Pepe's red card, mind games and more notes from Barcelona-Madrid
Pepe's red card changed the game, and it was a result of Real's aggressive style
Pep Guardiola bested Jose Mourinho at his bread and butter: mind games
Also: Real's wealth of talent; the genius of Messi; and Ronaldo unhappy?
Three down, one to go. So, let's get on with it, shall we? Here are a few things the third Madrid-Barcelona clash left behind, along with the broken bones and ruined reputations.
The shinbone's connected to the knee bone ... the knee bone's connected to the leg bone ... the leg bone's connected to the hip bone ... and all the way up the body. Unless, it seems, you're Pedro Rodríguez or Sergio Busquets, in which case it appears that everything's connected to your face bone. These two went down holding their faces, rolling around in agony, no matter where -- or if -- they actually had been hit in Wednesday's Champions League semifinal. As for Dani Alves, he disappeared on a stretcher, seeking out a priest to read him the last rites; two minutes later he was back on and racing around like a hyperactive child. Like nothing had happened. Which perhaps it hadn't.
When Pep Guardiola finally broke and responded to Jose Mourinho on Tuesday, many thought he had fallen into the trap. If Barcelona had lost, there can be little doubt that Mourinho's "mind games," which have been dealt with here before, would have been credited with some of the success. But Barcelona won, 2-0. So is Guardiola actually the mind games master? Or are mind games in fact a myth? Barcelona seemed to need to hear his message, to feel like he was standing up to its foe at last, and the team gave him a standing ovation when he returned to the team hotel after the now infamous news conference.
First things first: There is some debate about Pepe's red card, but in this correspondent's opinion, it should have been a yellow, not a red. There appears not to have been any actual contact -- not in itself sufficient criteria to not give a red card -- and it is not clear that there was any malicious intent. The ball was there to be won and Pepe, even if the force used was excessive, tried to win it. But Mourinho's discourse has been, and continues to be, about more than just that decision. And here's the thing that seems so very, very obvious but which appears to be almost always overlooked: Referees' decisions do not happen in isolation.
Even when they are wrong, decisions -- from red cards to penalties, throw-ins to free kicks -- are a reaction to an action; they are a consequence of something else, not simply plucked from thin air. Mourinho has spent much of this series of clásicos pleading for the chance to play Barcelona with 11 men. He even claimed to have practiced with 10 men because he "knew" he would get someone sent off. The response then was simple: How about practicing not going down to 10 in the first place? And that same principle applies across the board.
This week, Mourinho noted that Guardiola was the first coach ever to complain about decisions even when they are right. Wrong: He is at least the second. Mourinho had complained that his teams had been down to 10 men against Barcelona in each of the clásicos so far this season. Three games, three reds -- a damning statistic. What Mourinho failed to note was that each of the reds had been quite right. Sergio Ramos was sent off very late at Camp Nou, with the score already at 5-0, for a horrendous hack at Lionel Messi. Raúl Albiol was sent off for hauling down David Villa when he was through on goal. And Ángel Di María picked up two correct yellow cards -- the second very late -- in the Copa del Rey final. Each of those red cards was a consequence of Madrid's actions. Each was correct. As for Barcelona reds that should have happened, only one has been offered up: Dani Alves, late in the league clásico.
This red card for Pepe in the 61st minute was a different matter. It was also one that almost certainly changed the game. Barcelona had dominated possession but Madrid expected that and did not appear to mind. Barcelona controlled the ball; Madrid felt it controlled the game. Playing offensively would, Mourinho had clearly decided, have been counterproductive. And playing this way seemed to work -- although it is debatable who was, or should have been, better served by a 0-0 finish. Then Pepe was sent off, perhaps unfairly, and everything shifted. Here was the player whose precise job it was to nullify Messi. After his ejection, Messi scored twice. Madrid's anger was more than understandable.
But to take that and suggest a conspiracy or to denounce the suspiciousness of the inevitability of a red card, is quite a leap -- an unpleasant one. And the card must still be read in context. By playing the way that it has, red cards have become an occupational hazard for Real Madrid. If you cede possession and territory, if you are aggressive, if you seek to break up opposition moves, if you defend and aspire to a scoreless draw (and by the way, this was another indication of why the away goals rule needs revising), fouls and cards are a natural consequence. Sometimes rightly so, sometimes not.
Pepe's challenge, and possibly his history, as well as his very role in these games, facilitated the card. Earlier this season, when Espanyol coach Mauricio Pochettino complained that his side had been punished for a handball that was accidental against Madrid, Mourinho responded: "I coach my players to jump with their arms out [of] the way and avoid those kind of situations, right or wrong." It was a logical and rational response; it might have been logical to tell Pepe to avoid this challenge, too. If Mourinho decided not to, the rational reason must be that the risk is worth taking. Mourinho said the red card was no coincidence; Barcelona's Gerard Piqué agreed. "If you play with fire," he said, "you get burned."
Karim Benzema, Gonzalo Higuaín, Emmanuel Adebayor, Kaká ... and those were just the players Mourinho had on the bench. Madrid's sheer wealth of talent is incredible. And wealth is the right word. Madrid's subs alone cost well over €100 million ($147M).
On the other side, Barcelona had José Pinto, Jeffren Milito, Ibrahim Affellay, Fontàs, Sergey Robert and Thiago. The total cost for these relative unknowns: €3M ($4.4M). Mourinho claimed to have been denied the chance to make his planned change by introducing Kaká late in the match, and perhaps he was right. Still, no one anticipated a Barcelona substitute being the one to make the biggest impact. But Affellay's pass to Messi finally gave Barcelona the breakthrough.
One of Mourinho's great strengths has been his ability to persuade players to moderate themselves for the good of the team, drowning egos in a collective project. (The sight of Samuel Eto'o, owner of a big heart, an even bigger mouth and an extremely short fuse, playing as an auxiliary fullback for Inter last year is a testament to this strength.) His ability to make players who want to attack accept a more cautious approach is remarkable. And it works, too. The problem is -- and forgive the tautology -- for it to work, it has to work. As long as results arrive, players accept it. This time, the result deserted Madrid -- unfairly perhaps -- and frustrations came to the surface.
Cristiano Ronaldo was the embodiment of frustration throughout the latest match. Racing forward, he chased Barcelona down, screeching from player to player, covering every side of the passing triangle as the ball was swiftly moved on, always just out of his reach. The problem was that he was alone. Arms out in disgust, he turned and angrily appealed to his teammates to assist him, to push higher up the pitch, but they were instead lying in wait deep inside their own half, getting just 26 percent of possessions and leaving Ronaldo as an isolated figure. Asked if he liked the kind of football Madrid had played, he replied, edgily: "No, I don't like it, but I have to adapt to what is asked of me."
Mostly this was a horrible, ugly game, with players sprinting after the referee, rolling around the pitch and steaming into tackles. There was a stamp from Marcelo and a forearm smash from Ramos; a punch up in the tunnel; a tension that has grown and grown to become unbearable; and word after cursing word. As a match that was supposed to be proof of just how good the Spanish league is, it was largely met as proof of how bad it was -- both in football terms and "moral" ones, too.
But amid the rubble, for those prepared to look, there were some impressive moments: Xavi's ability to turn full circle away from opponents, for example, or the thumping shot from Ronaldo before halftime. And then, at the very end, there was a proper moment: a gorgeous goal from Messi that finally elevated it to something worthwhile. Something like what it was supposed to be.
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