In one of the most fascinating contests of the season so far, hard-working Madrid finally got one over on their eternal rivals - and it could be the start of something great
By Ewan Macdonald
Jose Mourinho's side have now won him his first Spanish trophy and, barring a premature move back to England, on the strength of this performance there surely must be more to come.
The Bernabeu outfit weathered a Barcelona renaissance in the second half, but overall brought pride to a Real Madrid shirt that all too often in recent history has been a symbol of expensive underachievement, ill-discipline and lack of bite.
None of these negative qualities were on display at the Mestalla on Wednesday evening. Madrid - lean, hungry, and tactically balanced - were drilled to near-perfection by Mourinho, and although their goal didn't come until extra-time it's hard to deny that it was merited.
As usual, Jose kept pundits and fans guessing until shortly before kick-off as to his plans. In the end his line-up, on paper, appeared to be a pseudo-4-3-3 with a false nine. In actuality the midfield was a good bit more fluid, and Ronaldo so advanced as to pass for a centre-forward, and as such the attacking line was somewhat conventional.
Yet again the Portuguese tactician showed his undoubted genius. Of course there were nervy moments, but whether pressing or sitting back, Madrid seldom looked overwhelmed.
He only lasted 70 minutes, and that's a concern. Everything else he did, though, verged on the brilliant. Two of his first-half passes were the stuff of highlight reels. If he can improve his fitness the sky's the limit.
In the aforementioned nervy moments, it fell to San Iker to show his old self and ensure Madrid remained in a position to grab the winner. To see him hoist the trophy aloft one-handed was a delight.
Yes, his game isn't all about goals, and he spends as much time on the wings as he does facing the opponents' 'keeper these days. Even with that granted, his was a terrible showing. Lacks a shred of confidence.
Guardiola could have put Busquets at centre-back and Mascherano in midfield. He did the opposite - as would most others in his position. It did not pay off, though, as Busquets struggled to be the calming, productive, understated influence he usually is.
The coach's famous humility is never in question, and he would be the first to congratulate Real Madrid for a job well done. But in private, his mental strength simply must have taken a hit - the alternative is impossible. Now to rebuild before next Tuesday...
In possession the go-to option was Mesut Ozil, and he repaid this faith with some truly stunning high through balls and crosses - the kind of service that none of Barcelona's usual impresarios could provide until the second period.
In fact Madrid's style - full of pressing and energy in the first half and swift, decisive attacks thereafter - was a very accurate reflection of Pep Guardiola's fears. The Barcelona coach had warned before Saturday's Clasico that "in three touches they have already reached the goal", and thus it proved as Angel di Maria won the game with a deft cross that found Barcelona stranded halfway up the pitch, and Ronaldo ready to score the kind of header he just seems to relish in finals.
Even during Barcelona's ascendancy, midway through the second half, the capital outfit were able to rest relatively easy. Much of this was due to the rediscovered form of Iker Casillas, who is showing similar form to that which made him the undisputed world's best circa 2007. A defence which, let one not forget, was makeshift also gave a good account of itself, keeping a tight line to render Pedro offside in Barcelona's one truly Barcelona-esque chance of the second period. (Javier Mascherano, the reluctant centre-back at the other end, cut the opposite type of defensive figure when Cristiano Ronaldo was put through for a spurned chance not long before the end of the 90.)
It is curious, though, just how few of Casillas's contributions came after Ronaldo's goal. One would expect that, going one down, Barcelona would pour forward in earnest - an advance to provoke similar levels of fear in opponents as might the rumble of Genghis Khan's horde towards a farming village. But while Guardiola's side did open up, they created remarkably few chances of note, Lionel Messi more often than not reaching dead ends, while on the rare occasions that Barcelona could swing a cross in there was no Ronaldo waiting to meet it.
In short, Madrid combined a fine tactical footing with considerable guts and grit. The stereotypes of overpaid, overpampered, underachieving galacticos will take more than one middling trophy to dispel, but a step down that road was taken tonight. Cristiano Ronaldo could have let his head drop after two regular-time misses that were, frankly speaking, awful, but instead remained composed to land the winner. That, above all else, exemplifies that this current team can now match Barcelona for spirit - a not inconsiderable feat.
It cannot be overstated how much of this is down to Jose Mourinho. It's certainly true that Manuel Pellegrini, the previous Bernabeu incumbent, was capable of bringing out some good performances from his players, most notably in the league. But when push invariably turned to shove, the men in white could not remain standing. Now they can - and the pressure is on Pep Guardiola to show that his side can recover from their first major domestic setback since he took charge.
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