x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

First el clasico leaves many unanswered questions

The draw between Real Madrid and Barcelona only adds to the intrigue with three more games between the two to come.

Barcelona forward David Villa, left, and teammate Sergio Busquets attempt to block the run of Real Madrid's Pepe on Saturday.
Barcelona forward David Villa, left, and teammate Sergio Busquets attempt to block the run of Real Madrid's Pepe on Saturday.

The draw between Real Madrid and Barcelona only adds to the intrigue with three more games between the two to come, writes Andy Mitten

Many questions hung in the air ahead of Spain's four clasico matches in 18 days. Not many were cleared up in the first game on Saturday, a league encounter at the Bernabeu which finished 1-1.

Derby games are often over hyped yet ultimately underwhelming, with teams afraid to lose and more negative in their tactical approach.

Fans of Barcelona and Real Madrid demand that their teams remain true to their attacking philosophies, so el clasico frequently justifies the expectations.

Games are often high scoring with both teams going for a win. Real came to Camp Nou in November and played a high defensive line in an attempt to squeeze space between Barca's midfield and defence.

Their tactics were bold - and they lost 5-0. Stung by the humiliation, Real were more cautious in Saturday's tense engagement with Mesut Ozil, their playmaker, relegated to the bench and Pepe, a centre-back, deployed as one of three defensive midfielders alongside Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira.

Real also let the grass on the Bernabeu pitch grow long in a bid to slow down Barca's quick passing game.

Their more defensive formation allowed Barca to dominate with 72 per cent of the possession, while keeping Lionel Messi a safe distance from Iker Casillas's goal, although the Argentine did manage his 30th league goal of the season.

It may only have been a penalty, but it was Messi's first goal in 10 attempts against a side managed by Jose Mourinho. Such tactics were successful in so far as they stifled Barca's normally free-flowing football.

But Real's own attackers were often devoid of their usual support. They were rewarded with a 1-1 draw, but despite scoring a goal each, Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, the world's best two players, were not allowed to shine.

For a long time it appeared that Mourinho's gambit would end in defeat, especially when Real's Raul Albiol was sent off in the 53rd minute for a professional foul on David Villa that resulted in Barca's penalty. So much for Mourinho's wish that his side finished the game with 11 players.

Albiol will miss the final of the Copa del Rey, Spain's equivalent of the FA Cup, tomorrow, but Real's 10 men fought back and were awarded an 82nd minute penalty of their own when Daniel Alves fouled Marcelo.

Many in the Real camp felt that Alves should have been sent off and Marcelo reportedly spat at several Barca players in the tunnel after the game. Ronaldo converted that penalty to score his first goal in four clasico matches.

His spot kick prevented Real from falling to their sixth consecutive clasico defeat. Only Real's great 1960s side of Alfredo Di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas have won six consecutive clasicos.

The result suited both sides. For Barca, the draw maintained an almost unassailable eight-point lead at the top of the Primera Liga with six games left.

"Coming to the Bernabeu and drawing is a very good result," said Pep Guardiola, the Barca coach.

"At 1-0 we perhaps should have put more pressure on Real's goal. We'll try to continue in the same vein so we can be champions. We're very happy. Coming here and not losing is a good result. Madrid is a top, top team."

Guardiola kills Real with kindness, so much that Mourinho would appear churlish if he said anything negative about the Barcelona manager.

"The general feeling is that we played a good game," said Carles Puyol, the Barca captain, making his first start since January.

"We were the better team and we were faithful to our playing style," Xavi, the midfielder, said. "We had control of the game, played with patience and we defended very well, but the win escaped us in the end."

Real were satisfied, too.

"We have nothing but good feelings from this game," Mourinho said, "the feeling that it is not easy for them to play against us.

"Barca is the best team in the world at holding on to the ball and everybody was waiting for them to destroy us because they had one player more than us for 45 minutes, but our team was strong enough to compete and get a result."

The pair now meet again tomorrow night in the cup final, before their two-legged Champions League semi-final, which starts at the Bernabeu on April 27.

Most observers expect the cup final to be very different as it is to be played at Valencia's sheer sided Mestalla, one of Europe's most atmospheric stadiums.

More than 70,000 Barca fans applied for the club's 22,000-ticket allocation and the figures were similar in Madrid.

That so many fans from each club will be watching makes it a clasico with a difference - there are just a few hundred travelling fans when the giants meet in league matches.

For Real, it represents a chance to win a first trophy since their 2008 league title against the old enemy. For Barca a chance to reinforce their hegemony under Guardiola.

His record in clasicos is superb, with five successive wins over Real before Saturday's draw. His side have scored 17 with just three goals conceded. Barca are favourites to lift the cup, but with the tie to be decided on the night, Real will have to attack at some point.

"A final is always different ... it has nothing to do with previous games or either club's current trajectory," Puyol said.

"There's no way Madrid's morale will be higher [after Saturday's game]," Xavi said, as both sides tried to claim the moral high ground.

Spain cannot wait and neither can the world.

sports@thenational.ae