Thursday, April 28, 2011

An Ugly Game Ends With A Beautiful Goal

Real Madrid 0-2 Barcelona

There was not much on show at the Bernebeau to contradict my claim from lastnight, that European football is in decline.

Barcelona are, undoubtedly, Europe's best team. They are so good at their style of football that most teams just try to contain them, and kick them, and hope for a goal on the break. This is part of football. When one team is inferior in terms of ability, they are forced to adapt to give themselves a chance of winning the game. Real Madrid may be the second best team in Europe, but they are some way short of Barca in quality and style, and they were not going to play open, expansive football, and risk getting tonked 5-0 again.

Barcelona are aware of this, but it seems to breed a pomposity that leaves a bitter taste. They seem to believe that their footballing superiority equates to a moral superiority. Paradoxically, they go to great lengths to gain further advantage in the course of a game by illegitimate means.

Approaching half time, it had been a poor game; bitty, but not particularly dirty. Things got out of hand when Pedro ran into a Real player and crashed and rolled and cried, claiming, as did his team mates, that he had been elbowed.

The atmosphere in the stadium and on the pitch grew poisonous, and at half time there was a ruckus that saw Barca's sub keeper Pinto dismissed.

Admittedly, Real played in a robust fashion, and a red card was always a distinct possibility. What is disappointing is the sense that Barcelona play to try to get opposition players dismissed, rather than relying on their footballing superiority. Pepe's tackle on the odious Dani Alves was high and reckless, no doubt, and may have warranted a red card, but it was hard to shake the notion that the badgering behaviour of the Barca players throughout the game influenced the referee's decision.

As against Arsenal at the Nou Camp in the second round, Barca were given a numerical advantage early in the 2nd half, and their play improved as a result. Here, there was not the avalanch of chances that Almunia faced in the earlier game, as Real retained their earlier shape and discipline. But Barca, and Messi in particular, simply found more space. It probably did not help Real that Mourinho was banished from the touch line for throwing some sarcastic barbs in the aftermath of Pepe's dismissal.

The first goal was vital. Real had played poorly in possession before the red card but their initial plan may well have involved scoring late, as they have done in the two recent games against Barca. Even reduced to ten men, they would not have regarded a goalless draw as a disaster. But Barca's away goal sucked the life out of the home side.

Messi drove to the edge of the box, and not for the first time, had an effort blocked. Xavi moved the ball wide to Afellay, on as a sub. As the Dutchman faced up to Marcelo, the full back stumbled slightly, and this gave Afellay the time to make a yard of space and cross into the goalmouth where Messi, sprinting across Ramos, deftly knocked the ball through the legs of Casillas with a first-time volleyed finish.

It was a great cross, a great run and a great finish, but better was to come, and all neutrals will at least have one fond, lasting image of beauty from what was a nasty game. With the clock ticking down, Messi ran from close to half way with the ball seemingly glued to his feet, jinked past a couple of challenges and sped through to knock the ball right footed into the far corner.

That goal killed the tie and means that we will, barring minor miracles, see United and Barca in a repeat of 2009's final.

This game will remain a talking point, however. Certainly, Barcelona are the team that neutrals would prefer to see progress, but their behaviour has sullied the image they project of representing all that is good in the game.

Real Madrid did not come to play, but this was not a surprise to anyone. But there was a sense that Barca recognised the difficulty they would have in playing through those massed ranks of white shirts, and made it a priority to get a Real player sent off.

The red card may have been deserved. Pepe's tackle was high, potentially dangerous, but contact was minimal and there's no doubt that Dani Alves was feigning injury. We have seen Pedro and Sergio Busquets do the same. There may have been some niggly fouls elsewhere in the game, but the bad atmosphere was created more by play-acting than by any genuinely dangerous tackles.

It may be the case that Barcelona see it as fair that if other sides will attempt to stifle them through strategic fouling and negative, spoiling tactics, they will play dirty too by rolling around, pretending injury, and crowding the referee. But if that's the case they really need to drop the air of moral superiority. After all, a lot of people don't see one way of playing as inherently superior or more right than all others. Some might say that while Barca are perhaps the best passing side that football has ever seen, they lack the swagger of some of history's other great teams, and can even seem robotic by comparison.

What should not be lost amid all this is that they are certainly preferable finalists to Real Madrid, evebn if Mourinho's team feel they did not get a fair crack of the whip. It is rich of Mourinho to get so self-righteous in condemning Barca's apparent use of the 'dark arts'. From Porto to Madrid, via Chelsea and Inter Milan, his teams have showed a constant willingness to bend the rules of the game in their own favour.

A cynic might suggest that this is all that unites the very best teams. What worries me is that there are not very many good teams around anymore, and that this Champions League has failed to produce many games that will be remembered for the right reasons.

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