Comfortable Clasico win as Madrid kick into gear at right time

Posted by Nicholas Rigg

If Jose Mourinho is playing out his final months at the Santiago Bernabeu, he's certainly playing them out with a fire in his belly that has been missing for too long this season. Real Madrid's league form has been horrible, but their campaign may be clicking into gear at just the right time - the "business end" of the season.

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Tuesday night's trip to the Camp Nou for the second leg of Madrid's Copa del Rey semi-final clash with bitter rival Barcelona marked the start of a huge seven days that could well define the Special One's stay in the Spanish capital.

Another Clasico - at the Bernabeu in the league - follows this weekend before a trip to Old Trafford to take on Manchester United in the away leg of the last 16 of the Champions League arrives next Tuesday.

Los Blancos did not just progress to the final of the competition that was Mourinho's first major trophy win in charge of Madrid, but did it with some conviction with a stunning 3-1 victory over Barca. A huge statement - "There's still some life in the old dog yet." Watch out, Manchester United. Watch out, European football - Jose won't be leaving these parts with a whimper.

It was a near perfect night for Mourinho and his men in Catalonia. A 1-1 draw in the first leg may have favoured Barcelona slightly, especially with the away goal, but their form of late suggested Madrid were going to get chances, and it suggested Madrid were going to get on the score sheet. They did just that and it could have been more. If anything, the score line possibly flattered a Barcelona side that looked well out of sorts.

The counterattack was always going to be Madrid's weapon of choice. Interim Barca manager Jordi Roura knew it; the fans inside the Camp Nou knew it. You and I knew it. Yet Barca could do little about it.

A breakaway in the 13th minute saw Cristiano Ronaldo steam into the penalty box and draw the foul from Gerard Pique. Penalty. No question. The Portuguese kept his cool, as he usually does in these parts, to slot his side ahead.

Ten minutes into the second half and a huge boot downfield from Sami Khedira found Angel di Maria, who schemed past an unbalanced Carles Puyol, saw his shot saved but saw Ronaldo positioned to slam home his second - and slam Madrid into the final.

It was all Madrid deserved. They looked calm and composed in defence, well-organised in midfield and penetrative in attack. The possession stats still had a similar ring to them: Barcelona with 62 percent to Madrid's 32. Madrid have worked on their counterattacking and honed those skills just for nights like these - nights where the only stat that matters is the one with Madrid winning 3-1, and having more shots on goal despite that low possession stat.

The opposite, in fact, of Barca. The Catalans have been struggling, relatively, in recent weeks, something no doubt partly due to Tito Vilanova's absence from the touchline and training ground as he undergoes cancer treatment in New York.

Gone was the regular pressure high up the pitch you can usually rely on, even though you don't want to, from recent Barcelona sides. More than any other match between the sides in recent seasons, Madrid had time on the ball and plenty of it. Not just in defence, where Barca like to press and win the ball back, but all over the park. Gone was Barca's majesty on the ball. No pinpoint passing, a real lack of balls that could punch a hole in a defence. Instead, a lack of cohesion, a lack of belief and a lack of direction.

But let's not put the cause of the result down to Barca's flaws. Madrid were brilliant. Mourinho was spot-on in his approach and the players, for once, showed togetherness and a team ethic that has been lacking way too many times this season - just look at the league table.

Ronaldo was an unstoppable force. A brace at the Camp Nou in consecutive matches. No "Calm down, I've got this" type celebration, just one of joy, and perhaps a bit of energy bursting out from what's been a largely frustrating campaign for all at the Bernabeu to date.

Ronaldo created chances, probably more than he ever has against Barca, he provided the finishing touch, and he did his defensive duties well, too.

They all did their defensive duties well. To limit Barcelona to just three shots on target was an outstanding bit of work. Di Maria, although disappointing with some of his decision-making in the first half (just like Gonzalo Higuain), worked his socks off and did his job well and the engine room of Khedira and Xabi Alonso was as good as ever.

It's rare to wax lyrical about Madrid's defence this season, but Mourinho made the right call in partnering Raphael Varane with Sergio Ramos at the back. Could that be it for Ramos and Pepe as the No. 1 centre back choice at the club?

Varane has been exceptional over both legs. The Frenchman was slightly quieter Tuesday, but only due to Barca not being as threatening in attack. His athleticism saw him cope comfortably with a quiet Lionel Messi, and his header, Madrid's third, was just reward for the 19-year-old. Watch out, world.

Ramos, too, provided a fine performance. His blocking of Andres Iniesta's shot helped set up Madrid's second. Had the former Sevilla man not been there to block it, Barca would have been level and Khedira would not have been able to blast the ball downfield for Ronaldo to double the visitors' lead.

Shortly before that Alvaro Arbeloa stuck a boot out to deny Fabregas after Diego Lopez saved a Sergio Busquets shot. Every good challenge is worth a mention, given the flak Madrid's defenders have received this season.

In writing this straight after the final whistle, I'm not sure whether the managers decided to discuss the performance of referee Undiano Mallenco. They shouldn't, with Barcelona well beaten on the night. It was always going to be a tricky night for Mallenco, with Roura insisting Barca always have bad nights with him in charge. They suffered their only league defeat with Mallenco officiating.

Mellenco got the call on Ronaldo's penalty correct and he did the same with Fabregas' appeal at the other end minutes later. It riled the home support and every decision he made thereafter was going to be scrutinised, and jeered.

In honesty, the players didn't do themselves justice with the theatrics that, unfortunately, have become too common in Clasicos. Jordi Alba went down like he was shot just before halftime with Arbeloa making minimal contact. So too did Pepe when he came on to finish the match late on.

That will not blemish what was a superb night for Jose Mourinho and Real Madrid, however. It was just the boost Los Blancos needed going into a crucial period of the season. Expect both teams to be tinkered with for Saturday's Liga Clasico at the Bernabeu, with Madrid eyes firmly on Manchester. Sir Alex Ferguson, the United boss, was in the Camp Nou crowd to witness Madrid's magnificent showing. He'll certainly have plenty to think about.

Atletico or Sevilla in the final? Either will do. Madrid may have taken months to get their season up and running, but up and running it certainly is, and there are two big trophies there to be won.

Follow Nicholas on Twitter @nicholasrigg

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