La Liga

Abidal, Puyol reward Guardiola's faith

Barcelona takes a one-goal advantage back to Camp Nou
SpecialtoFoxSoccer DERMOT CORRIGAN
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MADRID

When Cristiano Ronaldo scored the opening goal for Real Madrid after just 11 minutes, there was no panic in the visitors' ranks. Madrid’s players were doing their utmost to upset their opponents' rhythm, but the Barcelona side remained unruffled, just kept playing their usual style, trusting in themselves, their teammates and their philosophy.

The goals eventually came. Defenders Carles Puyol and Eric Abidal scored after halftime to secure a decisive looking 2-1 advantage after the first half of their Copa del Rey quarterfinal, a lead they take back to Camp Nou for next Wednesday's second leg.

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At the opening whistle, Madrid boss José Mourinho sent his team out to disrupt. Pepe - usually a central defender – was again chosen in a midfield trivote alongside Lass Diarra and Xabi Alonso, with their jobs to get in amongst the Barca players and make sure they could not weave their usual triangles or give-and-goes. The home side looked to play the game at a high-tempo and hurt Barcelona with quick counter-attacks. When Ronaldo scored, it seemed to many inside the stadium that Mourinho’s strategy was paying off.

But the 11 in the blaugrana were nonplussed. They continued to meticulously go about their work, holding the ball for long periods while probing for weaknesses in their opponents. Three minutes after the Madrid goal, World Cup winning goal scorer Andrés Iniesta skipped past Madrid’s stand-in right back Hamit Altintop, forcing an excellent save from Iker Casillas. Barca sensed the hopeless mismatch and they exploited it mercilessly from then on. Lionel Messi popped up in the inside left channel soon afterwards, with Altintop nowhere to be seen, though Casillas again excelled. Before half-time, Iniesta twice got free in the same space, but a cross to Cesc Fábregas was intercepted, and a heavy touch squandered another opportunity.

At half-time, Barcelona’s players knew that if they kept playing their game, the goals would come. You suspect most within the Madrid team (and the majority of the 85,000 Bernabéu crowd) thought the same. Already twice this season Barcelona have given up the first goal in Madrid, but they came back to draw August’s Supercopa (2-2) and then won December’s Primera División meeting (3-1) after Karim Benzema scored in the opening seconds. They knew they’d be okay.

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After the break, Barca's players again kept passing the ball and moving the Madrid players around. Inevitably the Madrid midfield and defense began to tire. Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola's men continued working the weak spot too, just four minutes into the second half when Iniesta forced Altintop into conceding a corner. Xavi Hernández took it, and Puyol headed in the equalizer.

Madrid’s players began to get increasingly heated, with Sergio Ramos, Ricardo Carvalho, Fabío Coentrão and José Callejón all booked for poor challenges, while Pepe again disgraced himself by stamping on Lionel Messi’s hand. Barca kept their cool, though, and their Argentine star soon had his revenge, skillfully scooping a pass over a static Madrid defense, allowing Eric Abidal to calmly score the winner.

Guardiola said after the game that he always told his players that once they concentrated on doing the simple things well, the results would come.

“I insisted that they maintain long spells possession, avoid losing the ball and they did that well,” said the Catalan coach. “We dominated possession and created lots of goal chances. The victory fills us with pride.”

The names of the goal scorers also brought vindication for their boss. While Barcelona’s two most recent summer signings - Cesc Fábregas and Alexis Sánchez - shined during Barca’s 3-1 Primera División victory at the Bernabéu in December, two of Barca’s old guards got the goals this time around. Though both Carles Puyol and Abidal have had their doubters recently, Guardiola has stuck with them. On Wednesday, he was rewarded.

PREVIOUS CLASICO

Carles Puyol Barcelona Copa del Rey

Barcelona held off Real Madrid to reach the Copa del Rey final.

Carles Puyol Barcelona Copa del Rey

Eric Abdial's late goal gave Barcelona a lead after the first leg of the Copa del Rey.

Pep Real Madrid Copa del Rey

Pepe quickly issues apology for stomp on Lionel Messi's hand.

Jose Mourinho Real Madrid Clasico

Richard Farley looks at the reputation-defining effects of the Clasicos.

Thirty-three-year-old Puyol has been dogged by injury over the last 12 months. It was a surprise when Guardiola chose him over Javier Mascherano for December’s Clásico, but the policy is clear: When big games come, the club captain always plays, if fit. This is no emotional decision. Puyol now has an astonishing 43 wins, eight draws and no defeats in his last 51 games for Barca.

Abidal is 32, and his contract was due to run out this summer. It seemed it might be time to let the French international move on, but Guardiola publicly said he wanted him to stay. A new deal was signed only last Tuesday, and the left back celebrated with only his second goal in four and a half years in Catalonia.

As Guardiola was trusting in what he knew, Mourinho was again trying a new system, new players in unfamiliar positions, and more psychological ploys. The Madrid boss had reacted angrily in Tuesday’s pre-game press conference when a journalist provocatively suggested he was playing for his managerial reputation, which takes a knock each time his team fail to beat Barcelona. The feeling around the Bernabéu at the final whistle was that the decisions to play Altintop at right back and Pepe in midfield were the gambles of a desperate man, and both had failed.

The ex-Chelsea and Internazionale manager accepted after the game that he would have to take the blame for the poor performance and result.

“Victory has many fathers, but defeat only one,” he said. “The responsibility is mine, not the players'. The tie is not yet over, it is difficult, but not over."

Guardiola - who celebrated his 41st birthday yesterday – now has five wins and two draws in seven visits to the Bernabéu. Mourinho keeps struggling to come up with a new trick or inspired tactical tweak to flip the balance between the clubs.

Meanwhile Barca just keep doing what they do. And it keeps working.

Dermot Corrigan is a freelance Irish sportswriter who lives in Madrid and writes about soccer for several publications, including FOXSoccer.com, Sport 360°, When Saturday Comes and Iberosphere. Contact him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan.

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