Real errs in rearguard strategy

Formula for recent success shelved as Guardiola oversees fifth Bernabéu win

It had seemed a straightforward procedure before the match; José Mourinho's Real Madrid had won 22 of its previous 23 matches in all competitions, deploying much the same 4-2-3-1 system with much the same components in each encounter. Shorn of Álvaro Arbeloa, Ángel di María and Sami Khedira, surely all Real had to do was find round pegs for round holes and remain true to its plan A. Barça's own tried-and-tested formula has been thinner than usual away from home this season, the reigning champion dropping nine points on the road.

It was with some surprise then, if not consternation, that the team news was greeted by the Bernabéu faithful. Ricardo Carvalho, who has not played since September, in the center of defense; Hamit Altintop, a midfielder who has hardly played at all since he became a Real player, at right back; a midfield three including the less-than-creative Lassana Diarra and the anti-footballer, Pepe; and the experiment Madridismo has been pushing for, Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuaín in striking tandem, just not against the caliber of opposition it would have liked.

Mourinho had allowed himself to slip into old habits - the dark arts employed in last year's ill-tempered clásico series, where Pepe in particular, and the rest of his side at large, was instructed to break up Barça's rhythm by fair means or foul. Although without key personnel, Mourinho could have fielded a side akin to those of the Supercup matches, during which Real went toe-to-toe with Barça and acquitted itself well in a 5-4 aggregate defeat. In deploying a side as negative as Wednesday's, Mourinho could hardly be accused of over-optimism. Teams with considerably fewer resources than Real have caused Barcelona some discomfort this season.

He had already launched a staunch defense of Cristiano Ronaldo a full 24 hours before a ball had been kicked: "If any of you want to attack him, we are going to have a serious problem," the Portuguese menacingly advised a pre-match press conference.

In the event, Ronaldo was singled out for praise by his coach after the match, and in truth did little wrong - reigning in his instinct to take on the opposition alone - while playing an instrumental role in Real's first-half counter-attacking tactic, which so nearly bore fruit but for an inch here or there on the final ball. He also scored Real's goal, his fourth in clásico competition, with an electric run from his own half, a step-over and a solid drive with his weaker left foot. Unfortunately for Real, and for the Portuguese star's personal battle to win local hearts and minds when Barça comes to town, that was his last significant contribution.

Mourinho's tactics left Real's playmakers, Mesut Özil and Kaká, and Di María's more-than-capable understudy on the right, José Callejón, kicking their heels on the bench and Pepe, barely able to control the ball in Barça's half, kicking the opposition instead. Real counter-attacks too frequently broke down for lack of an incisive final pass, try as Benzema and Ronaldo might. But these are players who should be running on to balls, not trying to supply them.

Barcelona, meanwhile, almost mockingly eased to victory, barely breaking into a stride other than the industrious running of Alexis Sánchez - who was unfortunate to be called offside on a couple of occasions when clean through. The visitor simply passed, probed and waited, and then delivered the sucker punch from a set-piece. Even the identity of the scorers seemed scripted to rub salt into Real's wounds. Carles Puyol, the Divine Mop, launched himself on to a corner to crash the ball home past Iker Casillas for his 11th Barça goal in 13 years. The second came from the boot of Leo Messi, who lofted a pass to Éric Abidal that the France international slotted home with the sang-froid of a trained marksman. It was the third goal of his career.

"The responsibility is mine," said Mourinho after the match. "Everyone knows that victories have many fathers, but losses just one, and that is me. I understand perfectly. We all celebrated the cup final, but today I am to blame alone."

Puyol celebrates the strike that drew Barcelona level.
Puyol celebrates the strike that drew Barcelona level.PAUL WHITE
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