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What a travesty. The first two games in this four-top series for exclusive control of the universe between Barcelona and Real Madrid were good fun. The third, a first leg in the Champions League semifinals played on Real's home turf, saw Barca run out to a 2-0 win against just 10 opponents on the back of the inimitable Lionel Messi. But on the whole, the game made a mockery out of the billing it had gotten.
Here are the three biggest disappointments:
1. The complete lack of appetite for actually contesting this game
Early in the game, it became apparent that this would not be the epic throwdown we had all hoped for. In the 17th minute, Barca's Xavi and Gerard Pique stood in their own half, about 3 yards apart. Without a white shirt in sight, they were able to tap the ball back and forth seven (!) times, before they got bored and moved on. They looked as untroubled as if they were warming up for a Monday-morning practice. In the offseason.
Real, once again lining up with three holding midfielders, showed no interest in the ball -- much less in winning the game -- and set up deep in its own half. Barca, meanwhile, hadn't the ability on the day to punish its opponents. Granted, it's rather hard to catch out an opponent that won't move. Barca was frequently seen walking on the ball, while Real just sat back and watched, like 11 couch potatoes. If Real had that many, it probably would have fielded 10 defenders. Perhaps Real intended to make Barca wear itself out ahead of the second leg, further exacerbating the strain on their much thinner squad, but even that would be to sugarcoat its motives.
The unwatchable first half yielded all of three chances, two of which were handled poorly. The most dangerous attack, in fact, came after the referee had whistled for halftime, when a scuffle in front of the players' tunnel resulted in Barca's backup goalie Jose Manuel Pinto being curiously sent off without ever setting foot on the field.
It was painfully obvious that Real just wanted to avoid conceding at home, and take the fight to Barca in the second leg.
While the second half offered slightly more attacking intent, the overall approach by both teams leaves one to wonder if perhaps the Champions League is doing itself a disservice by contesting knockout games over two legs. With very few exceptions, one of the two legs has proved a dud this year, with teams pursuing either a counterintuitive strategy of letting the tie come down to the final game, or looking only to limit damage or cling onto a previous result.
2. The behavior of the players toward ref
These games between Real and Barca have come to mean so much, especially when they face each other so often in such a short time span, that all semblance of sportsmanship has vanished. The stakes have simply become so high that all means to achieve the desired end have become justified.
That manifested itself in a shameless lobbying of the referee, the unenviable mediator in the increasingly acrimonious affair. Whenever one player was grazed by another, he would inevitably collapse to the ground, writhe around in faux-agony, covering his face with his hands, while his teammates charged the referee, demanding a booking. They showed more passion in the pursuit of getting their opponents sent off than they did at any point during the run of play.
While Barca did manage to get Pepe sent off harshly, the compound effect of the whining eventually created an environment of impunity, wherein the ref had been so blunted by cries for cards and fouls that some grave and very real infringements were overlooked, like Emmanuel Adebayor's shoving opponents in the face, and Marcelo's stamping on the grounded Pedro's knee. It made for an ugly scene which, if a disciplinary committee were to really look into it closely, could lead to another downpour of suspensions.
3. Quality of play
Even considering all of the above, there's no getting around the fact that this was a desperately poor game. Barca looked tired and Real uninterested. Passing was sloppy and the pace excruciating. Even when the game opened up a little more in the second half, and more still after Pepe was sent off, the play was unsightly. Whether this was a consequence of the teams being tired, unmotivated, shackled to negative tactics or just suffering a cumulative bad day is hard to tell. What was easy to tell was that, for the most part, it was unwatchable.
If a game between some of the best sides ever assembled, archrivals athletically and politically, with the world's best coaches exchanging verbal slaps in the press, can be so nauseatingly dull, something has gone really horribly wrong. Today's game was a poor advertisement for this hallowed rivalry. The teams will have a chance to redeem themselves at the same time next week in the second leg. But they've got a lot to make up for.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.