Real Madrid, Mourinho silence critics
One of soccer’s greatest clichés is that it’s a game of two halves. On Wednesday night, that cliché was the truth.
José Mourinho’s Real Madrid played the first period like a whirlwind, blowing away Barcelona’s first leg lead through early goals from Gonzalo Higuaín and Cristiano Ronaldo. Real finished it by hanging on for dear life against Tito Vilanova’s ten-men after Lionel Messi’s goal just before the break had cut their advantage to the bare minimum.
Yet, the joy at the Bernabeu was real as Iker Casillas hoisted the trophy. Madrid came into the game in apparent disarray, having lost two of their first three games this new season. Even their own coach questioned whether his players still had the focus required to triumph again this season.
Mourinho gave his regular first choice lineup a chance to answer his criticism, as the surprises came in the Barca starting eleven. When Daniel Alves was injured in the warm-up session, Jordi Alba came in at left back and Adriano Correia moved across to take the Brazilian’s spot on the right of the Barca defense. This should not have unsettled their experienced partners in central defense, but it did. Gerard Piqué and Javier Mascherano had awful first 20 minutes of the game.
By the time Barcelona had settled they were 2-0 in arrears, with Mascherano and Piqué each woefully at fault for a goal. Take nothing away from the finishes: the goals were simply spectacular. Gonzalo Higuain and Cristiano Ronaldo carried Real Madrid on their shoulder, with Ronaldo’s back-heel set up particularly compelling.
When the Catalans went a man down – when Adriano took a deserved red card by hauling down Ronaldo when he was clear through on goal – middle-aged men jigged and embraced in front of your correspondent’s seat in the press box. A rout seemed to be developing. Madrid fans could almost not believe what was happening in front of their eyes.
Then, Messi curled in a superb 30-yard free kick just before half time and the tenor of matters changed. Madrid were still ahead, but now only on away goals, but it turned out to be enough. The players had answered their coach's criticism, and then some.
Mourinho preferred not to talk to the media after the game, instead sending Aitor Karanka to talk in the press room, as he often does at delicate times. The assistant said that his boss had got the reaction he had asked for.
“From the start we went out to win the game,” said Karanka. “We had many chances and the score-line at half time could have been very different. If we scored all our chances in the first half, the result would have been different. But the most important thing is we won the trophy.”
Karanka was correct. Madrid’s missed chances meant the result was always in doubt right to the end. The second period saw Madrid content to sit back and soak up Barcelona’s pressure.
Mourinho looked to have told his players to be careful, that even with an extra player they were not to over-commit in attack. This seemed strange, even unwise, considering the damage they had done to Barcelona’s shaky defense in the first half. Nonetheless, it was clearly the plan.
The 80,000 spectators inside an increasingly tense stadium disagreed with it. That crowd vented their nerves by whistling every spell of possession for the visitors. The ten-men had most of the ball and began to create, but miss chances. Vilanova watched, with his arms folded at the corner of his technical area unable to grasp what was happening.
Mourinho helped the minutes tick away by making all three substitutions, including handing a debut to Monday’s $44million signing Luka Modric. Yet it was two of Barca’s changes, youngsters Martín Montoya and Cristian Tello, who might have won the game for their team if they had kept their cool during their one-on-one opportunities with Casillas.
In injury time, Alex Song passed to Messi, and his 20 yarder flew just wide. Six inches the other way and Barcelona would have been 2-2 on the night, 5-4 ahead on aggregate and likely soon to celebrate a fourth consecutive Supercopa. But it didn't.
Vilanova accepted that Madrid had deserved to win the trophy considering how Barca had begun the game, but said he was not leaving the stadium in any way disappointed considering how his players had almost atoned for their first half mistakes.
“The first half was not like us, two long balls and they got two goals,” said Vilanova. “But after the second half this is possibly one of the most proud nights in my four years with the team. We had five clear chances. We played with ten-men, at this stage of the season, and we controlled the game, so we are proud. This game will not mark our season, on Sunday we have La Liga again.”
It remains to be seen whether Barcelona fans will be as accepting of the defeat, especially considering at 3-1 ahead in last week’s first leg their team appeared to have the trophy sewn up. Letting other teams back into finals was not something Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona did, and neither was losing at the Bernabéu. But then, as Mourinho himself said before the first leg, the Supercopa is not the biggest title available this season in Spain, or in Europe.
The grand battle continues: the two teams have now met 12 times across four competitions in less than 18 months. Guardiola's side dominated the early games, but Mourinho's men wrestled back the upper hand last season, and have now dealt an early blow to Vilanova in his first Clásico series in charge. With two more meetings in La Liga, and others very likely in the Champions League to come this season, we are set for many more dramatic games.