It was one of the most hotly awaited Clasicos in recent history. Barcelona hosted Real Madrid at Camp Nou, with a chance to reduce the gap at the top to just one point, with momentum potentially allowing them to overthrow their historical rivals and retain their title for the fourth consecutive year.
Instead, Jose Mourinho mastered his first league victory over Barcelona, as his Real side displayed the kind of resilience the Portuguese tactician has been trying to instil in his side since taking over with the task of getting Los Blancos back on top in Spain.
Mourinho has always known that there was no chance of his side being able to out-Barca Barca. It is not possible. So instead he set his team out to suffocate Guardiola’s men, hitting them hard on the counter and trying to utilise their size advantage in set-pieces.
This was not the Real Madrid we have seen this season. Not the fast, fluid side that have steamrollered their way to the summit of La Primera, scoring a whopping 109 goals in the process.
Mourinho set his team out to do one thing. Make El Clasico the most unrealistic of titles.
This was anything but classic. It was scrappy, it was untidy and for all the expensive or finely groomed quality on show, none of the players exactly looked like the finest footballers on the planet.
Instead we saw another side of Madrid’s new breed of Galacticos. For all the skill and attacking talent these players were purchased for, there were some stunning defensive performances.
Angel Di Maria and Karim Benzema put in the hardest shifts of their careers, tracking back and harassing Barca’s midfield trio of Sergio Busquets, Thiago Alcantara and Xavi.
Not once did the creative triumvirate have a moment to work their magic, as the attackers got in their faces, allowing Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira to keep close tabs on Lionel Messi, with the Argentinean genius stifled by the persistent attention.
Then there was Mesut Ozil. The German has oft been Mourinho’s sacrificial lamb, having regularly been substituted long before game conclusions and doubts over his stamina surfacing.
Instead he ran. And ran and ran and ran. No rest was given to Barca’s midfielders and he was still in support of the attack every time Madrid were allowed possession of the ball.
He will go down as much of a match winner as Cristiano Ronaldo, as his perfectly played ball sent Ronaldo clear through for the simple task of tucking the ball past Victor Valdes.
It was a remarkably disciplined performance from Los Blancos and the fruits of Jose Mourinho’s labours have finally blossomed, just as he is rumoured to be looking to seek another challenge away from Santiago Bernabeu.
Meanwhile, questions are being asked over Pep Guardiola’s team selection. Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez, scorers in the reverse fixture in December, were left on the bench, sitting alongside Pedro Rodriguez, who has specialised in scoring in these matches.
Instead, Thiago was given a starting berth in the centre of midfield, whilst Christian Tello in his first senior season was on the left of the attacking three.
Neither disgraced themselves, with Tello in particular looking like Barca’s most dangerous threat. But inexperience raised its head, with Tello given some promising positions, only to squander them.
The pressure in these games is massive. It was no place for a rookie, said the assorted media after the game, much to Pep’s chagrin.
Defenders of Barca will point to the possession stats that read 78-22% in the Catalans’ favour. But yet Iker Casillas was barely called into action, with Barca only recording three shots on target, two of which coming within their equaliser.
They were given enough warning when Real took the lead, having already given Valdes something to worry about, with Ronaldo and Benzema testing the Spaniard.
When the goal did come, it was possibly the scrappiest goal this fixture has seen in a long time. Pepe met Ozil’s corner, which Valdes saved, but while the usually alert Carles Puyol dithered on the goal-line with the loose ball, Khedira reacted and toe-poked the ball over the line.
But Barca were not quick to react. There was no urgency, just the same simple methodical game. Never one to panic, Guardiola has his players playing the way they always do, no throwing the ball forward quickly, though Xavi did miss a guilt-edged chance on the half hour mark.
Like Chelsea had days before, Real came out in the second half with the intention of making sure Barca could not impose themselves or build momentum, with some seemingly innocuous injuries requiring attention.
Guardiola finally realised he had to make changes, but it was a surprise to see Xavi brought off to allow Alexis Sanchez a chance to terrorise the Madrid defence.
And he wasted little time in doing so, sliding the ball over the line at the second attempt, following an array of shots that Real had thrown bodies at in a desperate attempt to preserve their lead.
A draw meant nothing to Barca in terms of giving themselves a chance at the title though, still putting bodies forward with time ticking away. And they were made to pay quickly.
Barely a minute had passed following Barca’s equaliser, before Mesut Ozil picked up the ball and instantly played a glorious ball behind the Catalan defence, perfectly paced to suit Ronaldo’s run.
With 41 goals already notched, Ronaldo was not going to pass up such an opportunity to banish the ‘big-game bottler’ tag he picked up after his failings in the reverse fixture.
The groomed superstar easily drifted past the stranded Victor Valdes, and calmly slotted into an empty net to give Real Madrid the lead, the points and therefore the title.
Instead of being the game Barca used to truly restore their title challenge, it was the opposite. Guardiola’s claims of an ‘unlikely’ crown simply turned to ‘impossible’ in the wake of defeat.
It was the game expected to restore interest in the title race for the run-in. Instead, it ended it as a potential two-horse race.
Mourinho has his trophy. Florentino Perez has achieved his overhaul of his most despised of rivals. The engravers will start etching Real’s name into the silver for the first time in four years.
It was by no means a classic Clasico. But in terms of the power shift in Spain, it could be one of the most important matches between these two behemoths in recent times.
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Tags: Alexis Sanchez, Barcelona, Cristiano Ronaldo, Jose Mourinho, La Liga, Mesut Ozil, Pep Guardiola, Real Madrid, Sami Khedira