressure. This forced some mistakes and loose passes from the home team. Adebayor was introduced immediately after Barca’s goal and the match was a bit more physical. They started to lose discipline and the fouls counter was rapidly increasing. The introduction of Ozil brought a much needed urgency in the second half. But with less possession to play with, he couldn’t do much.

But all the pressure meant there was space behind Madrid’s defense and it was a matter of escaping the first wave of pressure to create a chance. Eventually that happened as Real Madrid was caught out and the ball was moved swiftly to Iniesta, who produced one of the best passes that one can recall. It split open the defense and Pedro was lurking in the back line and latched on to it.

It was again evident that controlling the game against this Barca side would be close to impossible. What Madrid required was a lot of patience in building attacks. Yes, it was true that Barcelona press from front and gives less time. But when one can escape the pressure; it is possible to push Barca back. To play that way needed a different mentality and approach rather than always looking to force an opening by directly going on the attack. Unfortunately, such an approach needs years of practice and coordination that is possible only with time. As Madrid with the talent of Ronaldo, Ozil, Kaka, Higuain and Di Maria found out, it is impossible to beat this Barcelona team in a possession game. Jose might regret some of his tactics over the two legs.

Referees again in the spot light

It is sad that this game will be again highlighted by a section as being influenced by the referee. Madrid again was pushing their limits in terms of fouls and both Carvalho and Diarra were lucky to escape red as the referee was too lenient and looked determined not to send anyone off. Finally Real Madrid managed to end a match with 11 men on the field. Higuain’s disallowed goal was again debatable with images showing Ronaldo going down after Pique appeared to have pushed him with his back. Ronald appeared to go down easily and fell tripping Mascherano who went down and earned a free kick. The referee had blown the whistle when Mascherano had gone down.

The moment that put a smile on everyone’s face

“This is the news of the day,” exclaimed a delighted Guardiola earlier at the return of Abidal. The man who was diagnosed with cancer and had an operation to remove the tumor is back on the pitch. He was given a great ovation on his return and his return was an added inspiration to the team. This was a beautiful moment to cap off the Clasicos overdose, which left a bitter taste for many.

After Abidal’s return, even Lance Armstrong, who is himself a cancer survivor, retweeted – Amazing! RT @RossStewartPT: cngrts 2 Eric Abidal: diagnosed w/ cancer 2 months ago & played n Champions League semi-final 2nite. #Livestrong