Winning, high-stakes football

BY Jamie Trecker • April 20, 2011

Four years of agony ended tonight for Real Madrid with Cristiano Ronaldo's header giving them the Copa Del Rey, 1-0 over bitter arch rivals Barcelona at Valencia. Barcelona, which have lifted the cup 25 times, more than any other side, dropped just their 10th final - but the psychological fallout may be far greater.

It was Real's first time lifting the Spanish Cup since 1993; more important, it's a giant step for manager Jose Mourinho as he seeks to change the equation in what has been a lopsided rivalry of late. This was Real's first piece of silver since 2007, their first win in six games over Barcelona and the first trophy for Mourinho in his first season as Madrid's manager.

But bigger still, this just was the second of a massive four-game, 18-day series of clasicos between the two sides, and heading into a two-leg Champions League semifinal, it is Madrid who now have the edge.

Saturday, Real recovered from seeing Raul Albiol sent off to draw the Catalans 1-1 in a league game, and tonight pipping Barcelona in extra time thanks to that header from Ronaldo after the match had deadlocked 0-0 in regulation. Much of that is due to Madrid's oppressive and foul-ridden play that prevented Barcelona from doing what they do best: passing an opponent to death.

The so-called Special One, humiliated by Barcelona's early season 5-0 thumping (despite his protests to the contrary) used the same physical and vise-like tactics he perfected at Inter Milan in their European Cup winning run to throttle Barcelona's midfield. Fair or foul, it worked: Mourinho's lockdown tactics and devastating break have now kept Barcelona from scoring from open play now for 210 minutes, which bodes ill for Pep Guardiola's side in the coming Champions League semifinals.

Mourinho's Madrid poked, fouled and goaded Barcelona all night long, eliminating their slick passing game and keeping them from having a single shot on goal for nearly 50 minutes. His Madrid side also got into Barcelona's head, with Alvaro Arbeloa provoking a scuffle with slumping striker David Villa when he appeared to stamp on him, and frustrating the midfield tandem of Xavi and Andres Iniesta.

Every time one of Barcelona's big guns got the ball, Ricardo Carvalho or Xabi Alonso was there to use fair means or foul to take the player out of the equation. Combined with the loss of Carlos Puyol to injury and the unsteady presence of Javier Mascherano in the back, Barcelona were forced finally to play the kind of game that suits the quick-countering Real side: long searchers, and fewer balls on the floor.

Ronaldo's winner came off just such a play, a classic bit of smash and grab that came after Barcelona finally looked as if it might be able to find a way through. Defender in name only Marcelo ran a give-and-go to spring Angel di Maria wide on the flank, and Ronaldo leapt high to meet his cross. Keeper Jose Pinto was sent the wrong way and Ronaldo was able bury the match winner. It was a crisp bit of marksmanship from the former Manchester United man, and the relief was palpable among the Madrid faithful.

The heavy lifting tonight was done by Mesut Ozil, consistently dangerous in spreading to Ronaldo and di Maria, and forcing Pinto to stop him cold very early on. Iker Casillas, was magnetic tonight in the nets for Madrid but also fortunate: Pedro had a goal disallowed after the winger was incorrectly judged to be offside in the 70th despite being cleanly put through by Messi.

For Ronaldo, the win has to be especially sweet. The Portuguese playmaker has enjoyed a massive season but has nonetheless been in the shadow on Barcelona's Lionel Messi. Tonight, Messi was kept off the score heet by the magnificence of Casillas in goal while Ronaldo notched his 42nd of the season.

And for Mourinho, this is further proof that his tactics win. Many fans tonight, especially those who saw the North London derby will argue that his strangling of the game is effectively anti-football. They are wrong. It is winning, high-stakes football. Now Barcelona have to find some way to impose their game on their rivals or face going out of Europe. And the question is: Can a team that wins by the pass triumph when they are denied it?

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

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