In the Santiago Bernabéu, on April 16, Real Madrid and Barcelona prepared to kick-off the second of their Primera Liga meetings of the season, now knowing that the prospect facing each other a further three times that month was looming- only a 5-0 turnaround from Tottenham over Real in the Champions League quarter-final, could ruin this run of Clásicos. Barça coach Pep Guardiola described it as a ‘gift’ to football fans, but the first of this almighty run of fixtures became anything but.
Barcelona had run riot at the Camp Nou earlier in the season, smashing Real 5-0; it was José Mourinho’s heaviest ever defeat as a manager. The night was a total embarrassment for Real Madrid as a team, but also for their club philosophy. The big spenders had come unstuck by the home-grown team. Florentino Pérez had seen his new ‘Galacticos’ over run by the best and most in-form team in the world, as well as effectively handing them a huge advantage in the La Liga title race.
This time was different though, this time Mourinho had learned his lesson. The team line-up was hardly reminiscent of any of the previous league matches Madrid had played. With no striker in sight and the aggressive Portuguese central defender Pepe deployed as an extra defensive midfielder, it was never going to be a classic Clásico. “My team always seem to get a red card against Barcelona, I don’t know why” bemoaned the Special One, and that they did. With Real defender Raúl Albiol being sent off for a foul on David Villa early in the second half, the match ended 1-1 in a tale of two penalties (Messi 53, Ronaldo 82), a whole bag of controversy and not a lot of watchable football. More was yet to come though.
If the first Clásico of the saga had been a bit of a snore draw, it had done the job for Barcelona. It effectively wrapped up the league title, but more silverware was about to be at stake between the two. The Copa del Rey final at the Mestalla loomed (that’s the competition nobody cares about until they get near the final, apparently) and it was a chance for Real Madrid to take something away from their dominant rivals. If it was another match between Barça’s pure football and Real’s anti-football tactics (some might say), then anti-football triumphed, as the Catalans squandered numerous chances to take the lead before Ángel Di María’s cross found the head of Cristiano Ronaldo, who’s extra-time goal won the King’s Cup for Real, for the first time in 18 years. Mourinho’s theory was maintained when Di María was dismissed right at the end of the match, but that wouldn’t dampen the celebrations. Madrid were going to milk this for all it was worth- not even Sergio Ramos’ infamous (and hilarious) dropping of the trophy under the parade bus would stop them.
Clásico tres- the Champions League semi-final first leg at the Bernabéu. This one had everyone flummoxed. Who would win? Barcelona were best footballing team for sure, but this was Madrid’s competition, and Mourinho’s. This one mattered more, not just pride and one-upmanship were the prize here but a place at Wembley in the Europe’s premier football tournament. If the build-up was anything to go by, this was going to be bigger and better than any of the matches before. The match was, unfortunately, the very opposite of what every spectator had wanted to see. Instead of incredible football being played by the best players in the world, between the two biggest clubs in Spain, the match was but a petty squabble that only hinted at breaking out in to a football match at times. Diving, fighting, and general underhand tactics became the dominant theme, and thus the game was turned by a red card. Pepe, to know surprise was the man to go. A debatable studs-up tackle on Dani Alves was the offence, and so again Madrid were down to ten.
Unsurprisingly, the tie was tipped in Barça’s favour by two late Lionel Messi goals, the second of which was phenomenal, but nonetheless his trademark. “I wish I had the chance as Messi did to play against 10 because then everything is so much easier” said Ronaldo on reflection. No bitterness there then.
More controversy followed this than any other Clásico in history, I would imagine. A remarkable post-match press conference from Mourinho contained conspiracies in favour of Barcelona, even to the point where Mourinho considered if Barça’s Unicef shirt logo was tipping the referee’s and UEFA’s favour. Disciplinaries from UEFA were inevitable and deserved for Real and Barça, as well as Mourinho individually, but the occasion now left a somewhat bittersweet taste for players and spectators alike.
The second leg of the Champions league tie was somewhat of a formality after Barça’s 2-0 away win. A seemingly lenient referee saved the occasion, after refusing to send Ricardo Carvalho or Lassana Diarra off for Madrid, despite a number of fouls that would normally bring bookings. Barça took the lead in the second half through Pedro after a sumptuous Andrés Iniesta pass, before it was cancelled out by Marcelo 10 minutes later. Controversy is never far away though, and Real Madrid will feel hard done by after Gonzalo Higuaín’s goal was disallowed after a seemingly innocuous fall and collision from Ronaldo on Javier Mascherano. The match was by far the best in terms of football, as Madrid had to go for the win, but the tie in the end, went in Barcelona’s favour- they were going to Wembley.
To reflect on the Clásico run brings somewhat disappointment, but in hindsight it wasn’t unexpected. Of course Mourinho was going to overshadow the football, that’s what he does; he even managed to get the usually calm Pep Guardiola riled up. The football was far from top quality, but the talking points are many and will be discussed for a long time to come. The Spanish press are having a field day.
If you happened to miss the Clásico’s by some unfortunate reason, not to worry, there’s two more in the Spanish Super Cup in August.