As the opening match whistle blew at the Santiago Bernabeu the excitement in the air was palpable. With Real Madrid is soaring atop the La Liga table, six points clear of their Catalan rivals, they wanted to maintain their good form against what is regarded by most as the world’s greatest football team. The affair is always something to behold and the lineups that Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola put out on the field were sure to play some entertaining football.
The magic began in the 11th minute when Cristiano Ronaldo found space down the left wing thanks to a wonderful ball from Karim Benzema. The Portuguese winger showed a trademark quick cut to the outside to open up enough room for a blistering low shot that found its way between Barcelona keeper Jose Manuel Pinto’s legs. The opening goal was exactly what Mourinho’s side was looking for and it allowed Madrid to use the midfield cluttering style that they prefer against Barcelona. With Pepe, Sergio Ramos, Ricardo Carvalho, Coentrao, Altintop, and Xabi Alonso usually staying behind the ball, it was up to Barcelona to rise to the challenge that Madrid had thrown down.
So the assault on the Madrid goal began just after the Madrid goal. It began with Cesc Fabregas lofting a majestic ball over the Madrid defense to Alexis Sanchez who met it with his head. The ball sailed off Sanchez’ head and looked destined for the back of the net before it crashed into the post and was cleared by Sergio Ramos. Iker Casillas was forced to make several saves and Barcelona’s best scoring opportunity of the half was wasted by Iniesta due to a poor shooting effort that ended up in the stands. Barcelona would finish the half goalless, but with momentum in their favor.
Barcelona began the second half with the same flying style they finished the first. Just four minutes into the second half, Barcelona found the back of the net thanks to the unlikely forehead of Carles Puyol. Xavi struck the corner kick cleanly and Puyol beat Pepe to the ball with a diving header that Casillas had no chance to stop. Just like that Barcelona was back in the driver’s seat for the two legged tie, but they were not finished.
Fabregas was at it again with his creative touch as he lofted a ball to Iniesta who volleyed it first time towards the goal before it was deflected out of play by Sergio Ramos. The attacking play of Barcelona was overwhelming the Madrid defense that consisted of Hamit Altintop (in only his 3rd start for Real Madrid) and Ricardo Carvalho (who had missed the previous 21 matches with injury). Madrid had an opportunity to strike back when Altintop’s cross was met by the head of Pepe, but the Spaniard was unable to put the ball on target and the opportunity was wasted.
As Barcelona rose into the ascendancy, Real Madrid picked up the physical play. Madrid punished Barcelona both on the ball and off the ball, but the worst display of unsportsmanlike play must belong to Pepe. Pepe, known for his dirty work, stamped on the hand of Lionel Messi while the Ballon D’Or winner was down on the ground after a hard foul from Jose Maria Callejon. Callejon earned a yellow card for the foul, but the incident with Pepe went unnoticed to referee Cesar Muniz Fernandez, who took a very lenient view of the game in the early stages. Pepe may very well be receiving a suspension for the incident due to overwhelming video evidence against him.
As the game went on and the hard fouls added up, Barcelona was still managing to find the space they needed to play their style of flowing football and the chances were still adding up. Xavi found the head of Sergio Busquets from a set piece, only to have the ball fly over the bar. Just a few minutes later, Lionel Messi conjured up a little bit of magic to put Barcelona ahead. Messi found himself space just outside the penalty area and lofted a ball to Eric Abidal who found himself unmarked in the penalty area. Abidal chested the ball and finished left footed to give Barcelona the go-ahead goal.
Two of the most unlikely scorers had given Barcelona the leg up that they so rightly deserved throughout the game. Their style, tempo, and squad were superior to the Madrid side that Mourinho decided to field and it became even more apparent in the game’s closing moments when Messi was again hacked down, this time by Ricardo Carvalho. The final whistle blast signaled the end to the match, but it is only halftime of the tie and it will be interesting to see how Jose Mourinho and his squad decide to approach their upcoming match at Camp Nou.
Ray Hudson provides some masterful commentary on the top Youtube video while you get a closer look at Pepe stomping on Messi's hand in the second. Puyol gets the background for "swinging in like Tarzan".