Honors were shared tonight at the Camp Nou with a 2-2 draw (as predicted by totalBarça’s writer Rakun in his preview) that maintains FC Barcelona’s 8 point advantage over Real Madrid. It’s reasonable to say this result was fair. In a game where tempers and malice were far below the games of 2010 and 2011, both sides played some excellent football, and both sides enjoyed spells of dominance during the 90 minutes. No surprise that Barça still dominated possession, but when Real found themselves in possession they used it responsibly. The reaction from each side of the media further echos a sentiment of fairness with the result. Nevertheless, Barça once again made life difficult for itself with defensive lapses and will have dreamed that Montoya’s majestic shot was just half an inch lower.
Tito Vilanova apparently was as concerned with the prospect of Alex Song at centerback as myself and did not select him in the starting 11. There was however still a surprise selection in Adriano. The FC Barcelona starting 11 was Valdés, Alves, Macherano, Adriano, Alba, Busquets, Xavi, Fàbregas, Iniesta, Messi, and Pedro. As the match kicked off it looked like a possible 3-4-3 with Adriano tasked to patrol the wings as extra support. However, very quickly my initial thinking was proven incorrect, as Adriano settled in along side Mascherano to play a standard centerback role. Interesting to say the least. I imagine the thought process focused a lot on his speed as a measure to stop the counter-attacking danger Madrid poses. As it turned out, I think Tito Vilanova learned the Brazilian is not destined for that role again.
The first proper chance of the match fell to Karim Benzema in the 13th minute, but thankfully he totally miss hit a Cristiano Ronaldo cross. Nine minutes later Sergio Ramos really should have made it 0-1 to Madrid but he could not direct his header on target. Barça truly is vulnerable from aerial threats without Piqué and also Abidal, whose absence is far more important than people realize. Iniesta put one over the bar soon after, but eventually Madrid did breakthrough with a Cristiano Ronaldo goal in the 23rd minute. Benzema received a pass with his back to goal and truly outfoxed Mascherano before pivoting left and sliding a ball to Ronaldo, who blasted it past Valdés at the near post. That was Ronaldo’s 6th goal in consecutive Clásicos, a new Real Madrid record. The goal however appeared somewhat avoidable. Mascherano did very poorly advancing toward Benzema without much conviction and got drawn out of position, Alves was then far too central and afforded Ronaldo too much space on the wing, and no keeper likes to concede at the near post. Nevertheless, 0-1 it was and frankly a clean sheet tonight was not something many anticipated anyway.
But it very nearly went from bad to worse and thankfully Benzema again fluffed a great chance. Khedira cut a ball from the right into the oncoming Di María who then poked it into Benzema, completely alone on the penalty spot, but the Frenchman spooned the ball high and onto the post. Mascherano again must be questioned. He completely left Benzema alone when he stepped up trying to block Di María’s path, and again his attempt was rather futile. But, Adriano also was nowhere to be found, completely out of position on the left. This was a real let off.
At this point, Barça began to take a bit more control, despite the need for an early substitution of Alves due to injury for Montoya. The equalizer came soon enough thanks to, unsuprisingly, Lionel Messi in the 30th minute. Pedro whipped in a cross that deflected off Ramos, bounced off Alonso, and then was missed by Pepe. Messi was tracking the ball the entire time and he must have not believed his luck when it fell right at his feet 5 yards from goal and the mercurial man blasted it in. Real Madrid complained (shocking, right?), but there is no doubt Pepe just timed his jump all wrong and missed the ball, there was not even a hint of a push.
The rest of the half was rather uneventful, a few yellow cards at the most, with Barça dominating the ball but not creating anything clear cut. The second half was anything but uneventful.
Özil had a penalty shout just 30 seconds in when he turned past Mascherano, and there was contact. It was definitely not clear cut, but it certainly would not have been an unreasonable decision. Things however evened out 7 minutes later when Iniesta himself had a decent penalty shout when a rash tackle from Pepe did touch him. So a decent shout was turned down for both sides by Delgado Ferreiro, who had a pretty good debut in charge allowing the game to flow freely. Equal treatment again.
You won’t see a more precise freekick than the one Messi bent perfectly into the corner to make it 2-1 in the 62nd minute. Leo was tackled hard from behind from Alonso, who must have been worried about a second yellow, but the Argentine made them pay the ultimate price with a stunning freekick, which is a skill he has really worked on the last year and it’s paying massive dividends.
After FC Barcelona took the lead the intensity level ratcheted up a notch, the fans got louder and the tackles a bit meatier. Alexis came on for Cesc just after the freekick, and the Chilean had a great cameo tonight, dribbling better than he has in months and providing genuine attacking quality.
Despite injuring his shoulder on a high bicycle kick attempt, Ronaldo made it 2-2 only 4 minutes after Barça took the lead. And it was again in disappointing fashion. Possession was lost moving the ball out of defense, and in just 3 touches Madrid scored. Alonso knocked it to Özil who spotted Ronaldo running into space and he slid it past Valdés. This was the most unavoidable goal. Firstly because Barça should not have lost possession in that manner, but this was the moment that Mascherano and Adriano truly looked a misfit pairing. As Alonso knocked it forward, Adriano stepped back while Mascherano stepped up and the Brazilian played Ronaldo onside. Look, it’s unfair to genuinely blame Adriano because this isn’t a position he has every played, but make no mistake, if Piqué or Puyol were there this goal would not have happened.
Madrid’s players made a nuisance of themselves from set plays but the final quarter of the match was positive from Barça. They created a fair number of half-chances that ended in wayward shots, but the game could have been won in one of the next 3 key moments. In the 86th minute, a Higuain cross was awkwardly cleared by Adriano and fell to Montoya deep in his own box. The youngster looked up, spotted Pedro, and pinged a superb half-field ball right onto number 17′s chest. Pedro took it well, passed it left to Messi, and the chance was really on as Pedro and Messi had only Arbeloa in their path. Unfortunately Messi timed his return to Pedro slightly wrong and pushed him too far out. But the story of the night almost turned out to be young Montoya. The ball moved left to right so quickly with one-touch interplay between Alexis, Iniesta, Montoya, Xavi, Pedro, and then finally Montoya lashed it toward goal, only to be thwarted by the crossbar. It was a wonderful move and the best part of it was the sheer willingness and belief of Montoya. Before Pedro laid the ball back for the young right back, Montoya was shouting and pointing to the ground, commanding Pedro to give him the chance. That goal would have been a real treat. The look on Messi’s face when he turned to Montoya was priceless. Pedro could have won it at the death after a perfect Iniesta throughball, but his left footed shot from beyond the box did not have the needed accuracy.
It would remain 2-2 but Tito’s men tried their utmost late to try and end victors. The post match sentiment and body language of the players again underlined that both sides felt they could have won if chances were taken but that a draw was not undeserved. And so it stands after matchday 7, FC Barcelona top the league with 19 points (shared with Atlético de Madrid), still 8 points ahead of Real Madrid in 5th, a greater advantage that any one could have anticipated at this stage. A mandated FIFA break is up next but the team returns October 20 in Galicia to face Deportivo.
Image: Lluis Gene – AFP