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Apr 17, 2011

Real Madrid's top tips

The first and arguably least important of the four almost consecutive derbies is over. However, this intense match provided us with significant pointers for the upcoming battles between the top two clubs in Spain.

1) Jose Mourinho's tactics implicitly prove his belief that Real Madrid can't beat Barcelona at their own game. Not since Van Gaal's Ajax bagged a famous victory in 1995 had the Madridistas seen a first half with less possession at the Bernabeu. The Portuguese manager started the match with Pepe in a defensive midfield role, his answer to the Madridistas' difficulties to contain not only Lionel Messi, but also the runs of Xavi and Iniesta. This decision worked well defensively, especially because of Pepe's fiery and, at times, almost reckless defensive performance. However, this tactical disposition hampered Real Madrid's ability to keep the ball and build attacks from the back, given that it was German playmaker Mesut Ozil that missed out to allow Pepe to play in midfield.

2) The Real Madrid line-up was reminiscent of Dunga's Brazil (2006-2010), with its advantages as well as its downfalls. In the plus category, this squad formation possesses huge physical power, are more comfortable off the ball - a good thing when playing against Barcelona - become very dangerous in open space and constantly threaten to score from set pieces, another valuable asset when facing the clearly shorter Azulgrana. We could say that Mourinho has finally put together an anti-Barcelona approach, making the most out of the Catalan's weaknesses. But don't expect this Real Madrid side to keep possession, build a chance to score passing from the back or dominate the flow of play for long spells against Barca.

Similarly to what happened to Brazil under Dunga, one could believe that most Merengues supporters would be strongly against such pragmatic tactics by Mourinho after a whole lifetime of Real Madrid teams that dominated possession and never waited for their arch-rivals in their own half. Nothing could be further from the truth, if one has to judge by the Bernabeu's reaction on Saturday night. As my neighbour Juan, a season ticket holder for over 20 years, bluntly put it as we listened to the line-ups at the start of the match: "We don't want them to score five again, do we?" Pep Guardiola's Barca and the Special One have teamed up to turn 66,000 faithful socios into an army of cynics.

3) Mourinho's plan-B brought new life to the Madridistas, especially in attack. The Portuguese boss, with three creative substitutions, altered his team's disposition with a second unit reminiscent of the Javier Clemente years with the Spanish national team. Mesut Ozil, the Real Madrid equivalent of Clemente's Jose Luis Perez Caminero, shone in the second half, taking advantage of a less dynamic Barcelona midfield and finding plenty of space to link up with Cristiano Ronaldo and Emmanuel Adebayor. This second unit recovered the spark and played Barcelona as equals in attack, despite their numerical inferiority, although they conceded precious space at the back.

4) Even if Mourinho seems to have found a way to compete against Pep's team, the Catalans are still a superior side. After Messi scored from the spot and with a ten-man Real Madrid looking like a groggy boxer, Barcelona surprisingly took the foot off the gas. On at least four occasions either Xavi or Iniesta decided against a seemingly killer through-ball in order to retain possession, as though satisfied with the short but significant win. When Cristiano Ronaldo levelled, the Catalans took more risks to finish the match off, but a clearly distraught David Villa was wasteful in front of goal. On Saturday night, Barcelona gave away what could have been a psychologically defining win for the remaining derbies.

5) Even in the least relevant of the four derbies, pressure proved unbearable for some. Pep Guardiola needlessly gambled on Carles Puyol's match fitness, putting at stake the centre-back's presence in the Copa del Rey final. Raúl Albiol gave away one of the most bizarre penalties seen in a derby, which could cost him dear with Jose Mourinho, who is not a big fan of the former Valencia player in the first place. Some players' constant arguing with the referee looked extremely exaggerated, and should have resulted in a flurry of yellow cards. And, of course, the pressure on the referee exceeded acceptable levels, both on and off the pitch. But this is what derbies are like, right? Expect more surprising decisions and reactions from the main characters in the next three weeks.

6) The Copa del Rey final should go down to the wire. Dunga's, er ... Mourinho's new anti-Barcelona approach is still not totally proven, which, coupled with Albiol's absence and the subsequent need to reconfigure the back four, still gives the advantage to the Blaugrana, right now a far more accomplished side. However, this new tactical approach did keep Barcelona out of their usual scoring positions for most of the match, while the Merengues physical advantage at set pieces created some risky situations for Victor Valdes. The fact that they fought for and eventually achieved a draw with ten men also reinforces the team have recovered psychologically from the 5-0 thrashing earlier in the season. Most Madridistas, including a decent amount of players, believe the Copa to be their best bet to win a title, as in one single match they stand a better chance to contain the Azulgrana's attack and make the most out of their opportunities. We'll only have to wait until Wednesday to find out.

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