x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Barca battle Real and the elements to reach Champions League final

Barcelona will advance to Wembley, scene of their first ever European Cup triumph 19 years ago, for the 2011 Champions League final on May 28.

Pedro, left, celebrates scoring the opening goal with Barca teammate David Villa at Camp Nou.
Pedro, left, celebrates scoring the opening goal with Barca teammate David Villa at Camp Nou.

Barcelona 1 // Real Madrid 1 (Barca win 3-1 on aggregate)

BARCELONA // Barcelona will advance to Wembley, scene of their first ever European Cup triumph 19 years ago, for the 2011 Champions League final on May 28.

The Catalans, who won European football's most prestigious competition in 2006 and 2009, are likely to meet Manchester United, their final adversaries from 2009.

Like United who play tonight against Schalke 04 at Old Trafford, Barca won their semi-final first leg 2-0 away. Pep Guardiola's side were more than accomplished enough to protect that lead against Real Madrid in a 1-1 draw at a rain soaked Camp Nou last night, though the visitors' coach Jose Mourinho chose to miss the match.

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Banned from the bench after being sent off in the ill-tempered first leg, Mourinho apparently watched the game in a Barcelona hotel room. The Catalans had offered the Real coach a seat in their directors' box, which he declined.

Unsurprisingly, the build up to the fourth clasico in 18 days was again mired in controversy and conjecture, but Barca's players appeared relaxed as they spent the morning training in the sun and the afternoon ensconced in a five-star hotel overlooking the Mediterranean.

Three hours before kick off, the weather began to match the ugly mood which has surrounded this quartet of clasicos.

Dark storm clouds unloaded two hours of heavy rain on the surface. The only beneficiaries were supporters who saw the price of black market tickets plummet from €350 (Dh1,830) to half that. Camp Nou is uncovered on three sides and the fans cursed the weather almost as much as they have taken to abusing Catalonia's public enemy No 1: Mourinho.

A sign outside a supporters' bar on the Diagonal thoroughfare compared Guardiola to Mourinho and his list of perceived crimes. It is fair to say that those responsible were not Real fans.

Mourinho's men were up against it. Just seven of 314 teams had overcome a 2-0 deficit in the history of European competition and of Barca's 225 European games at the Camp Nou, the Catalans had lost just six by more than one goal.

Even Real's fans appeared to have abandoned hope as they returned 3,200 of their 4,687 allocation, but the starting line up would have cheered the sodden 1,400 who travelled.

The attacking forces of Kaka and Gonzalo Higuain were promoted from the bench to start alongside Ronaldo, with whom much of Madrid's hopes lay.

"Now or Never" read the front page of AS accompanied by a picture of their Portuguese star.

Guardiola promised that his players would "play very fast to give the speed to the ball that is needed for our game" while most neutrals hoped that they would see less play acting and dissent.

"The ball has to fly," added Guardiola, who was frustrated by Madrid's efforts to doctor the Bernabeu pitch, but he was not counting on the downpour which had the potential to slow down the home side.

It didn't and nor did the game disappoint like the previous football starved encounters. Real had to attack and that played into the Catalans' hands.

Try as Ronaldo et al did to pressure, Barca dominated possession though the accomplished trio of Andres Iniesta, Xavi and Sergio Busquets. There were times when the visitors could not get the ball and were almost powerless from preventing Lionel Messi, David Villa and Xavi from peppering Iker Casillas's goal.

This was Barca at their beguiling best and while the score remained goalless at half time, Barca had managed seven efforts on target and Real had not mustered one.

Barca's breakthrough came on 54 minutes, when Pedro benefited from a glorious Iniesta pass before stroking the ball past his Spanish international teammate Casillas.

"Madrid, salute the champions," sang the 95,701 crowd, before shouting "Ole!" every time their side pushed forward for a second goal.

It did not come and Real gave themselves the slimmest lifeline on 64 minutes as Marcelo grabbed an equaliser after Di Maria had hit the post. Frustrations then got the better of the visitors, who picked up five yellow cards to Barca's none, but it did not matter.

The loudest cheer of the night was reserved for the introduction of Eric Abidal, who has recovered from a liver tumour operation.

With the Copa del Rey final defeat to Real in Valencia two weeks ago now a distant memory, Barca will only be looking forward to Wembley.

sports@thenational.ae

REPORT CARD

Barcelona

• Keeper Victor Valdes will have had fewer quieter nights until Real’s first shot on target resulted in a goal. Only challenge he faced was keeping his concentration. B-

• Defence So committed are Barca to their smooth passing style and attacking principles they have no qualms about playing a central midfielder in defence. An easy night. B-

• Midfield Their job was made simpler by Lionel Messi dropping deep and finding pockets of space to receive possession. Two midfielders combined for the first goal. B

• Strikers Messi was yet again Barca’s creative hub and Real just could not contain him. David Villa was a peripheral figure, though. A-

• Manager Pep Guardiola cut a typically stylish and calm figure without Jose Mourinho on the touchline to irritate him. A more relaxed night for him. B-

Overall Grade: B

Real Madrid

• Keeper Iker Casillas, the captain, made two brilliant saves in the first half to deny Villa and Messi but stood no chance with Pedro’s well-taken goal. B

• Defence Minus the suspended Pepe and Sergio Ramos, the back four looked vulnerable and had no answer to Messi’s prompting. A tough examination. C-

• Midfield Lassana Diarra was their outstanding player. He may lack style but he timed his challenges to perfection and provided an effective screen in front of the defence. B+

• Strikers Ronaldo was bright, Angel Di Maria sparkled in patches but Kaka was horribly rusty and Gonzalo Higuain was virtually anonymous. D

• Manager Jose Mourinho should have started Mesut Ozil and Adebayor. The match missed the alchemist’s showmanship on the touchline. C-

Overall Grade: C