Stars rested as Real complete Clasico double

Posted by Nicholas Rigg

Things are clicking at just the right time for Real Madrid. In the middle of a season-defining week of matches, it's so far, so good, with a 2-1 victory over Barcelona at the Santiago Bernabeu making it back-to-back Clasico wins against their old foes in the space of five days. It is the first time Los Blancos have produced consecutive Clasico wins since the 2007-08 season when Madrid did the 'double' in La Liga.

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The dual success - the first coming Feb. 26 when Jose Mourinho's men booked their place in the final of the Copa del Rey with a stunning 3-1 success at the Camp Nou - comes just before another crucial clash at Old Trafford, with Madrid taking on Premier League leaders Manchester United in the last 16 of the Champions League.

Madrid and Mourinho have endured a season to largely forget so far, but these seven days could make it a final few months that nobody will forget in a hurry. The Copa del Rey and Champions League 'double' is on track, and now back-to-back wins over Barca will ensure all Madridistas are looking forward to a fresh assault on the league next season - albeit probably without Mourinho - with the Catalans seemingly in decline.

Most notably, Madrid saw off Barca having made wholesale changes. Not just one or two. Players such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Mesut Ozil, Angel Di Maria, Sami Khedira and Xabi Alonso were all left out in preparation for Tuesday night's match at Old Trafford, making it pretty much a 'Real Madrid B'. It wasn't the same for Barca, who, relatively, fielded a much stronger side - with their Champions League match not for another week - the main absentee being Xavi, while Cesc Fabregas took his place on the bench. Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets - all the usual suspects - lined up for the visitors.

That will only act to make Saturday's victory all the sweeter for Madridistas. For Mourinho, it was almost a 'win-win' situation. Lose, and it's down to resting big players ahead of a much more important game next week. Win, and it's the bragging rights well and truly staying in the Spanish capital.

I previewed the match as having the potential to be an unclassic Clasico. Nothing much riding on the game other than pride - with Madrid throwing in the towel on retaining their league title. It's usually siesta time when the match kicked off, at 4 p.m., and, as a contest, it will not be one that sticks out as a memorable Clasico for years to come - far from it. It was never going to be.

Madrid deserved their win, however. Barca, typically, enjoyed much of the possession, but Mourinho instructed his men to stand off their opponents until they got deep into home territory. It didn't lend itself to an attractive, end-to-end game as we saw in the two other Clasico matches, but Mourinho didn't want it to be. With no Ronaldo, Ozil and Di Maria, Madrid's counter-attack was not going to be as impressive as usual. It worked.

Although the match was as close to a meaningless Clasico as you'll get, there was still a pressure on the match, a big desire to win for both sides. For Barca, the chance to make amends for their home loss four days before, for Madrid, the chance to cement their current authority, however many points they might be behind in the title race. A chance for some players who wouldn't usually feature in a Clasico to shine, too. Kaka, Luka Modric, Michael Essien, Jose Callejon and Alvaro Morata.

Morata, especially, laid down a claim for inclusion in big matches in the future. He's played well when called upon in previous matches this season and continued his good form on the big stage. A superb cross for Karim Benzema's opener inside six minutes, picking the Frenchman out with a pin-point cross to give Madrid the lead. The Cantera product almost, and probably should have, got on the scoresheet, too, when he raced onto a Pepe ball in the second half but saw his shot well saved by Victor Valdes.

For the most part, the partnership between Callejon and Essien worked well down the right, too. The Chelsea loan man played at right-back but has a tendency to move forward and leave the right-back position vacant. Callejon filled in well when he did that and supported the Ghanaian well when Barca attacked. Not just defensively, but the pair linked well in attacking moves, too.

Plenty of eyes were on Kaka's performance given his recent upturn in form. The Brazilian did well but nowhere near what many would have hoped. Instead, Modric, for me, had the better game. The former Tottenham Hotspur man has been hit-and-miss since his move, but he enjoyed one of his better games, especially given he was playing alongside Pepe in the middle - a stop-gap if ever there was one.

A Clasico usually isn't complete without some controversy. It came in the closing stages of the game with Barca being denied what looked a clear-cut penalty when Sergio Ramos hauled Adriano down inside the box. The referee waved away the Barca protests, and all hell broke loose late on. Valdes was sent off for protesting to the referee after the whistle had blown and Iniesta cautioned for doing the same.

You could understand Barca's claims and frustrations, but penalty aside, it highlighted their current lack of discipline and lack of sporting behaviour in recent matches. In recent years, it's been Madrid who've been on the wrong side of the referee and Barca with the moral high ground, but the Catalans have been placed on the naughty step these past few matches.

Valdes' sending-off and Iniesta's caution aside, an example of Barca's ill-discipline came in the first half when Modric kicked the ball out with Pepe down injured. In reply, the visitors booted the ball right down to the corner flag for Madrid to restart. After Messi's goal, Jordi Alba made a classless gesture to the Madrid faithful behind the goal. All very 'un-Barca like' and part of their current problems that see them out of the cup and on the verge of a Champions League exit.

Not that it will matter for Madrid, who will sleep well tonight before jetting off to England on Sunday to prepare for their huge Champions League tussle with Sir Alex Ferguson's men. Two big wins from two big matches. Confidence high going to Old Trafford. If it's three from three, Mourinho's stock will start to rise once again.

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