Some 90,000 Catalans bayed for blood in the Nou Camp; Saturday April 21 was the day they expected Barcelona to put the Real Madrid’s Galácticos to death, a slow, merciless death.
But they reckoned without the special one himself, José Mourinho.
We covered several tactical topics prior to the game on Saturday but, as we reflect on this colossal result for Real Madrid over its arch-rival Barcelona, what comes to the fore is Mourinho’s tactical awareness.
How could Mourinho rally his troops to get a win against the world’s best team, which has consistently buried Real Madrid in the past nine games?
The answer lay in the selection of the players who took the field. Gone were the players who had so often engineered and created bitter and bad-tempered games between these two giants of world football like Marcelo and Ricardo Carvalho.
In came attacking players, Mezut Özil and Karim Benzema, who were suprisingly resolute in their defensive duties. Madrid’s key was the admirable work ethic of world-class players renowned for sublime skills and artistic performances rather than workhorse contributions in the trenches with their comrades.
We all saw Xavi throw a mini-tantrum after he was substituted and we recognised that, on the day, it was the Galácticos who kept their cool and looked the more controlled team.
Mourinho’s turbulent managerial methods are not always approved of by the club’s fans or his board of directors but they are effective; he always gets a reaction from his players.
And, God forbid, how could we not have realised that the multiple defeats suffered at the hands of Barca were a Real learning curve for Mourinho? He clearly learned more and more about how to dismantle the structure and undermine the confidence of this great Barcelona team.
Mourinho stayed true to the original methods he believed would topple the Catalans but, after multiple defeats, some adjustments were evident on Saturday such as in the players used and in the way they were deployed.
Mourinho had several fall-outs with his players this season but, at the business end of the campaign, I’d be willing to bet that he is every player’s best friend. And that did not simply happen after Saturday’s game.
Make no mistake about it, Mourinho, a “mental illusionist”, has pulled a rabbit out of the hat again to mastermind another piece of history.
I fully expect Mourinho’s Galácticos to win against Bayern and go on to win the Champions League. Yes, read my lips, the Champions League! It would be a serious error to write off José Mourinho.
And what of his opposite number, Pep Guardiola?
Pep must be looking at the remainder of the season through strained eyes. Confidence is diminishing and chances in front of goal are drying up. I do not think it is stretching things to ask whether there is discontent within the Barca ranks and whether the best team in the world is choking.
So the challenge for the Barca main man is now to lift his side’s confidence.
True, Barcelona did miss two critical chances which could have changed the game and the young Cristian Tello missed a gilt-edge opportunity. But youngsters do that; that’s what inexperience means.
The best team in the world for the last decade, Barcelona will now find every game against Real Madrid to be a mental barrier and a physical task. It will be a whole different game from the one they have been used to playing.
And what about the showing by arguably the best two players in the world on Saturday?
But for a stunning reverse pass by Lionel Messi, which led to the chance for Tello in the early stages of the game, one could be forgiven for seeing Messi as another good but not great Barcelona midfielder.
It was Cristiano Ronaldo, a player who has also had his differences with Mourinho, who shone above the rest. If truth be told, he could have bagged a hattrick.
The lesson to be learned from Saturday is quite simply this: great managers/coaches evolve.
Pep’s Barcelona can’t rest on its laurels and expect that to be good enough to prolong the Barcelona phenomenon indefinitely. The cracks are starting to appear and coaches like Mourinho and Chelsea’s Roberto Di Matteo are prising apart the few deficiencies in the Catalans’ structure while others would be watching on and plotting their downfall.
Remember the real issue is the erosion of confidence. Barca’s stylish play is steeped in having the self-assurance to play a high risk possession game that leaves them wide open defensively. Without confidence, they are considerably diminished.
The Catalans are no longer invincible; teams of much less ability are finding ways to win against them.
And that where us coaches come in with our tactics and man-management.
Over to you, Pep.