Lionel Messi capitalises for Barcelona as Real Madrid see red again
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 27 April 2011 22.06 BST
This is a daunting task for José Mourinho's side now. They must travel to the Camp Nou and score at least twice and they must do so without their coach, who will be suspended. Not only was Pepe sent off here – the fourth Real Madrid player to get a red card in four clásicos this season – so was the manager. As for Barcelona, they had the substitute goalkeeper Pinto sent off too as tempers flared. When Mourinho and Pepe departed, it was 0-0 – more evidence for the black legend the coach has constructed around his opponents.
Again, he would cite extenuating circumstances and again his side were down to 10 men against Barcelona. Whether that was the difference here will be debated for the next week and beyond. What will not is the quality of Messi's goal – his second of a fractious night. Perhaps he was faced by a less populous defence but he still had five men to evade before he could stand before the Barcelona fans, celebrating the goal that could be the key to Barcelona to grasp the biggest prize this series has to offer.
Things had not started well for Barcelona, either, with the late withdrawal of Andrés Iniesta and the tension of the pre-match press conferences. But rather than losing the plot, Guardiola may well be hailed as knowing a thing or two about mind-games himself now – even if the reality was that this game was settled elsewhere, not in the press room where Mourinho is, in the Barcelona manager's words, the "puto amo".
There had been pressure before the game and there was pressure from the start too – from both sides. The first foul occurred after only 44 seconds, Pedro the culprit as Barcelona sought to asphyxiate Madrid high up the pitch. Speaking of asphyxiation, there was a grab at the neck between Gerard Piqué and Sergio Ramos and twice Barcelona players went down off the ball. And as the sides disappeared down the tunnel at half time, there was a further set-to. Barcelona's substitute goalkeeper, José Pinto was at the heart of it and he was sent off, for seeming to punch Madrid's match-day delegate Miguel Porlán "Chendo" in the midst of a row with Alvaro Arbeloa in which another Barça substitute Gabriel Milito was also involved. Then early in the second half, Sergio Ramos floored Messi with a forearm smash.
But if that said something about the intensity, it did not say much about the tactics. Soon Barcelona settled into a routine of dominating possession. On the quarter-hour mark they had enjoyed 83% of the ball. Except that "enjoy" might not have been the word. As Barcelona passed and passed and then passed again, Madrid simply waited, happy to forfeit the ball but not territory. Perhaps they were not so happy – soon Cristiano Ronaldo was furious, screeching at his players to push higher and press Barcelona as he accelerated around a blue and red triangle, always arriving a fraction too late to reach the ball.
Madrid did as Ronaldo instructed, briefly hurrying Barcelona. But the pattern re-emerged rapidly. And while Real Madrid felt that they had largely kept Barcelona at a safe distance, there were opportunities.
David Villa, looking sharper and faster than of late, a goalscorer on Saturday for the first time in 12 games, cut inside and struck a shot fractionally wide of Iker Casillas's right-hand post on 10 minutes. And 13 minutes later, the opening period's best chance fell to Xavi. A wonderful reverse pass from Messi found him dashing into the area but Casillas was out sharply to block the shot. Madrid's response was largely limited to long range efforts and winning free-kicks, corners and throws, Pepe heading one harmlessly down, until Víctor Valdés was called into action right on the stroke of half time, pushing away a Ronaldo shot and having to block the offside Mesut Ozil's follow-up.
The trouble in the tunnel at the end of the first half was not evident at the start of the second – Barcelona came out early and, in a role reversal, waited for Madrid. When they came out there had been a change – Adebayor was on. That gilded substitutes bench was going to have its part to play. Something had to change: this had not yet been a performance worthy of its illustrious cast. There was certainly more desire to chase from Madrid, pushing Barcelona further back, while Adebayor gave them a target to hit.
But it was a different target that came to the fore: Dani Alves's knee. Pepe launched studs-first into a challenge on the right-back, who crumpled on to the turf, and the referee, Wolfgang Stark, had no hesitation in taking out his red card. Madrid felt that while a card could be justified, its colour could not. Puyol's discussion with Mourinho suggested he might have agreed. Mourinho sarcastically clapped Alves and another red card followed – this time for the coach himself. The pitch and noise rose a notch.
Mourinho, who had pleaded for the chance to play Barcelona with 11 men, now had a narrative but not the situation he wanted. Nor, though, did Barcelona have the lead. Villa's shot was parried by Casillas after Xavi had rolled Raúl Albiol and although the keeper was on the floor, Pedro was stretching and could not quite get into a position to head goalwards. A moment later he was withdrawn, replaced by Ibrahim Affelay. Few could have imagined the impact he would have.
Messi ran at the Madrid defence and when his progress was curtailed, smuggled the ball to Xavi, who turned full circle away from Diarra and fed the substitute on the right. He dashed past Marcelo and delivered a low ball towards the near post, where the Argentinian got ahead of his marker to nudge the ball past Casillas on the volley. It was his 52nd goal of an extraordinary season. And it could prove the most important. This saga, though, still had a chapter remaining – and another moment from Messi, this time a magical one