The Champions of Spain and Europe, Football Club Barcelona demonstrated tonight for all their doubters that they are still the best team in the world with a 1-3 victory over pretenders Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu. The unfortunate Madrid fans will have thought the night was going to be theirs when Karim Benzema put them ahead after just 22 seconds. But only a foolish man would write off Pep Guardiola’s players who showed great maturity to work their way back into the game without panicking and always maintaining the Barça style and composure to which we have become accustomed. Alexis Sanchez put Barça level after half an hour and then Xavi put Barça ahead with the help of a big deflection off Marcelo, and Cesc Fabregas added a third heading in Alves’s cross.
Both coaches had small surprises to their team selection, Guardiola left David Villa on the bench, Alexis started up front with Fabregas and Messi. The in-form Mascherano was left out in favour of restoring the Piqué-Puyol partnership in a defence of four. Mourinho left out Khedira and played the more attacking Ozil in midfield in Madrid’s more usual 4-2-3-1 shape. Directly from Barça’s kick off the ball came back to Valdés and Puyol and Pique went very wide as Madrid pushed up, Valdés passed to Puyol who under pressure played the ball back to Valdés who then made a hash of his next pass sending the ball directly to Di Maria who was only 35 yards out, Puyol and Piqué were out of the game and Di Maria tried to get the ball in quickly to Benzema, Busquets managed to get in the way but the ball came back to Ozil who shot, hitting Busquets again and before anybody could react Benzema had pounced and volleyed the ball home from close range. There were only 22 seconds on the clock and it was a terrible blow to take so early.
Messi tried to get us straight back in the game after robbing Sergio Ramos, Messi got into the area and shot under pressure from three defenders but Casillas got down low to the left to save. Madrid kept up a high pressing game but Busquets and Xavi slowing started playing us back into the game. Benzema had a weak header that didn’t trouble Valdés too much, then in the 16th minute we saw the first decent run from Cristiano Ronaldo but Valdés kept his concentration to beat away the powerful shot. At the other end Xavi curled a free kick that Casillas punched away for a corner, then Ronaldo had his best chance of the first half after Benzema pulled our defence out of position but Ronaldo sent his shot well wide.
Soon after this Guardiola made the tactical change that would be crucial to the win as Alves advanced his position on the right and Alexis, who’d had little luck on the left, moved to the middle. On the half hour Messi collected the ball in midfield and set off on a splendid run before playing the ball into Alexis who showed strength to hold off Pepe’s challenge, speed to get away from Coentrao and composure to shoot across Casillas into the far corner for the equalizer. Madrid looked shocked, they hadn’t seen this coming and all of a sudden we were looking like the Barça we know and love, stroking the ball aroung comfortably, always releasing the ball just before the opponent could challenge. The rest of the first half was basically just restoring the rhythm that we wanted and getting Madrid to chase shadows. Pepe was slightly fortunate when he swung a leg at Alexis but there was not enough contact for the ref to give a penalty and then it was Messi who clattered into Alonso after he already had a yellow card for protesting but a second yellow would have been harsh despite the howls at the ref from the Bernabeu.
The second half began with another push from Madrid and they managed to win a couple of free kicks in dangerous positions, Ronaldo hit the first into the wall and the second was well held by Valdés after a bounce in front of him. however, it was Barça who were looking the better team, Iniesta was only prevented by a good tackle from Coentrao and a minute later Iniesta again caused problems getting into the area on the left, Madrid managed to clear the ball but only as far as Xavi who fired a vicious volley towards goal that hit Marcelo and spun out of Casillas reach bouncing in off the post. In Spain, they talk about “the luck of the champions”, this was certainly a stroke of luck but not undeserved on the run of play.
Madrid tried to keep pressuring our defence in possession and there was another kick from Valdés that might have given Benzema another chance if Alves hadn’t been quick to intervene, and Abidal then did well to recover after his own mistake as Madrid struggled to get near our goal. Barça’s dominance increased with time, Alexis had an angled shot stopped by Casillas’s feet and Messi fired a free kick just wide. However, in the 67th minute Madrid had the chance which could have changed everything. Xavi Alonso hadn’t been seen much in forward positions but his cross found three Madrid players unmarked in front of goal, Ronaldo was about ten yards out but his header was poor and I fell off my sofa. From a possible 2-2 we went forward with one of those long passing build-ups that are such a joy when they end in a goal. This move finished with Messi playing the ball out to Alves on the right and Alves’s fine cross was met by Fabregas in front of Coentrao at the far post and he headed in from close range.
The last twenty minutes were a joy as we passed Madrid into submission, Iniesta was particularly brilliant and in the last few minutes he made at least four charges in from the left that really should have led to another goal. However, I’m not complaining, this was Barça at our best again, at the back Piqué and Puyol were both fantastic, Busquets and Xavi organised perfectly, and Messi and Iniesta drove Madrid’s defenders nuts with their mazy runs. There is a long long way to go in this Liga, Madrid will still be better than all their other opponents (until they play us again) so we can not let up for a moment. We now fly off to Japan for the Club World Cup in our attempt to make it three trophies out of three so far this season. This fantastic victory will give us a tremendous boost and no doubt make the long journey just a little bit more bearable. Visca El Barça!
MADRID: Casillas, Coentrao, Pepe, S.Ramos, Marcelo; X.Alonso, Lass (Khedira m64); Di Maria (Higuain m70), Ozil (Kaká m60), C. Ronaldo; Benzema
BARÇA; Valdés 6; Alves 7, Piqué 7.5, Puyol 8, Abidal 6; Xavi 8, Busquets 9, Iniesta 9.5 (Pedro m88, –); Messi 9, Fabregas 6 (Keita m78, 6.5), Alexis 7.5 (Villa m83 –).
Goals: m1 Benzema 1-0, m30 Alexis 1-1, m53 Xavi 1-2, m68 Fabregas
Yellow cards: m25 Alonso, m26 Alexis, m36 Messi, m47 Piqué, m62 Lass, m64 Pepe, m71 Ramos,