Channeling Cassandra: Barcelona-Real Madrid PreviewBy: kage | October 4th, 2012
In ancient Troy lived a woman named Cassandra, who was justly famous for two reasons. First was her pronounced lack of a sense of humor; more importantly, Cassandra was gifted with the ability to see the future, but cursed by the fact that no one would believe her visions…. Well, this writer ain’t no Cassandra. In the past two matches, both Barca victories, your correspondent has predicted one defeat and one draw. Fortunately wrong and wrong. So the only sane suggestion is: ignore this preview. Because this writer doesn’t think the season’s third Clasico, the Liga match between Barca and Real Madrid at the Camp Nou, is going to be a pretty thing….
Funny. I was all set to paint this preview with golden and rosy tones – until about 75 minutes into the Benfica game on Tuesday. At that point, it looked like Barca had managed to rid itself of some distasteful habits, recently acquired. What habits? Well, their wonderful keeper Victor Valdes, winner of five consecutive Zamora trophies, seemed to be in a slump; Victor was not only letting in more goals than last year, but on several occasions had more Goals Allowed than Saves. But against Benfica he was his old, brave, quick self, made good saves, kept a clean sheet. Glad to have you back, Victor.
What other habits had popped up? Our wonderful attackers – those not named Messi, at least – had developed the habit of blowing open chance after open chance. But 75 minutes into that Benfica game, that habit too looked like ancient history: in the past two games Cesc, Villa, and Alexis have all scored, and Pedro was unlucky to have a thunderous volley saved off the line by a defender. Glad to have you back, Cesc, Guaje, Alexis, and Pedrito.
Another bad habit? The incomparable Leo Messi had acquired a case of Argentinenationalteamitis, which means he’d begun to get frustrated during games, play deeper, face a deep tangle of opposing hackers foulers defenders… but now he’s suddenly begun to look like the world’s best Number 10, creating all five of Barca’s last goals for his teammates (although this, at times, seems to earn him mysteriously low ratings). Glad to have you… I know, Leo: you were never truly away.
Late in that Benfica game, things were even looking up on defense! Alex Song, an excellent defensive midfielder who is yet a liability in central defense, was back on the bench, and the Christ-like Captain, Carles Puyol, was back with a vengeance, giving everything and a half, even sliding full-length and hard behind Valdes to save a shot if VV missed it (VV didn’t). Benfica played aggressively well, but ended up with only two real chances on goal.
So at that point, 75 minutes into the Benfica match, I’d begun to think maybe I was wrong. Maybe I was wrong that Real Madrid, who are beginning to play well again, had finally discovered the key to beating Barca: launch the ball high and long from deep — taking advantage of the fact that Barca’s defensive midfielder Sergio Busquets likes to play high up to cut off the opposition’s first outlet pass — and thus find a guy like Higuain or Benzema or, even worse, The Man Who Loves Himself, with a 50-50 chance of winning a high ball near the Barca goal. A primitive tactic that comes straight from the genius of Stoke City manager Tony Pulis Real Madrid’s manager, the Other Man Who Loves Himself (though maybe not so much as The Man Who Really Loves Himself). [Here’s a newsflash: Ruud van Nistelrooy has claimed former team-mate Cristiano Ronaldo is “a vain person, but not arrogant.” We now feel we know him so much better.]
Maybe I was wrong that the first 35 minutes of the second Supercopa match between Real Madrid and Barcelona, where Barca was hair-raisingly outplayed like seldom before, where Barca was lucky to be behind just 2-0, where Real Madrid played like avenging angels and Barca like country buffoons – well, maybe I was wrong that those 35 minutes meant something.
Maybe I was wrong that Real Madrid, 8 points adrift of Barcelona, would be so impelled by desperation in this Sunday’s game that they would give their hearts and souls to win.
Maybe I was wrong that Real Madrid would be so tired of the articles about how they hate each other – which of course they do, the Portuguese faction vs. the Spanish faction – that they would turn their hatred for each other into footballing energy.
Maybe, I thought, I was wrong… again… as usual. And Barca would beat Real Madrid again, as they have so many times over the past four years. But then That Thing happened, 75 minutes into the Benfica game. Carles Puyol fell hard and awkwardly and dislocated his elbow. It hurt like hell, in every way. It was painful to watch him there on the grass, with his arm heading out in several wrong directions.
So it’s back to not Plan A or B but Plan C. It’s back to Gloom and Doom. It’s back to wondering why oh why during the offseason Barca didn’t get a fourth central defender that their manager might have faith in using. Did they think the great King Abidal would come back from a liver transplant at warp speed? Did they think a 34 year-old captain coming off knee surgery was immortal, or his lanky partner in crime, who has also had a history of injury, was indestructible? Or what?
Now before I go off half-cocked – wait, I already did go off half-cocked – let’s get back to reason. First, if you take out the two best central defenders a team has, there are few sides that will not suffer. How’s Real Madrid likely to be without Ramos and Pepe? So maybe it’s not the Barca management in its Rosellian ignorance that is to blame, but bad luck. Now that we’ve absolved the club of complicity in its obviously-idiotic failure to purchase insurance at center back, let’s talk about the bright side.
First, Real Madrid will have one less day of rest. Real didn’t have a truly hard game against Ajax, but the matter wasn’t settled till the last quarter. Also, Busquet’s red card won’t stop him from playing in this game, where he will surely be Man of the Match, as usual. And Barca, of course, is playing at home.
Lastly, there’s one more happy thought to mention. This Barca squad seems to have the makings of a remarkable group, and they seem to have luck on their side. Osasuna led Barca; Barca came back and won. Spartak Moscow led Barca with a half hour to play; Barca came back and won. With five minutes to go against Granada, it was 0-0; Barca came on and won. Sevilla led Barca until 1 minute remained in regular time; Barca came back and won, remarkably. Benfica outplayed Barca for long periods, and Barca won. Clearly these guys have heart. If anyone can face the whirlwind and survive it, it’s these guys.
But Cassandra sez: not this game. Not with a rickety central defense made of converted midfielders and matchsticks against one of the best if most vain teams in the game. Final score: 1-3. Goals by Messi (with assist from Jordi Alba), but it won’t be enough. Higuain will get one, He Who will knock in a penalty (see: Song, Alex), and I can’t quite see who gets the other one, though I understand he comes from Argentina. Impartial observers will say, What a game! Cules will say: we’ll get em next time. And we will!: we’ll win at the Bernabeu. You heard it here first.
I think Real Madrid will apply pressure upfield to botherate Barca’s rhythm and try to steal a goal; they’ll try to launch long balls from the back to bypass the Barca midfield; they’ll kick at Messi’s heels, and anyone else who comes free of their pressure. Di Maria will flop and RM will accuse Busquets of flopping. They’ll play two defensive midfielders, Khedira to kick people and Xabi Alonso to send out long diagonal balls (because he thinks it looks so pretty). Pepe will commit untold offenses on defense, and perhaps get away with them, or not.
Barca, meanwhile, will play Barca’s game. It’s no mystery.
Real Madrid: Casillas: Arbeloa, Ramos, Pepe, Coentrao; Khedira, Alonso, Ozil (then New Toy Modric); Ronaldo, Benzema, di Maria.
Barcelona: Valdes; Alves, Song, Mascherano, Alba; Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta; Alexis (then Tello), Messi, Pedro (then Villa).