PLENTY of questions were posed ahead of the third and final El Clasico of the campaign. Would Gareth Bale live up to his price tag? Will Barcelona save their season? Can Real Madrid claim an unlikely treble?
Unjustified criticism has been levelled at Bale’s impact as a ‘big game’ player this term and contributing when it matters most but the Welshman responded emphatically by stealing the headlines in the absence of leading scorer Cristiano Ronaldo.
Just when extra-time was looming large, the £85.3 million man stepped up to the plate and produced the decisive moment Tottenham supporters were drooling over twelve months ago.
Once the after burners were turned on, there was no stopping him in full flow. That’s what you pay the top money for!
Bale may have failed to impose himself on the 2-1 defeat at the Nou Camp in October and in the absorbing thriller at the Bernabeu last month but he stood up and was counted for at the Mestalla.
The winning goal, worthy of gracing any stage, in the first major cup final of the campaign does not get much bigger – and Carlo Ancelotti will be eternally grateful to his marquee signing as the Real figurehead claimed a domestic cup for the third time in his managerial career.
A maiden trophy will ease the burgeoning pressure on his shoulders but the popular Italian, assisted by Englishman Paul Clement, got his reward for capably stepping into the shoes of Jose Mourinho this term, as his tactics in the Copa Del Rey showpiece testified.
Real started with a flourish – and an attacking intent that Barca simply could not match, with the breakthrough goal coming early in a manner reminiscent of Mourinho’s approach last term.
Constructive counter attacks at lightning pace with few touches – four and counting from Isco’s tenacity to rob Xavi at one end to Di Maria’s ruthless finish at the other.
The suscipion of offside was more than a mere hint, but thanks to the array of technology at television production teams’ disposal, assistant referee Pau Cebrian Devis was proved right in keeping his flag down.
Unlike many El Clasicos that have gone before, football did the talking on the pitch, thanks largely to the leniency of Antonio Mateu Lahoz – the referee who made a lasting impression on his superiors by keeping the cards in his pocket and the attacks flowing.
Madrid continuously knocked on the Barca door but found an appropriate balance to remain defensively resolute, illustrative of the approach the tactically-astute Ancelotti has adopted throughout his illustrious coaching career at Chelsea, AC Milan and Paris St Germain.
The bravery of throwing in Isco paid dividends as the diminutive former Malaga maestro came of age in a midfield trio that encapsulated a display driven by energy and commitment. Their rob-and-run tactics caught Barca cold on countless occasions.
Angel Di Maria was the outstanding performer in a dignified defeat by the Catalans 24 days ago and was the hub of the midfield trio yet equally adept as part of a quartet when Barca were in possession, which was more often that not.
The forward movement of Luka Modric gave Bale the freedom to switch sides and have an impact in different positions. Karim Benzema led the line fantastically well as a spearhead with Xabi Alonso protecting the back four effectively, breaking up play and distributing the ball quickly to those in front of him.
Although Real’s well-organised unit was tough to break down, Barca were guilty of failing to play to their strengths with the signature mark of a steady if not spectacular first period being their narrow build-up, ensuring a much easier defensive task for Real.
Had Pedro and Alexis Sanchez been selected from the start, their ability to unlock and alienate defenders could have made all the difference.
The reluctance of Cesc Fabregas to provide width meant an over-reliance on Dani Alves and Jordi Alba to push forward and ultimately left space for Los Blancos to exploit at the back.
Their vulnerability has been highlighted to the extreme with title chasers Atletico Madrid and lowly Granada condemning them to back-to-back losses by troubling the heart of their makeshift defence, which saw midfielder Sergio Busquets employed as a centre-back.
The loss of Jordi Alba at the interval to injury – their key attacking weapon in the opening 45 minutes – hit them hard.
However, it is no coincidence that results have dipped since Victor Valdes was ruled out for the rest of the season. Jose Pinto has always been a liability but manages to retain the faith of those in charge.
With Valdes set for pastures new in the summer, the prospect of the understudy filling the breach of number one next season is a frightening one.
After 33 crosses at the weekend, Barca attempted 13 in the first 45 minutes, compared to Real’s three. So often dubbed one-dimensional, the Catalans just could not diversify their play.
Hogging the ball in the final third without the pulling power to pack a punch – the same shortcomings have been a familiar tale for Barca in recent times.
Tata Martino has been ridiculed in the Spanish press for trying to change the philosophy that has been long associated with the club. But if Plan A does not work, what is he supposed to do?
Their dominance on the ball and ability to rack up the passing stats was a given – carving the opportunities to accompany it was the challenge.
But in reality, clear-cut chances were few and far between for a Barcelona who were unusually devoid of ideas for much of the contest.
Four shots on target in 90 minutes, nevertheless, was a pitiful return. Two of which came from centre-back Marc Bartra, one resulting in a rare set-piece goal.
The Argentine boss had the look of a concerned man throughout and as the full-time whistle reverberated across the terraces, that disillusioned feeling was expressed by many of his players and the Barca spectators who made the trip to Valencia more in hope than expectation.
Neymar cut a frustrated figure, Lionel Messi was a broken man and Carles Puyol didn’t know where to turn. It was an experience that has rarely been contemplated by these high-profile professionals.
The occasion offered Barca the opportunity to fight for their lives and salvage a semblance of success from an utterly dismal campaign. Instead, it reached crisis point.
A third defeat in a row for the first time in 11 years, Messi’s evident loss of form, a series of below-par performances, ominous defensive frailties and a lack of confidence in his methods. Martino has no place to hide and a number of issues that need addressing desperately.
Out of the Champions League before the semi-final stage for the first time in seven seasons, installed as third favourites to retain the league title they claimed last term and now second best in the Copa Del Rey they have won a record 26 times.
Their treble hopes have been trashed in no fewer than seven days flat with just the Spanish Super Cup to regard as remote success during Martino’s brief reign thus far.
Like the famous Meat Loaf track uttered, “two out of three ain’t bad” – for Barca this term by taking a glance of their El Clasico record.
A La Liga double over their fiercest rivals have been two high points in a tough season filled with lows. The all-conquering, invincible, trophy-laiden Barca of the Pep Guardiola era are a force of the distant past.
Imploding institutionally with the transfer embargo imposed by Fifa, these are troubled times on and off the field for the Nou Camp side.
In a game of fine margins, Real merited their success by making the most of their moments on a night in which Gareth Bale arguably stepped up into the world class category.
Bayern Munich are waiting just around the corner in a potentially explosive last-four European tie and the possibility of catching neighbours Atletico on the domestic front is plausible. Real’s season still has plenty of life left in it.
Ancelotti won the tactical battle in the personal duel with Martino, who has some almighty conundrums to solve if he is to occupy one of the biggest hotseats in world football come the start of next term.
Real Madrid vs Barcelona Image by Muhaidib via Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License