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Five Aside: Di Maria a skillful crosser

Five Aside 17 hours ago
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Serie A season preview: Inter Milan

Inter Milan about an hour ago
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Nov 30, 2010

No contest in clasico

No contest. Those are the only two words that can sum up the clasico, a disappointing occasion if you'd been expecting an evenly-fought slug-out, a euphoric one if you'd been hoping that Barcelona could re-stamp their authority on the Spanish scene, after their rivals' previously unbeaten start to the season. Whatever, the least one expected was a manita (little hand), the phrase reserved for games that end in a 5-0 scoreline. In some ways, they're worse than a 6-0 result, because the latter has no nickname, no bruising synonym created to humiliate.

In many ways, I cannot recall a more hyped clasico than this one. The main message, and it was an accurate one, was that the game was unusual in featuring both sides at the height of their powers. The bipolar relationship that frames these two teams, whereby one dances in the light whilst the other, almost by default, lurks wounded in the shadows, was wholly absent this time around.

Real Madrid had recovered their self-esteem to such an extent that they fancied their chances in the Camp Nou, and the media battle that ensued - each camp attempting to win some small psychological advantage, was fascinating throughout the week. However, Mourinho maybe overdid the 'If we lose, tomorrow is still Tuesday' line, and in so doing revealed a secret fear, a get-out clause that would relieve him from pressure in the event of a defeat. What he didn't expect was a thrashing.

The game had just about everything, apart from tension as to the result. At 2-0 Madrid played some decent stuff for a 15-minute spell, but failed to pull back the psychological goal before the interval. The alleged foul by Victor Valdes on Ronaldo looked innocent enough to me, but the Madrid-based media are already rolling out their murmured complaints. Madrid would have been back in the game, blah blah. I don't think so. In general terms, Barcelona murdered them with an imperious display of electric one-touch football, where the player receiving the ball always had at least two options - the basic lore of tiki-taka. Madrid lost their shape for much of the game, because they were reduced to chasing shadows and because their own passing was relatively poor. Xabi Alonso was never in the game, Ronaldo was back to his unilateral self - the poorer player who often turns up in adverse circumstances, and who then tries to do it all alone, and Karim Benzema simply disappeared after a reasonably bright start.

Sergio Ramos had a nightmare, and finished off the evening's work by racking up a tetchy and testosterone-filled hacking of Messi, plus a shove on his Spain team-mate Carles Puyol that wouldn't have disgraced wrestling in Pressing Catch. Like a good cricketer who knows he's on his way to the pavilion, Ramos was walking before referee Iturralde Gonzales even brought out the red card. You got the impression that Ramos just wanted to get off the pitch.

And there was even a shove by Ronaldo on Pep Guardiola, in an amusing incident where Barcelona's manager appeared not to give the Portuguese pouter the ball back. Cue strutting and semi-fisticuffs, as Pep's soldiers came to the aid of their General, perhaps forgetting that he had spent several years looking after himself perfectly well on the football pitch. Nevertheless, it's a picture that will be in all the papers.

Xavi's early goal, brilliantly executed, caused Madrid an unexpected problem. Given that Mourinho would have wanted to get to the interval at 0-0, to then try to go for the game in the second half, the 'Inter' tactic that Guardiola had referred to in the press conference before the game was already in ruins. Madrid came out of their shell and tried to redress the balance immediately, only to fall to a sloppy goal eight minutes later, at the hands of Pedro. Both Ramos and Casillas will prefer not to watch the replays.

In the second half, some of the hosts' football was astonishing. Madrid simply couldn't cope. Pepe was all over the place, Ramos was leaving huge spaces on the right flank - although to be fair to him, Di Maria was not helping - and Khedira seemed to undergo some sort of paralysis, like a startled rabbit in the headlights of a speeding car. After 56 minutes it was all over bar the home fans' shouting, some of which included the chant Mourinho dimisión! (Mourinho resign!) which was quite witty in the circumstances. The Special One sat motionless on the bench, his poker face revealing no emotion. He was probably beginning to plot the revenge at the Bernabeu. This was, in fact, the heaviest defeat of his managerial career.

The game will deal a temporary psychological blow to Madrid, but the consequences of the game are far from clear. They may motivate Madrid even more. They were played off the park, but they have not become a poor side overnight. They lost their shape and their discipline, unusual for a Mourinho side, and everything went wrong for them.

At times in the second half Barcelona were playing football from some other space-time continuum. Brutal in its apparent simplicity but based on infallible technique, they hardly played a long ball all match. Madrid had not expected to be playing a five-a-side game, and simply fell into the trap of ball-watching. Both of David Villa's goals came from Madrid's tendency to watch the man with the ball (Messi) and not the diagonal runs into space.

Barcelona also decided on a higher line than usual, and pushed Xavi up to almost man-mark Xabi Alonso. It was a curious sight, but every time Alonso received the ball, he found himself surrounded by a hostile bunch of Blaugranas, each one snapping at his heels and clouding his horizon. The home side's pressure, when off the ball, was such that Madrid's players seemed isolated from one another, their rhythms broken by the absence of the normally metronomic Alonso. There was no connection between the midfield and the forward line. Ozil seemed fragile and stranded, and Di Maria seemed unsure of what to do. Without the speed of Higuain to threaten Barcelona's high-line policy (Benzema prefers the ball into feet), the home midfield was spared the problem of shielding its own defence, and occupied itself by suffocating Alonso's crucial influence.

Even Iker Casillas looked human. The last few games against Barcelona have left him looking desperate, as if his life were almost perfect (beautiful girlfriend, international acclaim, World Cup win, etc) but for the two occasions on which he has to be humiliated per season. But it would be wrong to get carried away with this result. There is a long way to go yet, and Madrid are a more resilient outfit this time around. Barcelona were astonishingly good - even young Jeffren joined the party late on, and scored - but the win was too easy. It's not a real reflection of the difference between the two sides. Don't expect La Liga to suddenly become a one-horse race.

At the top of the 'other league', Villarreal destroyed poor Zaragoza 3-0 at the latter's home, and condemned them to another week at the bottom. Valencia ruined Jose Luis Oltra's first game as manager of Almeria (2-1) and kept the Mestalla side in the Europa spots, a point behind the surprising Espanyol, whose bad-tempered 3-2 win at Atletico Madrid lifts them into fourth place, nine points behind their illustrious Catalan neighbours. Sevilla, once again, flattered to deceive, and went down at home to an inspired Getafe, 1-3.

Madrid will be looking to pick up the pieces with a tricky-looking game at home to Valencia on Saturday night, and Barcelona travel up to Osasuna, as yet undefeated at home. All to play for still, despite appearances to the contrary.

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