FOX Soccer Exclusive
Real Madrid turns table on Barcelona
Real Madrid’s 2-1 Primera Division defeat of Barcelona on Saturday confirmed that Jose Mourinho’s team is now dominant over their Catalan rivals, and that Cristiano Ronaldo has gained the upper hand in his personal rivalry with Lionel Messi.
Ronaldo only had to play half an hour at a sunny Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, but that was enough to inspire Madrid to a second crushing victory over Barcelona in a week, following Tuesday’s 3-1 Copa del Rey win. Messi played the full 90, and scored in the first half, but by the end had faded completely from the game, just as he had earlier in the week.
The Portuguese’s performance typified his side’s drive and confidence ahead of its Champions League last 16 game at Manchester United on Tuesday; the Argentine’s disappearing act showed Barca are in deep, deep trouble ahead of its European challenge against Milan.
On the other hand, Madrid assistant coach Aitor Karanka told reporters afterwards that his side were leaving the game very, very content.
“Everyone was saying this week could end our season,” Karanka said. “We are very happy with how the games have gone.”
Another Madrid win had looked in doubt only two hours earlier when, thinking of Old Trafford, Mourinho had started just four of his first-choice XI, with Ronaldo among those rested for the game.
Barca stand-in coach Jordi Roura played his strongest available side, but its weaknesses - especially in defence - were exposed just six minutes in as Karim Benzema was left free in front of goal to tap in youngster Alvaro Morata’s clever cross to open the scoring.
The visitors did not immediately panic, but did not show much urgency either. Barca was level when Messi emerged from his slumber to run onto Dani Alves slide-rule pass, cut inside his marker Sergio Ramos, and slip the ball to the net from 10 yards.
Messi had matched Madrid legend Alfredo Di Stefano's all-time Clasico record of 18 goals, but that was enough to rouse Barcelona, who continued to pass the ball around nicely, but lacked the zip or precision to cause damage.
Mourinho’s players stuck to his plan, holding their positions and letting Barca have the ball in non-dangerous areas, with Pepe impressively filling Xabi Alonso's midfield boots.
Into the second half, with Messi still very quiet, both sides seemed happy with 1-1. The crowd wanted more though and chants of Ronaldo, Ronaldo, Ronaldo rang around the stadium.
When Barca did threaten, 19-year-old defender Raphael Varane again showed his huge potential by striding back to thwart David Villa.
It was on the hour when the game went up a gear: CR7 replaced Benzema, and Madrid’s motor started to turn over. Three times he came close to scoring, but one shot flew across goal, another was saved by Catalan keeper Victor Valdes and a third hit the side-netting.
But Karanka denied Ronaldo had been motivated by being left out by Mourinho.
“All the players know the boss and his way of thinking and acting,” he said. “He treats them all the same.”
Madrid were rampant. Morata almost won the game when he ran away from marker Dani Alves but Valdes saved. Then, Ramos did win it, outjumping Pique to head in a Luka Modric corner.
It was more awful defending from Barca, who have now conceded in 13 straight games, their worst run since 1962. They were little better further forward either, lacking in energy and ideas.
At one point, Messi stood still, hands on hips on the right wing, while his teammates tried and failed to work the ball towards him. Asked if the superstar's current problems were mental or physical, Roura answered shortly: “Messi has no problems.”
Barca claimed an injury-time penalty for a Ramos challenge on Adriano inside the area, but referee Miguel Angel Perez Lasa said no. The Catalan frustrations boiled over, and at the final whistle Valdes - captain for the day - was red carded for taking his protests too far.
“If you see the pictures it is very clear what happened,” said a flailing Roura. “We were in the game right until the end, and could have got a point. We are still alive.”
Only just, Jordi. Your team – and especially Messi – need to wake up soon, or they could blow a record 12 point La Liga advantage.
Ronaldo’s late shot hit the woodwork, and 3-1 would have been a fairer result, given Madrid’s second half dominance. Karanka finished his press conference stressing his side had no time to celebrate now, with just 72 hours to go till Old Trafford.
“We cannot think we have done something extraordinary, or we will slip up in Manchester,” he said. “We are not opening the champagne yet. We still have work to do.”
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.