Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Real Madrid - Copa del Rey champs

I am not a fan of the domestic cups - Copa del Rey, FA Cup, etc.  Its just one too many tournaments and way too many games for these players - La Liga, UEFA Champions League, Copa del Rey, International friendlies and tournaments, club friendlies - its just pretty ridiculous. These guys aren't playing poker, they're running nonstop for 90+ minutes.  Some argue that you can use your B teams for the domestic cups, but I just think it makes that tournament then even more unnecessary and irrelevant.

That said, today's match was different.  Real Madrid hadn't won this trophy in 17 years, so this meant something to Iker Casillas, who has literally won everything else there is to win.  If it meant something to him, it can mean something to soccer fans.  But its even bigger than that.

Though its not La Liga or the Champions League, anytime those two soccer giants face off, its a story.  And for the King's Cup Finale?  Yeah, I think I'll watch that.  By the way, since 1998, Real and Barca have only been in the final for a combined total of 3 times before today, and only won once (Barca 2009) in that same time.  The two best teams in Spain have not faced off in their own domestic cup final since 1990, also won by Barcelona.  All that to say, this is not a normal occurrence.  But its even bigger than that.

First, setting the stage, in a span of 18 days, the two sides would face-off 4 times.  Once in league play, once in the domestic tournament final and twice in the two-legged CL semifinal round.  In a way, each game would become more significant than the last.  It may be awhile before we see another rivalry play out like this.

Today was about Real Madrid finally finding a way to win something against the recently dominant Barcelona.  Look at the last half decade or so.  Barcelona won La Liga in '05, '06, '09, '10 and will again this year, '11.  They won the UEFA CL in '06 and again in '09.  They won the Copa del Rey in '09 to complete the treble that season.

Real?  Since '03, they won the league dramatically during Beckham's storybook final season in '07 and again in '08.  That's it.  For an organization that aspires to be the greatest club in the world, it isn't even close to being the best in its own league.  For a club that has won the UEFA CL more than any other club in history (9), it has been embarrassed by a lack of European success since Zidane's greatest goal of all time volley in '02.  Meanwhile, Barcelona is the annual favorite and dances circles around nearly everyone.

Nearly everyone, except Jose Mourinho last season, that is.  And this adds to today's spectacle.  Jose in his first year at Real has conceded La Liga, but last week broke the 5 game losing streak to Barcelona with the hard-fought 1-1 draw using defensive tactics, much like his successful plan with Inter Milan last year.  It was a performance viewed differently by all.  Some thought it was a moral victory.  Others, such as outspoken Real legend Di Stefano, thought it was an embarrassment.  But here, only my thoughts count.  Di Stefano is wrong.  What would you have Mourinho do?  Keep doing what has been done during the 5 match streak?  Think about how Real won La Liga under Capello.  Italian defending tactics.

Its obvious that Barcelona is the best at the way they play football.  Their style has also translated into dominance on the international stage as Spain are the current holders of the Euro Cup and the World Cup.  Spain's midfield engine (Xavi and Iniesta) plays for Barcelona and simply replicate the same style for La Roja.  You can't beat Barcelona at their game.  You have to counter their style with superior tactics.  And counter is what Mourinho did.

Pepe, normally a CB, was deployed at CDM, while Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira, both of whom are essentially holding midfielders / deep-lying playmakers, played alongside.  Essentially 7 field players were dedicated to form the shell that would disrupt Messi and company.  Ronaldo, Di Maria and one of Benzema (last week) / Ozil (today) would be the only form of attack.

The first of four contests was a mesmerizing thing to behold.  According to the stats, Barcelona had the lion's share of possession 76% and passed the ball endlessly to each other.  However, in reality they created very few good chances, the penalty on Villa notwithstanding.  In fact, I'd argue that Real's actual scoring opportunities were much more threatening.  {In terms of total shots, Real had 2 more shots (13 to 11) and the same number of shots on goal (6), but that doesn't tell the whole story either.}  Real was content to sit back in a tight shell and spring counterattacks when they could.  Surprisingly, when they went down to 10 men, the addition of Ozil (who I think is the heir to Zidane's playmaking throne at Madrid) actually increased Real's possession and earned them a draw.  It should be noted that Real had 8 corners while Barca had none.  I'll also note that Real's pressure defending netted them 22 fouls to Barca's 14.

Today's match was more of the same.  In the first half, Barcelona again showed off their mastery of possession, but the consistency of real chances in the penalty area were choked off by the stout Real defense.  Instead, Real could have realistically gone up by a goal or two early on had Ronaldo been able to control the ball in great scoring position better.  Later, Pepe's header off the sidepost summarily gave notice to Barca that Real was there to win.  I might add that the head referee was terrible in the 1st half.  He was calling a physical game way too tight and I was afraid that it might get away from him into one of those multi-red card slogfests.  But he improved.

The 2nd half was much different that the first.  I'm not sure what happened, but Barcelona either picked up the pace of the passing or they found a way to get an extra midfielder in the center of the pitch.  Or perhaps Madrid's CDMs were tired of ball chasing and couldn't keep up the suffocating pressure.  Either way, Messi was creating great chances regularly.  It reminded me of how the US plays against superior sides like Spain, weathering the storm and hoping for a Landon 50 yard dribbling sprint for the win.  Instead of possessing the ball even for a little while to relieve the pressure, Real would just boot it upfield, hoping to catch Ronaldo, Di Maria or Adebayor in stride.  Very Bocanegra-like.  Oh wait, no, he just likes to boot it out of bounds.  But, in fact, this whole counterattacking tactic is very American, actually.  Hmm, Mourinho for USMNT coach?  Haha, right.  Anyway, Real was lucky to withstand that 2nd half onslaught and was unlucky to score on a few solid chances to close regulation time.

I thought that Real by extra time was too tired to continue launching counterattacks and would settle for a shootout.  Up to this point, Ronaldo was active but not accurate.  But when Marcelo and the lightning fast Di Maria combined to free Di Maria wide left for a perfect cross (one of the few times in extra time that Real had numbers forward), Ronaldo took advantage of his jumping prowess and powered in the header for the lead in the 103rd minute.  Barcelona couldn't answer, and that was that.  Mourinho has his first trophy with Real Madrid.  I wonder what Di Stefano will say now.

In next week's CL first leg, we can expect to see a more confident Real side, probably with 7 defensive-minded players once again, against a ticked-off Barcelona side looking to redeem themselves and their style.  Can't wait.

Sheez, did I really just go off on the copa del rey?

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