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Real Madrid 1-1 Barcelona: Blancos' Pride and Determination Mark a Gritty Stalemate

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One down, three to go. In the first of four highly anticipated match-ups, Real Madrid and Barcelona drew 1-1 at the Santiago Bernabéu in what was a gritty game marked mainly by players' nerves and referees. Leo Messi put Barcelona ahead 1-0 on a penalty after Raúl Albiol pulled down David Villa in the box (the Madrid defender was shown a direct red card); Cristiano Ronaldo tied the game at 1-1 for Madrid after Dani Alves mistimed a challenge on Marcelo (Alves was not shown a card, though a yellow would have been his second of the game).

Perhaps the most interesting part of the match was Mourinho's decision to include Pepe in the midfield trivot, at the expense of Mesut Özil, and to slide Albiol into Pepe's center-back role next to Carvalho. Tactically, the Portuguese defender's presence in the midfield stifled Barça's passing, relegating them to horizontal possession for most of the game.

It was a tricky move by Mourinho, one that belies a belief that we here at Managing Madrid share: possession does not win a game. By ceding possession to Barcelona, Mourinho cut off their dangerous diagonal passing lanes (that had so destroyed los blancos in the first leg), and relegated their "style" to mainly negative (that is, backwards) passes.

It also meant that Madrid played mainly on the counter-attack--which is arguably Barcelona's weak link: Ronaldo and Di Maria bombed down the flanks with Benzema in the center looking for quick passing lanes and vertical runs. While this style only gave los vikingos a small percent of the game's possession, it actually resulted in a similar number of total goal-scoring chances.

Critics of Mourinho (and of Madrid generally) will argue that this brand of counter-attacking, defense-oriented, fast-paced football is "bad" or "boring" football, that it shames Madrid to play like this. That's total bullsh*t. Seriously. There's no one brand of universal "good" football--I love watching my team defend properly, cut off angles, shut down attacks. I love watching fast-paced counters, brutal, lightening-quick finishing. That's way more beautiful, to me, than negative, horizontal, boring possession-based football. To say that one way is "better" than another is necessarily to make a totalizing universal out of a subjective opinion; and to the argument that Barça's style has resulted in trophies, I would respond that so did this style, unless Italy's 2006, 1990 (etc) World Cups, Greece's 2004 Euro Cup, and more recently Madrid's 2006-2007 Liga don't count?

I'm getting way off topic, though, because the real focus of the match was the refereeing, which has pretty much been attacked on all fronts. I'm going to try to be fair here--to both the teams and to the refs--because there have been so many biased articles about this already.
  1. Barcelona wanted a penalty on Casillas for an encounter with Villa in the first half. This was a tough call: in my (in)expert opinion, Villa did himself no favors by beginning his fall before Casillas got to him. At the same time, there was some contact, but no clear indication that Villa could have gotten the ball had there not been contact--close play, could have gone either way, but the right (no-) call in my opinion. Madrid got the better end of the stick on this one.
  2. The first penalty. The right call, Albiol grabbed Villa's neck and pulled him down. Would have liked to see him try for the ball at least: you're giving up a shot or a penalty in that scenario, the least you could do is swipe at the ball.
  3. The second penalty. Dubious, but ultimately correct. There was contact, though Marcelo did exaggerate his fall, and Dani Alves was way behind when he went to ground. While this was much more up in the air than the first penalty, Alves has no business going to ground there--Football 101: referees are looking to make up for earlier penalties, so don't give them an excuse.
  4. Alves not getting booked for his tackle. Terrible call. If the penalty call is correct (remember, if), then Alves has to be booked. Textbook yellow card: going to ground, missing the ball, preventing an attack. This is where everything unravels: the referee looked weak, and didn't back up his original call with a punishment worthy of the crime. Barça got the better end on this one.
Incidentally, the referees left everyone unhappy, which seems oddly fair. It'll be sad to see Albiol miss the Copa final (his punishment for his red card), but it was deserved; Barça will be counting their lucky stars that the same thing didn't happen to Alves.

In the end, though, this was the least important of the four games, and has left much to be decided. Madrid proved to themselves that Barça isn't infallible, which should be a huge boost going in to the next few legs of this crazy season. They also proved that they have the guile, grit, and love of the colors to pull out a win even when everything seems lost--that has to count for something. 

Let's just hope that Mourinho will be able to finally finish a game against Barça with 11 men on Wednesday...

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