The starting line-ups
Real started and ended strongly, but a strong five minute spell for Barcelona before half time was enough for them.
Pep Guardiola named an unchanged side from the first leg, with Jose Pinto continuing in goal.
Jose Mourinho named a very attacking side, with Kaka coming in as the central playmaker annd Gonzalo Higuain upfront. Pepe moved into defence.
This was as dominant and proactive a performance as we’ve seen from Real Madrid under Jose Mourinho in the Clasicos – Barcelona were rarely allowed to get into their stride, and were hanging on late in the game.
As we’ve come to expect, Real pressed from the opening minute, with four attackers moving forward to shut down Barcelona’s four defenders. And, as we’ve also become accustomed to, they had an early chance before Barcelona had settled, when Higuain capitalized upon a poor pass, but shot wide within ten seconds.
That incident summed up the first half – Barcelona’s passing was sloppy, but Real wasted chances. Mourinho’s side deserve a large share of the credit for their work rate and bravery in chasing early on, but equally Pinto seemed to cause Barca a lot of problems – he isn’t as comfortable as Valdes on the ball, and a couple of times his poor distribution resulted in giving the ball away near the penalty box.
Real also did well at transitions. It’s not often they play more direct attacking players, and Kaka did well to drive counter-attacks forward a couple of times. As Sergio Busquets was drawn to Kaka, space often opened up for Mesut Ozil, who had one of his more prominent Clasicos coming in from the right of a 4-2-3-1.
But then, Barcelona would have been expecting Real pressure from the first whistle – Real just always seem to fade after around 30 minutes. But, despite the goals going in just before half time, that didn’t really happen.
Barcelona’s passing was much poorer than usual. There seemed to be two main problems here – first, they couldn’t get the ball out from the back quickly because of Real’s pressing. Second, they didn’t stretch the play well enough, and were trying to play in a congested space in the middle. In the first leg, their out-ball was always Iniesta, free on the left wing. He played the same role again, but was up against Alvaro Arbeloa, a natural full-back, rather than Hamit Altintop, who didn’t know how to play the position.
Therefore, Arbeloa was much better at tracking his man, Iniesta didn’t know whether to go wide (where he rarely got the ball) or come inside, where he then added to the congestion. Barca didn’t have a right-winger, Dani Alves had been told to play more cautiously, and what’s more, Barca didn’t even seem to be focusing upon ball retention and killing the game – they gave the ball away too much.
Their main area of penetration in the first game was by hitting balls over the defence, and looking for Cesc Fabregas to break from midfield. Fabregas did that once, but played a poor pass to Messi. Alexis Sanchez was the other threat, playing right-of-centre and working that side of the pitch, but Real seemed to play a little deeper in defence than in the first leg. They also had Pepe, more mobile than Ricardo Carvalho.
Real weren’t as compact as usual, though. When Lassana Diarra moved forward towards Xavi, it often meant Messi was free between the lines. That was most obvious for the first goal – look at where Messi gets the ball, he’s beyond Real’s two holders already. As brilliant as his run and pass was, he didn’t actually have to go past a challenge.
It was Pedro who scored the goal, and Barcelona actually benefited from Andres Iniesta’s injury. Pedro came on, stretched the play and provided the threat of pace over the top – it seemed to expand the active playing zone and give Barca more space to play in elsewhere.
The line-ups after Real’s three changes
The key to the second half, and Real’s comeback, was Mourinho’s double substitution after an hour. Esteban Granero had already replaced Diarra, primarily as the Frenchman was on a booking (and if he can’t tackle, there’s no point him being on the pitch) but this also helped Real move the ball more quickly.
Karim Benzema replaced Higuain and went upfront in a straight swap, but more interestingly Jose Callejon was introduced down the left, with Kaka going off. That meant he could watch Dani Alves’ runs, and Ronaldo could go upfront. Real were now, more or less, 4-4-2, with Benzema and Ronaldo taking it in turns with their movement – one went left, the other went right. One came deep, the other went over the top.
It worked excellently, pulling Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol all over the pitch. Those two had looked nervous all night, but this meant they no longer had a spare man, and Guardiola didn’t take the decision to move Sergio Busquets deeper to form more of a back three / five, which would have been the logical option – Fabregas and Xavi would have played in midfield, and Javier Mascherano could have come from the bench if needed. Busquets, after all, was no longer dealing with a central playmaker.
Maybe a spare man would have prevented the Real goals? It’s impossible to say, but Ronaldo’s march past Puyol was relatively easy, and the second goal was another example of Barcelona conceding possession cheaply at the back. It’s not that they looked to pass it, it’s that they passed it poorly, and then found themselves in poor positions.
Another issue was Barcelona’s lack of pressure from the front. Indeed, whilst they weren’t outpassed here, they were probably outpressed by Real.
Late on, Guardiola replaced Sanchez with Mascherano, who went to centre-back, with Puyol moving across to the right. Again, an extra centre-back (rather than a replacement centre-back) seemed more sensible, but Barcelona held on.
Real didn’t win the match, nor the tie, but they produced as good a performance as you’ll see from an away side at the Nou Camp this season. Mourinho was braver than ever before with his selection and instructions to press – Real won the ball high up, stopping Barca building attacks, and creating chances of their own.
Their problem was the simple wastefulness in front of goal – they produced more goalscoring chances than Barca; only finishing let them down. The blame there lies with certain players, rather than with Mourinho’s tactics, which worked well.