Not even the Copa del Rey. What an awful week for Barça. Elimination from the Champions League last Wednesday, title hopes seriously dented by defeat at Granada on Saturday and now defeat to bitter rivals Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey final. Madrid always looked the more likely winner after Angel Di Maria fired in the opening goal in the 11th minute. Barça were given hope when Marc Bartra headed an equalizer from Xavi’s corner halfway through the second half but Gareth Bale showed power and pace to break past Barça’s defence and score a deserved winner five minutes from the end.
There were two surprises in Tata Martino’s starting XI. Bartra was declared fit shortly before kick-off and started in defence while Fabregas was again preferred over Alexis and Pedro which meant Iniesta was pushed forward on the left and Neymar was moved to the right. Whether things would have turned out differently with Pedro or Alexis is difficult to say, but Barça lacked a player to get in behind the Madrid defence and despite having a lot of possession (around 65%), the pattern of play was sadly predictable with Alba and Iniesta combining nicely on the left before sending the ball infield to Xavi and Busquets to exchange short passes, sometimes with Messi, before the ball would inevitable come to Alves to cross from the right. With midgets in a forest of Madrid defenders to aim for it was no surprise that Barça found little success with this route, the one Alves cross that found a target was met by a Jordi Alba header at the far post that went straight at Casillas.
The two contrasting styles of the team could be summed up by the first goal in the 11th minute. With Barça in possession Madrid sat deep with a four-man midfield with Di Maria employed on the right and Isco on the left. Barça passed the ball patiently, looking for an opening, until Alves hesitated and got caught in possession by Isco 30 yards from the Madrid goal. Isco played a quick pass forward to Bale who flicked a pass left to Benzema who sent a quick forward ball for Di Maria’s diagonal run from the right, Alba was in hot pursuit but when he seemed to have the shot covered, Di Maria fired through his legs and Pinto could only get a soft hand on the ball before it crept inside the post.
It was hardly a surprise when Madrid scored as Bale had already had two attempts, shooting wide with one and being denied by Mascherano’s deflection with the other. However, Barça had an improved spell after the goal. Neymar sent in an excellent cross but Iniesta chose not to shoot and the chance was lost, then Iniesta sent a pass behind the defence for Fabregas but his low cross from the left was just out of reach of Neymar at the far post. Neymar then headed well wide from Alba’s cross and Xavi was also well off target with his 20-yard drive.
There is little doubt that Barça weren’t helped by another below-par performance from Messi who was seldom seen until the last 15 minutes of the half and then his first shot was weak and straight at Casillas and his second effort went wide from 20 yards after Neymar forced the ball back. Meanwhile, despite most of the game being played in the Madrid half, Barça always looked vulnerable to being hit on the break and only an excellent block by Alba on Isco and a poor finish from Benzema just before half-time prevented Madrid going further ahead before the break.
Alba had been one of the better of Barça’s better performers in the first half but he was forced to come off injured at half-time with Adriano taking his place. The pattern of Barça possession continued in the second half but Madrid began to break more frequently. While Barça failed to create an opening, Bale had two early chances in the second half, poking a shot just wide after going past Bartra, then blasting narrowly over from 20 yards after Busquets’ poor headed clearance.
Martino brought on Pedro for the ineffective Fabregas after an hour but it was Pinto, not Casillas, who continued to face more danger. Benzema headed Modric’s corner straight at the Barça keeper, then a minute later the French striker robbed Busquets and his shot was deflected wide by Mascherano’s lunge.
Casillas was finally tested by a swerving shot from Bartra from 25 yards but the Madrid keeper managed to parry the ball out for a corner. Then another quick break from Madrid saw Di Maria find Benzema who whipped in a low shot that Pinto did well to turn round the post. Then from the corner Madrid had the ball in the net but a foul had been awarded on Pinto.
It seemed Madrid were closer to a second than Barça were to an equalizer, then in the 68th minute Neymar, now playing on the left, won a corner. Xavi curled the ball in towards the penalty spot and Bartra pulled away from Pepe to head a fine header in off the post. It was an unexpected source but suddenly Barça were back in the game.
However, little changed, Barça briefly looked more fired up but there was no change in the lack of ideas. Messi was caught in possession again and Madrid’s break ended with another shot from Bale that Pinto needed to be alert to block by the post. Alves tried shooting rather than crossing but he hurried his shot well wide, then in the 78th minute Messi for once went past Alonso to send Alves into the area but the Brazilian’s dangerous low cross again found no finisher.
Madrid continued to look more dangerous and Mascherano needed to make another last-gasp tackle to thwart Benzema, then soon after, Modric went past Busquets before firing a shot that clipped off the outside of the post. Casillas had little problem at the other end dealing with Adriano’s 25-yard effort.
Five minutes from the end Bale near the halfway line received a ball up the touchline, then after being knocked over the touchline by Bartra’s challenge, the Welshman showed balance, strength and speed to win the race for the ball before going on and on into the area and shooting under Pinto from the corner of the goal area. To be fair to Bartra he was already struggling with an apparent injury and was bravely carrying on, but that should take nothing away from Bale for an outstanding individual goal.
Barça nearly grabbed an equalizer in the 89th minute when Xavi threaded a pass through to Neymar who had to shoot quickly with Casillas rushing out of his goal, but the Brazilian’s poked effort came out squarely off the post and Barça’s best chance was gone. Pinto went forward for an injury time corner but Ramos cleared the danger. There really was no way past the Madrid central defenders today.
There is little for it now but to give it everything in the final five league games and hope for a slip-up from both rivals. Changes will have to be made in the summer but hopefully the club can show a united front until the end of the season. Tata Martino will no doubt take a lot of the criticism and it’s fair to say his team selection (Fabregas again today) is questionable at times. However, given the conditions he has had to deal with, it has not been an easy job for him to get us this far.
Madrid: Casillas; Carvajal, Pepe, Ramos, Coentrao; Di Maria (Illarramendi m86), Modric, Alonso, Isco (Casemiro m88); Bale, Benzema (Varane m89).
Barça: Pinto 6; Alves 5.5, Bartra 6.5 (Alexis m86, –), Mascherano 6, Alba 6.5 (Adriano h/t, 5.5); Xavi 6, Busquets 6, Fabregas 5 (Pedro m60, 5.5); Neymar 5.5, Messi 5, Iniesta 6.5.
Goals: m11 Di Maria 1-0, m68 Bartra 1-1, m85 Bale 2-1.
Yellow cards: m3 Isco, m16 Neymar, m16 Pepe, m53 Mascherano, m88 Alonso.