By Ben Hayward | Spain Editor
It must have been frustrating for Real Madrid. Seven wins out of seven were secured in an impeccable pre-season campaign, new players brought in, formations tried and tested, and fitness honed. Barcelona on the other hand suffered important injuries ahead of the Supercopa series, indifferent results and were forced to rely on youngsters and second-string players on tour.
Before the two-legged Supercopa, Barca had made just one new signing and he had yet to make his debut, while their best player had only just returned from holiday and was lacking match fitness. Real were ready, while their rivals appeared far from it, and that was evident as Madrid took the initiative with an impressive and intense display in the first-leg at the Santiago Bernabeu and produced a performance full of pressing, pressure, panache and poise again in the return match.
In the end, though, they were denied by one man.
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Wednesday night had been all about the return of Cesc Fabregas to Camp Nou. The 24-year-old midfielder, signed from Arsenal on Monday following one of the most protracted transfer sagas in living memory, received an enormous cheer from the home fans as his name was announced among the substitutes before kick-off.
Watching from the bench, Cesc will have enjoyed what he saw. Twice at the famous old ground he had witnessed how Lionel Messi had destroyed his Arsenal side in knockout Champions League ties in the last two seasons. But this time, the two La Masia graduates were team-mates sharing a common goal: beating the eternal enemy.
With 15 minutes on the clock, Messi ran with the ball in midfield and threaded a glorious, perfectly-weighted pass forward into a void of space, splitting the Madrid defence in two and setting up Andres Iniesta, who kept his cool and chipped Iker Casillas with a classy finish.
Cristiano Ronaldo duly responded five minutes later with his first ever goal in Catalunya, as he stuck out a leg to divert a deflected Karim Benzema cross past Victor Valdes. That brought the scores level and Madrid gave as good as they got in the remainder of the first half, creating chances and playing with an intensity and a belief which suggested they could go on and win it.
“My team-mates are just phenomenons - I have so much to learn from them. I'm really happy with my debut and the title we have won.”
- Cesc Fabregas
But just like in the 2-2 draw at the Bernabeu, they found themselves behind at half-time - beaten again by the brilliance of a man who has become a thorn in their side.
This time, Messi played a one-two with Gerard Pique following a corner, advanced intuitively onto the defender's returned back-heel, took the ball wide and chipped a delicate angled shot over Casillas and into the corner to make it 2-1. Ronaldo had pursued his rival but to no avail; the Portuguese was left on his knees as the Argentine peeled away to celebrate with his team-mates. He had done it again.
Mourinho's men kept on battling, to their credit, and were rewarded late on as Benzema poked home after Barca had failed to clear a corner nine minutes from the end. That was 2-2 and 4-4 on aggregate. Extra-time loomed and Barca will have been keen to avoid it, given their fragile fitness and delicate condition in the build-up to this match. Conversely, an added 30 minutes would have suited a super-fit Madrid.
It never came, however - Messi saw to that.
Cesc had a hand in the Argentine's winner. Sent on to boost the Catalans' flagging confidence after Benzema's leveller, the midfielder slotted straight in, was a busy presence and popped up in all sorts of positions as Barca sought a late clincher.
“We are happy to have won a new title. Messi was oustanding, as he always is, and he made the difference. It was a hard match and a great performance.”
- David Villa
There appeared no danger as Fabregas took up possession in the right-wing position, but an incisive low pass across the box for Messi opened a space for the Argentine to pick out Adriano on the right and subsequently smash a stunning left-footed volley past Casillas to make it 3-2.
Ugly scenes ensued as Cesc was hacked down by Marcelo and the Brazilian was sent off, quickly followed by the already-departed Mesut Ozil and David Villa for their part in the mass brawl. Tensions flared on both sides and Mourinho even poked Barca's assistant coach Tito Vilanova in the eye.
It was hard to explain the Portuguese's reaction, nor the attitude of some of his players as they pushed and shoved their Barca colleagues and instigated the melee. But it must have been borne of frustration, at having prepared perfectly, performed and produced in both games - and yet still fallen short.
All because of one man. On the night of Guardiola's 11th trophy as coach and a happy homecoming for Cesc, Messi showed he remains the difference between Barcelona and Madrid. And quite what Mourinho and his men can do about that is very hard to say.
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