Someone asked me how my blog and newspaper column came to be titled "Bleachers Brew". It's like this, it's an amalgam of sorts of two things: The bleachers area in the stadium/arena where I used to sit when I would watch baseball, football, and basketball games and Miles Davis' great jazz album Bitches Brew. That's how it got culled together. I originally planned on calling it "The View from the Big Chair" that is a nod to Tears For Fear's second album, Songs from the Big Chair. So there.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Bleachers' Brew #307 Barcelona-Real Madrid El Clasico: Real-ity check

This appears in the Monday April 23, 2012 edition of the Business Mirror.

Real-ity check
by rick olivares photo by AP screen shots from the game

Real Madrid came to Camp Nou looking solve the Barcelona puzzle that has baffled them for the past four years.

And for the second consecutive El Clasico, Madrid scored first when Sami Khedira booted in the ball that Barcelona’s Carles Puyol and Victor Valdes failed to clear. Unlike their previous fixtures where Real Madrid played reasonably well but lost their verve and nerve in the face of Barcelona’s frustrating tiki taka style of football, this time, they held fast.

And also for the second consecutive La Liga game, Barcelona found themselves down and having to chase the equalizer. Last week, they went down to Levante in the 23rd minute and it took Barcelona 41 minutes to equalize and an additional eight minutes to get the win.

The Khedira goal was the second high profile defensive gaffe of the week.

Seven days earlier, Liverpool defender Jaime Carragher, long a stalwart in the back four but clearly with his best days behind him, paused to look at the ball while waiting for a teammate to clear it. By the time Carragher booted it away, the ball struck Everton’s Tim Cahill and Nikica Jelavic blasted the rebound past Reds’ keeper Brad Jones for the opening score. Luckily for, Liverpool rebounded with two second half goals to pip their Merseyside foe and advance to the FA Cup Finals.

Barcelona would not be as lucky. A win in Camp Nou that seemed very likely given their recent head-to-head matches, would have cut the four-point gap with Madrid to a mere one point. A loss would be disastrous.

And once more Barca flirted with disaster. In the 17th minute, forward Angel Di Maria fired a corner that found teammate Karim Benzema who won the header. Valdes blocked the shot but was unable to latch on to the ball that landed between him and Puyol. Puyol hesitated a moment thinking Valdes would corral the ball. The moment of indecision cost Barcelona as Madrid midfielder Khedira stuck a foot in there to push the ball into the back of the net.

First blood, Madrid. Khedira’s goal is a painful reminder that Superman or a super team has their own Kryptonite. Eight of the 26 goals Barcelona have conceded have come in the match’s first 25 minutes when the Blaugrana’s vaunted midfield had yet to seize control of the game. The goal once more exposed another chink in the armor of Josep Guardiola’s team -- their vulnerability to corner kicks.

However, immediately after the goal, Barcelona seized control of the game and went on the attack while Madrid had to forage off counter-attacks.

Unlike in previous meetings, Madrid’s defense was better organized this time around. Los Blancos did not depart from their 4-2-3-1 formation that was employed in a more defensive fashion.

Madrid’s zonal marking was mostly excellent. Once a Barca player moved forward, Los Blancos employed a triangular defensive formation with defenders pushing the attacker into another defender’s way while running ahead to anticipate the throughballs or forward passes that have previously bedeviled them. Strangely, Guardiola’s men insisted on trying to slice up the middle instead of the flanks where they had the speedy Dani Alves who had a couple of near chances in the match’s early minutes.

Take a look at these screen shots that I took from the game. Look at how Real Madrid employed defensive triangles to stop the forward movement of Barcelona. Every time a Barcelona player was able to beat his man, another defender stood in his path while the beaten player advanced to another position to close the trap. 

These traps left Barcelona with almost no room to operate. This also sacrificed much of the offense of Madrid. I know it's a radical departure from the preferred attacking game but Los Blancos tried that before and they paid for it. This time, the more sound defensive nature while choosing their spots on the counter helped.

The clogged middle left almost no room for Lionel Messi, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, and Sergio Busquets to operate. They had to settle for shots outside the box. The one time that Messi was given space to operate, he broke not one, but three tackles before laying off to Christian Tello who had his initial shot blocked by Madrid’s keeper Iker Casillas. The rebound went back out to Thiago who raced up for support. His follow up volley was likewise blocked but late Barcelona sub Alexis Sanchez came barreling in to boot the ball in for the equalizer.

Was Madrid’s defensive line and will broken?

Hardly. Three minutes later. On a sublime counter, Los Blancos’ playmaker Mesut Ozil who had been mostly quiet, launched a perfect throughball from the right wing that found Cristiano Ronaldo with space to operate. Ronaldo beat Javier Mascherano although he was forced to the right. Valdes rushed out to close down the Portuguese striker’s angle but Ronaldo dribbled thrice for control before he coolly drilled a shot with his right boot towards the far post that evaded the outstretched hands of Valdes. The Camp Nou crowd had hardly finished their celebration of Sanchez’ equalizer when Madrid’s response buried their cheers in their throats.  Madrid had a 2-1 lead with 12 minutes to play.

The goal broke the tie of 41 goals each for Ronaldo and Messi. Said the happy Portuguese winger after the match, “It was an important goal, but more important was the team’s victory. Four games remain and seven points leave us in a comfortable situation.”

Now fully confident of their defensive prowess, the visitors continued to attack with late sub Gonzalo Higuain pressuring Barcelona’s defenders to win the ball and send a dangerous cross that Ronaldo nearly booted in.

Ho hum. Another country. Another title. Jose Mourinho has won titles in Portugal, England, Italy and is now on the brink of one in Spain. 
Even as his side scored, Madrid manager Jose Mourinho did his best unaffected Larry Bird impression (see the 1998 NBA Eastern Conference Finals where Bird looked unmoved by Reggie Miller’s apparent game winning shot that tied the series with the Chicago Bulls). The result, a 2-1 win, and Madrid’s first in Camp Nou for the first time since December 2007, put Mourinho’s side seven points clear of Barcelona and within grasp of the club’s 32nd La Liga title. Mathematically, Barcelona still has a chance as long as they collect all the full points available in their last four matches while hoping that Madrid drops some.

Realistically? Guardiola was left to proclaim, “The league is in the hands of Madrid.”


Read all about my friendly wager with Coach Juan Cutillas about El Clasico here.


  1. The cross from Angel wasn't received by Karim Benzema, it was headed in by Pepe, which Victor Valdes did well to save, but unfortunately was too rooted to the ground to grasp the ball fully.

  2. The first Madrid goal was due to a horrible mistake by Valdes. He went out too late, then came back making a circle, and was not in position to catch the ball well when it came in his direction - he was still backing to his goal. Not impressive.
    The second one as well. He came out too late, should have stayed in goal.
    In general, Barca's main players are in terrible shape, especially Xavi and Iniesta. Messi can't do it without them. Guardiola should have started with Fabregas, Pique, Sanches, why not Afelai? Bad coaching, but I'm not surprised - Guardiola has been great psychologically with the players, but quite weak tactically.