Barça’s season took a big blow tonight at Camp Nou as Real Madrid reached the Copa del Rey final with a comprehensive 1-3 win over the holders. Cristiano Ronaldo fired the visitors into a 13th minute lead from the penalty spot after Gerard Piqué had brought down the Portuguese striker. Ronaldo added a second just before the hour before Raphael Varane headed in a third with twenty minutes remaining. Jordi Alba’s late goal was little consolation for the hosts and there will be many questions as to how to turn things around before the Champions League return match with AC Milan in two weeks’ time.
There was no place in Barça’s starting XI for either David Villa or Cristian Tello as Tito Vilanova and Jordi Roura went with the same ten outfield players that started in Milan and with Pinto in goal. Jose Mourinho made a surprise decision to leave out Pepe, starting with Raphael Varane and Sergio Ramos in central defence. There was no room for Kaká as Angel Di Maria kept his place, while up front Gonzalo Higuian was preferred over Karim Benzema.
There was little in the first ten minutes to suggest that it would be such a bad night for Barça. Iniesta took just 34 seconds to cut in from the left and send a shot whistling wide, then a minute later Pedro’s cross from the right found Messi at the near post but after a good first control he pulled his shot just past the far post. Puyol couldn’t get enough head on Xavi’s free kick, then in the seventh minute Fabregas had the first shot on target with Diego Lopez gathering at the near post.
In the eleventh minute Barça won a free kick just outside the area on the left after Di Maria shoved Messi in the back. After taking the kick quickly Iniesta’s shot was charged down and Madrid mounted a counter up the right. Ronaldo received the ball and broke into the area, making two quick stepovers before knocking the ball past Piqué who lunged in and the referee Undiano Mallenco was quite correct in pointing to the spot. Despite Pinto’s antics on the line, Thong-boy sent the goalkeeper the wrong way and Madrid were in front.
Barça continued to play their game but Madrid looked more confident now. Fabregas went down in the area after what appeared to be a small push from Di Maria but to be fair it was not a clear shout and not easy to see. Madrid began to look dangerous on the counter attack and after sending a couple of long shots well over, Ronaldo fired low to the near post and Pinto made his first save. Iniesta had another effort wide after coming inside from the left, and soon after a good combination from Alves and Pedro on the right led to a chance for Fabregas who completely missed missed his shot.
There had been a fair bit said about Undiano before the game but so far there had been little to complain about except for him allowing Di Maria to clear when the ball appeared to have gone out for a corner. But in the 34th minute Pedro nipped past Coentrao into the right of the area and Alonso’s shove on the Canarian looked like a clear penalty that Undiano refused to see.
To make matters worse a minute later the ref managed to get in the way of Messi as he burst into the left of the area. It would have been a penalty if the ref had been a defender but there was nothing Barça could do. Alba showed his frustration gesturing directly in front of Undiano’s face. These incidents didn’t help Barça as the players began to seem more preoccupied with Undiano than with Madrid. There was only one more chance in the first half with Messi sending a free kick under the jumping wall and just inches past the post.
Having survived to the break with the goal advantage Madrid were looking more and more confident. Early in the second half Coentrao got forward to receive Alonso’s through ball but his shot was weak and easily saved by Pinto at the near post. Barça responded with an excellent combination from Fabregas, Iniesta and Alba on the left, shots were blocked before Alves found Busquets whose shot was saved by the diving Lopez with Arbeloa just getting to the rebound before Fabregas.
The crowd began to show its frustration, calling for Villa in the 56th minute after Messi failed to get past Khedira. Then from Barça’s corner another shot was charged down and then with one long hooked pass forward from Alonso, Di Maria was one-on-one against Puyol, the Argentinian slipped past Barça’s captain much too easily and despite Pinto getting a foot to Di Maria’s shot the ball flew straight to Ronaldo who swept the ball past Alba on the line.
It got pretty difficult to keep watching at this point, especially when Pinto came dribbling out of his area like in his old mad days. Villa came on for Fabregas but he failed to have the same effect as he caused against Sevilla. When Varane headed in unchallenged from Ozil’s corner it was clear that there was only going to be one winner on the night. Thiago and Tello came on but there was never going to be a great comeback. Pinto prevented Ronaldo from getting his hat-trick and Iniesta sent a half-chance wide. Finally in the 89th minute Iniesta sent an excellent chipped pass for Alba’s run into the area and the full back finished with a volley into the far corner.
The post-mortem will continue for a few days and there are certainly things to talk about. Firstly, it seems that we started to lose this game last week in Milan. Our confidence has taken a knock and we don’t have the great psychologist Guardiola to stimulate the players into greater effort. We followed the Milan game by fielding Alves, Piqué, Iniesta and Messi against Sevilla. Tonight was their third game in less than a week and it is a lot to ask of them to find an extra spark against such a physically strong team. The lack of fight tonight was worrying and there was definitely more hunger shown by Madrid.
The next big question is about who is making decisions. The unfortunate situation with Tito Vilanova’s illness is beginning to have its effect on results. I have no problem with the decision to put Roura in charge but when Roura says that Vilanova still makes the decisions it is difficult to see how this can work. Watching training sessions on a video connection can not be the same as being present and despite all the wonders of modern communication devices it would surely be better if one man, in this case Roura, took full control of decisions. The idea that Vilanova is on the phone to say when substitutions should be made or when Dani Alves should advance his position in the end just leads to confusion which was noticeable in the second half tonight.
These players have not become bad players overnight – though on tonight’s performance some might question the wisdom of the recent contract extentions for Xavi and Puyol – and there is little to complain about the general philosophy and playing style of the team. This is no time for revolution but a tweak here or there to our plan A would not go amiss. It is all very well to play with two attacking full backs in games when we are clearly superior, but against strong counter-attacking teams like Milan and Madrid it is proving to be very risky. Finally there should be a greater and more intelligent rotation of players to keep everybody sharper and more competitive. We have a twelve-point advantage in the league but four of tonight’s players were made to play against Sevilla after they had played three days before in Milan. If they are going to be asked to play so often they also need to have the proper motivation. With Roura only half-and-half the coach how is he supposed to give these players a bollocking when they need one? I don’t suppose poor Tito via skype can help much in this respect and by the time he is back with us in Barcelona we may well be out of the Champions League too.
Barça: Pinto 6.5; Alves 6.5, Piqué 5.5, Puyol 5, Alba 6; Xavi 5.5 (Thiago m73, 5.5), Busquets 5.5, Fabregas 5.5 (Villa m59, 5.5); Pedro 5.5 (Tello m71, 5.5), Messi 6, Iniesta 7.
Madrid: Diego López; Arbeloa, Varane, Pepe, Coentrao; Alonso (Essien m84), Khedira; Di Maria, Ozil (Pepe m79), Ronaldo; Higuaín (Callejon m71).
Goals: m13 Ronaldo (pen) 0-1, m57 Ronaldo 0-2, m68 Varane 0-3, m89 Alba 1-3.
Yellow cards: m12 Piqué, m37 Arbeloa, m40 Puyol.