Whenever FC Barcelona plays Real Madrid CF, it is always a spectacle that attracts the attention of the entire football world. However, with the almost ludicrous amount of matches played between these two teams over the past two seasons, fans have almost become desensitized to the drama. This El Clásico, though, had much higher stakes than previous ones. With a win in this game, Barcelona would be just one point behind Madrid in La Liga, a salvageable distance to gap in the last few games of the season. While this may not be the last matchup between the two this season, each game should be played with the same sense of urgency. It is not only points and trophies at stake, it is pride. And that is something the blaugrana should never take for granted.
Head coach Pep Guardiola employed a rather risky lineup, considering Madrid fielded its traditional star lineup. Usual starters like Piqué, Alexis and Cesc were resigned to the bench while Valdés, Alves, Mascherano, Puyol, Adriano, Busquets, Xavi, Thiago, Iniesta, Messi, and Tello all suited up for the start of the game.
The match began with early pressure from both sides, as was expected for an El Clásico. Both Barcelona and Madrid had early shots that just missed their target. The first yellow card, and surely not the last for this age-old rivalry, was shown in the 15th minute to Busquets for tripping up Ronaldo during a run down the flank.
It did not take long after the yellow card in Madrid’s favor for the Castilians to score. The team earned a corner kick that Özil sent in in the 17th minute. Pepe jumped for the first header and Valdés scrambled to smother it but failed. Puyol wrestled with Khedira in an attempt to clear, but the German managed to poke it around the captain and into the goal. It was not the prettiest goal, but it was enough to give the visitors the lead.
Barcelona had a brilliant chance to equalize after some Messi magic. La Pulga squeezed the ball through a wall of Madrid defenders in the 27th minute. Xavi received the ball in a one-on-one with Casillas and angled the shot in. However, the Spanish captain was able to just deflect the ball wide and prevent the blaugrana goal.
Barcelona continued to prod the Madrid defense and look for a way through. Unfortunately for the Catalans, an opening was rarely seen. Madrid was doing everything it could to keep Barcelona at bay, even if it meant earning a yellow card. The referee booked Pepe in the 43rd minute for tackling Busquets without any real intent to win the ball.
The one minute of added time proved unfruitful for the home side and Barcelona entered halftime a goal down. The creative chances were abundant for Barcelona, but the finishing and goal scoring prowess were not. With just Messi as the only consistent scorer, the team needed to come up with a more offensive tactic if it was going to break past Madrid’s defense.
No sooner had the second half kicked off then the referee pulled a yellow card from his pocket. In the 47th minute, Xabi Alonso was awarded a yellow card for taking down Messi who had run into a pack of white shirts.
Barcelona had clearly upped the intensity for the second half and dominated possession. The players’ run of good form still could not produce a goal, though, and as the hour mark was reached, substitutions seemed a necessity. Madrid was satisfied to protect its one goal lead and was not keen to score unless it was on a lucky break. Another way Madrid tried to preserve its lead was by making the most of an injury. Any knock or tackle required a solid few minutes to recover and even some medical staff to help on the pitch. Barcelona could only hope the time wasted would be added on at the end of the half.
The long-awaited substitution did eventually come in the 69th minute. Xavi came off for Alexis, who would presumably take up a forward position while Iniesta dropped back to midfield. It did not take long for the Chilean to make an impact, as just a minute after he entered the pitch, he scored. Iniesta drove into the box and was taken down, but not before he passed the ball off to Tello. The youngster took a shot but it bounced off Casillas. Adriano collected the rebound and crossed it to Alexis. The substitute took one shot, but Casillas saved again. Alexis rebounded his own shot, though, and this time Casillas was not as agile.
The equalizer reinvigorated Camp Nou and the three points again seemed possible. However, it did not take Madrid long to take the wind out of culé sails. Özil crossed a great ball to Ronaldo who was able to beat his defenders and chip the ball past Valdés and into the net. Madrid was again up by a goal and Barcelona again had two goals to score for a win.
After the goal, two substitutions were made, one for each side. Pedro replaced Adriano for even more attacking power. For Madrid, Di María exited in favor of Granero.
More yellow cards continued to flow in the last few minutes. Both Özil and Granero were shown yellow cards in the 77th and 78th minutes, respectively. In the 81st minute, Barcelona used its last substitution when Cesc came on for Tello. Mascherano soon fell victim to the yellow card curse in the 86th minute for chopping down Ronaldo.
Madrid whiled away the dying minutes with substitutions to continue to delay any Barcelona comeback. Özil made way for Callejón in the 89th minute and Benzema did likewise in the 93rd minute for Higuaín. The last four minutes of added time were not enough for Barcelona, and the final whistle blew, symbolizing a nail in Barcelona’s league coffin.
With four games and seven points to bridge, mathematically a La Liga title is still possible. Realistically, though, all culés can probably now accept the truth Barcelona has been facing for months. There are still other competitions for which to compete, so the season is not a total wash. However, fans and the team should be disappointed. A loss to Madrid, no matter how unlucky, always stings the most.
Image source: JAVIER SORIANO/AFP/Getty Images