Barcelona affirms place as game’s best

Barcelona became the first team through to the Champions League finals with a 3-1 aggregate win over Real Madrid following a 1-1 draw at Camp Nou tonight.

Barcelona now await the winner of the Manchester United-Schalke semifinal on Wednesday, where United hold a two-goal lead (and two away goals, if needed). That semifinal is live on FX at 2 p.m. ET.

After the events of last week and the toxic buildup to tonight’s match, many worried that it would be more civil war and less football. Thankfully, both teams decided to play and the result was the best game of what has been a grueling four-match stint of "clasicos."

Both teams had accused the other of flagrant cheating, with Real Madrid going so far as to accuse midfielder Sergio Busquets of making racist statements to Marcelo. UEFA, perhaps overwhelmed, rejected all these claims out of hand on Monday, but is still looking into Jose Mourinho’s post-match comments from the first leg. Then, he alleged that Barcelona couldn’t win a fair match and got help from the officials.

Partisans will have gotten new fuel for that argument tonight after watching a good goal by Gonzalo Higuain waved off for a foul on Javier Mascherano. Immediately after the break, Cristiano Ronaldo loped in free, fed Higuain wide, leading to the Argentine burying the ball top corner past a helpless Victor Valdes. But ref Frank de Bleeckere’s whistle had already gone: Ronaldo, who appeared to be lightly nicked by Gerard Pique, fell down and crashed into Mascherano, who was blatantly diving.

In fairness – and given both players’ penchant for such flops – it’s hard to criticize de Bleeckere too much. The fact is, there was not a great deal of contact on Ronaldo and he had no need to go to ground. But that doesn’t change the fact that the goal probably was good, and might have been a game-changer.

That shouldn’t overshadow the flow of the game as a whole. It was overwhelmingly dominated by Barcelona, who have clearly been the best club in the world this season. As was the case last Wednesday at the Bernabeu, the architect of the win was Lionel Messi, who continues to reaffirm that he is the world’s best player at the moment. At some point, we will have to talk about where he fits in all-time, but for now it is sufficient to say that it is nearly impossible to imagine a team taking him out of a match. His speed, vision and ability to take defenders on is both thrilling and terrifying, and more often than not, he had Ricardo Carvalho and Lassana Diarra at wit’s end.

Messi had only a nominal role in Barcelona’s goal, however. Andres Iniesta, making his retun from an injury that kept him out of the first match, smoked Diarra in the middle of the field and found Pedro Rodriguez with a blistering through ball around the back of Carvalho. Keeper Iker Casillas, who put in a yeoman performance again tonight, could not keep the ball out at the near post, and that was the tie over.

The goal was soon matched when Angel Di Maria smacked one off Valdes’ post, collected the rebound, then passed right square to Marcelo to finish – but that was merely a hint of what Real might have accomplished had they attacked effectively in the first leg. Following that, Madrid began to foul, Mascherano continued to flop, and Barcelona killed the match with the passing game they deploy to perfection.

In fact, one of the things this game proved is that Mourinho’s widely criticized tactics in the first game were correct. His team cannot play football against Barcelona, and thus had to attempt to choke the midfield and strangle the match. That they were unable to do so should be taken as testament to how good this Barcelona team is as well as how much ground Madrid will have to make up. Mourinho himself was nowhere to be seen tonight. He was of course suspended, and citing security concerns, he watched the match from the hotel.

And if Mourinho is unwise enough to criticize de Bleeckere, he should be mindful of something else: Tonight, his team finished at full-strength purely out of lenience. Carvalho could have been sent off in the first half after a series of fouls on Messi and sub Emmanuel Adebayor, alleged to be a forward, spent much of his 35 minute tenure crashing into the Catalans.

Neutrals will also question the Special One’s choice of lineup tonight. Real Madrid tried to play a more positive game – and saw Casillas forced into a series of heroic first half stops as a result – but got nothing out of Kaka up top at all. When he was finally removed for Mesut Ozil, Madrid were a vastly improved team. The questions shouldn’t be about whether Mourinho was too negative in the first game; They should be about why he only gave the best player on his team over the two legs a half-hour run out tonight.

The result of the four clasicos is plain: Real Madrid came away with the Copa Del Rey, but Barcelona ejected their bitterest rivals from Europe and have virtually sewed up the Spanish League title. The Catalans will surely take that.

One side note: Eric Abidal made a surprise return for Barcelona tonight, following his surgery for a liver tumor in February. He was a stoppage-time sub for Carlos Puyol, and after the match, he was carried aloft around the field by his teammates.

Jamie Trecker is a senior writer for covering the UEFA Champions League and the Barclay’s Premier League.