Pedro Armestre/Getty ImagesReal Madrid started strong, but Barcelona once again finished on top.
Iker Casillas said, going into the Copa del Rey quarterfinals, that the Clasico was becoming decaffeinated. In other quarters, Spain has been branded the new Scotland -- too much of a good thing, a place where there are too many Old Firm matches to maintain fan and media interest. We know, based on last season's El Fiascos, that familiarity breeds contempt. It has also generated some scintillating football, a goal within 21 seconds, physically inspiring counters and tiki-taka at its sublime best. But boredom? Too much of a good thing? The theory seems to hold in all facets of life. Hugh Grant was testament to that years back when he was with Elizabeth Hurley -- no matter how good you may think you have it, you will opt for something different. If we're to believe that, then the masses weren't tuning in to watch the Clasico but opting instead for Wolves versus Birmingham in the FA Cup. Or perhaps Wrexham versus Brighton.
Pity those folks, because once again Real Madrid and Barcelona put on an engaging match at the Santiago Bernabeu. Once again, Los Blancos scored first. And once again, Barca came back to nip the win, this time 2-1 in the first leg.
Real Madrid, as we've become accustomed to seeing, came out playing strong football. Jose Mourinho's game plan was easy to see with the team he fielded: three midfield destroyers in Xabi Alonso, Lassana Diarra and Pepe to clog and contain Barcelona in the center of the pitch.
Like a coil, Mourinho's men absorbed pressure as the space between Real's lines collapsed in its own final third. Then -- boing! -- a supercharged counterattack was unleashed. It's what led to the first goal, in the 11th minute. Karim Benzema released Cristiano Ronaldo, he of the martyr complex, who sped forward at hyperdrive speed. As Real had purposely pulled Barcelona's already high line even further up the field, Ronaldo had Carles Puyol and, especially, Gerard Pique at his mercy. Then again, his shot was nothing that special; it was Barca's "Copa keeper," Pinto, who botched the play, allowing Ronaldo's ball to go between his legs.
Real was playing well, hustling on all accounts (Ronaldo, for one, showed terrific endeavor to help out at the back with sliding tackles and added pressure). But Barcelona showed it wasn't going to be bossed about, and as the first half wore on, Lionel Messi & Co. took control of the match. They had nothing to show for it after 45 minutes, but chances were aplenty. In the 16th minute, Cesc Fabregas played a beautiful chipped ball over the top that Alexis Sanchez headed goalward, albeit against the woodwork. Indeed, Pep Guardiola had his players doing quite a bit of Plan B: direct balls down the center of the pitch to Sanchez, and Fabregas was exceptional in getting many of them started, along with Xavi and Andres Iniesta.
In the 26th minute, Messi ripped off a strong shot at the near post, but Casillas was there to parry the ball away with his hand as he dove to the ground, a brilliant save, in stark contrast to Pinto's mistake. Casillas also came way off his line in the 33rd minute to head a ball away from an onrushing Fabregas, another example of Real dealing with Barca's more Stoke-like approach.
But as we've seen in this glut of Clasicos over the past year, Real seems to run out of a bit of gas, and it happened again, in the 49th minute. It was the unlikeliest of goals, really, on a corner kick. As Barcelona fans will attest, Guardiola's side loves to play short corners and try to pass the ball into the back of the net. But this time, Xavi swung the ball into the box and Pepe, who was daydreaming just a tad, watched helplessly as Carles Puyol -- "Captain Tarzan," so called by Ray Hudson -- came charging in to head the ball home.
From there, the match became a bit more chippy, with the bad blood boiling again to the surface. In particular, the second half gave Pepe haters even more reason to dislike him. First, he went down as if he had his eyes gouged out after Fabregas grazed his face, and stayed down so long that play eventually was stopped. Later, after Messi was brought down, Pepe appeared to purposely stomp on the Little Flea's hand. Did he mean it? That's something the Spanish FA will sort out, but it wouldn't be surprising if a punishment were doled out. Whatever the result, Pepe has now become the most disgraced player in the Clasico, supplanting the previously -- and heavily criticized -- Sergio Busquets
Amid some other dustups on both sides (Fabregas who, overall, had a massive game, kicking out at Pepe, and Fabio Coentrao giving it to Messi), Barcelona scored an even more unlikely goal. In the 77th minute, Messi -- showing as always that he's as good a provider as he is a goal scorer -- chipped the ball over the top to Eric Abidal on the left. It was a moment to cherish, as Abidal almost looked surprised by the fact that he had so much space in which to make his move, which resulted in the eventual winning goal as Ricardo Carvalho, playing his first game since September, was caught out of position. The Portuguese, on a yellow card, also should have been sent off in stoppage time, too, after taking down Adriano.
From there, Barcelona's patchwork rhythm of passing took even more sting out of the match. Substitutions were made; Ronaldo went missing, aside from getting the better of Puyol in the 79th minute; and once again Mourinho is left to ask questions about his side's continued inability to defeat its archrival. Out of energy, out of ideas, Real resorted to more combat than creativity, more petulance than perseverance when it went a goal down. Ronaldo put in a strong first half, but more will be needed from him. And Gonzalo Higuain -- well, he might as well have been sitting next to Mourinho on the bench, as he barely got a touch on the ball. Los Blancos will welcome back Angel di Maria for the return leg at Camp Nou, assuming he is fit.
That gives Mourinho's team about a week to think of something, anything. Maybe a little more caffeine perhaps?