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Wednesday, January 25, 2012
Updated: January 26, 9:24 AM ET
Other-worldly displays from Barca, Real

By Graham Hunter
Special to ESPN.com

Pedro Rodriguez
After Pedro came on for the injured Andres Iniesta, he scored the first goal for Barcelona.

BARCELONA -- For those of you who are non-believers, please excuse me, but when you either attend, play in or simply watch a football match such as the second leg of the Copa del Rey quarterfinal between Barcelona and Real Madrid, I contend that it's incredibly hard not to feel that there is a superior being.

In this contention, he (she) not only created all of us but decided to give us football, too. Then, every so often, he (she) decides to take a little look in to see how things are going.

It would be my feeling that Wednesday night, somewhere over the city of Barcelona, this superior being sat down with a pizza and a cup of coffee and became absolutely absorbed. He (she) obviously doesn't carry a season ticket for a particular club, doesn't watch while wearing a particular scarf -- it's just fun to see something you have invented going so well.

And for much of the first half, this absolutely slap-bang, top-class cup tie was absorbing in the extreme.

This time Jose Mourinho got just about everything right. For all the deserved opprobrium that Pepe has earned because of his outright disgraceful behavior, the fact remains that while the Spanish Federation refuses to give him an appropriate punishment he remains free to play. And if the coach thinks that is the best way to win a match, then he'd be culpable to his paymasters if he chose not to use him.

So Pepe -- jeered by the Camp Nou fans with every touch of the ball as though he were single-handedly culpable for the world recession -- was in the starting lineup. But, fortunately, what made this night celestial was the fact that Madrid, and Mourinho, finally got men's performances from their "artistic" players.

Cristiano Ronaldo, Mesut Ozil and particularly Kaka pressed, harassed, worked and used what physical presence they possess to augment the majestic ability that already makes them stand out from the crowd. For all the accurate stories of discord between some players and their controversial coach, Madrid played like a team. Not like dilettantes. Nor superstars. They played like a unit.

Cristiano Ronaldo
Cristiano Ronaldo scored to get Real Madrid back into the tie.

It was great to watch, and what it did was bring the absolute best out of this sublime, admirable and irresistible Barcelona team.

Barcelona coped with what was asked of them and then produced better. For all the healthy aggression, hard work and pressing that Madrid offered, the home team found remedies.

Then Barca tried to create.

Passes within small spaces, physical risks in trying to carry the ball into danger areas, and generally displaying a philosophy of football that has been taught to some of them since they were 8 or 9 years old.

Even though one of the principal architects of what Barcelona is so adept at building, Andres Iniesta, stomped off with frustration and anger at his professional life being gnawed away by another injury, the Spanish and European champion hardly missed a beat.

Then came the moment that turned the night. Whichever team scored first was going to hold a massive card in its hand, and Lionel Messi, again, made the difference.

When you enjoy his skills, as I'm sure my theoretical maker was doing, it's easy to be seduced into thinking that it's all invention and improvisation. In fact, during one of the first interviews I had with him he told me he doesn't plan his wonderful slalom dribbling in advance, he just erupts into these movements.

However, what Messi has developed in recent years is the capacity to make magnificent decisions at very high speeds. His awareness of Pedro to his left and his willingness to drag three men in white toward him were the keys to releasing the winger for Barcelona's first goal, to make it 1-0.

Then the maker got annoyed. Halftime was approaching, Lassana Diarra committed an awful foul on Messi and went unpunished by the referee. So a superior being intervened.

When Dani Alves thrashed his right-footed shot on the volley past Iker Casillas it felt, honestly, like there had been some sort of divine retribution.

But what is admirable, and what I believe I have been trying to communicate for some time, is that irrespective of the division that exists within Real Madrid in terms of tactics, behavior, public declarations and, generally, how to deal with FC Barcelona's annoying habit of winning more trophies than Los Blancos, Mourinho's side is a fine group of competitive professionals.

The work ethic at Camp Nou was not only laudable, it narrowed the gap.

Often Madrid produced ugliness, which continues to scar its reputation -- Pepe's flailing hands and elbows, Fabio Coentrao's rugby tackle on Messi -- but it also scored two absolutely delightful goals. Those moments told a tale of a squad that doesn't feel beaten, which wants to lose with pride if it absolutely has to lose, and which gave the level of physical and mental application that marks out potential champions.

The product was entertainment and tension that matches any sport in any country anywhere in the world. Ever.

While this was occurring, there was also a soundtrack.

I'm quite sure that there are other examples, but if you grew up in the UK during the 1960s and '70s, then Anfield, home to Liverpool Football Club, was where the Kop choir produced the wittiest, quickest and funniest chants. Last night at Camp Nou, there was something similar.

"Mourinho come out of your dugout and face us" the Catalans sang. (It is shorter, punchier and funnier in Spanish -- trust me). Then "Mourinho please stay at Madrid forever." (Ditto.)

And as the minutes ticked down (forgive me again here), I think that the celestial being who gave us football wound up his (her) evening thinking, "Well, that was a job well done when I created this sport. They don't always understand what I wanted it all to be about, but at least this time I know that some of them down there 'get' it."

Irrespective of the 10th red card in these 10 Mourinho-Pep Guardiola Clasicos, irrespective of the continued ill feeling, Wednesday's match was a spectacle of absolute and complete magnificence. Those of us who were there will always be glad that we "got" it. Thanks whoever you are up there. This was great.

Graham Hunter is a Barcelona-based freelance writer for ESPN.com who specializes in La Liga and the Spanish national team. You can reach him on Twitter at twitter.com/BumperGraham.