On the last occasion that Barcelona coach Tito Vilanova took his eye off Real Madrid boss José Mourinho, he almost lost it.
Vilanova was assistant to Pep Guardiola for the second leg of the 2011 Spanish Supercopa when Mourinho inexplicably yanked at the former man’s face during a fracas.
In the wee hours of this morning in Madrid, Vilanova lost only his pride. And yet it is uncertain which hurt more.
Real Madrid, the defending champions of La Liga, snapped up the first trophy of the 2012/13 season this morning with a 2-1 victory against their arch-nemesis at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu. And the murmurings in the capital, after two losses and a draw in their opening fixtures, gave way to gusty songs of “Campeones, Campeones.”
For Vilanova, this might have felt like another mugging.
In the first half hour, Barcelona was already two goals behind and a man down while Madrid star Cristiano Ronaldo looked in the mood to rip to pieces one of the world’s greatest teams.
Lionel Messi did manage a response and it is testimony to the recovery powers of the Catalans that they came within a whisker of an equalizer, which would have been enough to retain the two-legged trophy. They lost by virtue of away goals as both teams ended with a win each and four goals apiece.
But the “Madridistas” let them know who was keeping the Cup.
At the final whistle, over 80,000 partisan spectators in white chanted “pu-ta Bar-ca” and jeered as the video monitor alternated between the crestfallen faces of Messi, Xavi Hernandez and Gerard Pique.
Barcelona’s players were denied the comfort of their dressing room and forced to stand awkwardly as Madrid players danced up the aisles to collect the trophy.
The pets of the Barcelona players would be well advised to keep a safe distance today.
Vilanova would be miserable too. He saw first-hand what the stress of this job did to his friend and former boss, Guardiola. And, already, Vilanova would be asking himself some tough questions.
A defensive error from midfielder-cum-centre back, Javier Mascherano, allowed his Argentine countryman Gonzalo Higuain time and space to give Madrid the lead in the 12th minute and, eight minutes later, Ronaldo doubled the lead after the ball ricocheted off Pique’s studs and fell invitingly for the Portuguese attacker.
Barcelona goalkeeper Victor Valdes betrayed the depth of Barcelona’s insecurity in the 25th minute as he sliced horribly at a Pique back pass and almost gifted possession to Ronaldo on the flank.
Cue screams of delight from the Madridistas, who spent much of the night reminding the goalkeeper of his error in last Thursday’s first leg that allowed Madrid to narrow its defeat to 3-2.
Two minutes later, Barcelona was in further disarray. Already denied the services of regular right back Dani Alves minutes before kickoff, the visitors were without his replacement too as Adriano was dismissed for tripping the goalbound Ronaldo.
And, suddenly, a rout seemed to be on the cards.
Vilanova threw his water bottle to the ground in disgust. But even that lacked conviction. As sooner as the container touched the floor, the 42-year-old scooped it up again and had a drink.
Was this really the general that Barcelona trusted to hold off the cunning Mourinho?
Scrawny and studious, Vilanova had more than a passing resemblance to Peter Parker—only without the witty one-liners.
On the Madrid bench, Mourinho, one of the most charismatic coaches of the modern era, probably snorted in contempt at his new rival.
And, on the field, Barcelona was as anonymous as its coach. Its high offensive press was nowhere to be seen while, in offence, the Catalans looked sluggish and disjointed. And Madrid was driving balls between opposing full back and central defender with more aplomb than adult film star Ron Jeremy.
Vilanova might not have a radioactive spider. But Messi isn’t a bad substitute.
Just when it seemed that the smattering of Barcelona fans might as well head home early, Messi produced the game’s most electric moment in the 44th minute.
Thirty-yards out, the diminutive Argentine beat Madrid captain Iker Casillas with a left footed missile that curled, dipped and left the gifted Spanish star grasping at air.
For once, the Madridistas, who ungallantly and incessantly boasted about an intimate knowledge of Messi’s madre, were left speechless. Noone could even muster a boo.
Barcelona lifted its tempo in the second half and Messi might have had a more meaningful revenge but flashed his effort just wide, in stoppage time, after substitute and former Arsenal anchor Alex Song had teed him up.
The scoreline was arguably a fair reflection of Madrid’s cohesion and indomitable spirit, though.
Still, take some time out to admire the game’s best midfield schemers—Andrés Iniesta and Xavi.
German maestro Mezut Özil is skillful, technically sound and capable of taking the breath away. But the Madrid playmaker is at his best in open space or when able to isolate an opponent.
Xavi and Iniesta could throw a party in a phone booth. And, for 45 minutes, they gave a lesson in midfield subtleties.
Xavi slows down when he is about to sprint, he instinctively leans left before going right. He saunters, then stutters, then cruises again—like a waltz and tango intertwined.
In open space, Iniesta glances hurriedly to either side as if to convince his adversary that he is unsure. And, when cornered and outnumbered, Iniesta stands straight as though he had just called a meeting to order rather than walked into a trap.
Every move from that pair seems a deception.
In the second half, the suave Spaniards played closer together and sucked in the hyponotised Madrid players before releasing incisive diagonal passes to left back Jordi Alba or third-string right back Martin Montoya. Madrid was clinging on by then.
If Vilanova can create a solid shield at the back, Xavi, Iniesta and the amazing Messi could feasibly do the rest. At least the young coach can console himself with that.
But Madrid, energetic, disciplined and cohesive, signaled its intention to the rest of the world this morning. Ronaldo was imperious, Ramos and Pepe were unbeaten in open play and Xabi looked every inch the general.
Peter Parker has a tough job ahead.
Editor’s Note: Wired868 is in Spain as part of DirecTV’s Madrid Media Tour 2012