Messi and Mourinho mask Barca shame
As a master of the art of distraction, it must have been particularly galling for Jose Mourinho that a combination of his post-match meltdown and Lionel Messi's masterpiece provided Barcelona with a very convenient diversion in the toxic aftermath of Wednesday's Clasico. It was a night that shamed all parties concerned, of course, but particularly the Catalans.
Mourinho's wild-eyed, paranoid outburst served to fill the column inches and dominate the air waves. His conspiracy theory - drawing in UEFA, Barcelona and even UNICEF, perhaps only leaving shape-shifting lizards and the Illuminati free of blame - will surely attract sanctions more severe than Wednesday's night's instruction to sit in a metal cage just metres from his own bench following his sarcastic "well done" to the fourth official. He has already attracted the attention of Barcelona's legal department.
But if we can examine the match itself in isolation, and even taking into account that wonderful slaloming run and strike from Messi, strangely this felt like a match that saw Barcelona emerge with even less credit than Real, if searching for credit on such a night is only marginally less onerous than attempting to identify flashing moments of dignity in the career of Katie Price.
Given the dramatic denouement, some aspects of this clash have been obscured or misrepresented. Firstly, Real's tactics must be addressed. While criticism of Mourinho's outrageous claims in his press conference are of course justified, condescending interpretations of his approach to the game are more problematic.
There is certainly an argument that parking the bus and fielding three defensive midfielders in Xabi Alonso, Lassana Diarra and Pepe was a betrayal of Real's rich history of attacking football, an unforgiveable act of retreat from a club that has spent hundreds of millions to collect some of the best players in the world. But what did Real expect when they hired Jose Mourinho? After all, they must have seen this before.
Strangely enough, and going against type, the Portuguese did in fact attempt to release the shackles in the away game at Camp Nou this season and was punished with a 5-0 hammering. Diarra was introduced as a substitute in November as Mourinho acknowledged his mistake, but it was too late for his side to be spared an evisceration of epic proportions. Quite simply, Mourinho could not let that happen again, and though a 1-1 home draw in the league ceded any final chance of winning the Primera Division, Real looked far more durable and applied that conservative approach again to win the Copa del Rey. Quite rightly, they did so again on Wednesday.
Criticism for failing to start a conventional striker on Wednesday night was also wide of the mark. Barcelona did not have one either, with David Villa operating in wide positions and Messi, nominally the central forward, dropping deep with regularity. Instead, Real were set up to nullify Xavi and Messi and counter-attack, and though critics cry that they ceded 77% possession at home, that is fast becoming a meaningless statistic when it comes to Barcelona. It is akin to stating that Rory Delap will launch a long throw; Barcelona will dominate possession in any game they play.
It may be unpalatable for Madrid fans to digest, but in the context of the tie and the undoubted brilliance of Barcelona, playing for a 0-0 draw at home and then hoping to snatch an away goal in Catalunya was Real's best approach. Unpalatable, yes, a possible renunciation of Real's history, yes, but it was a legitimate tactic. As Mourinho himself said: "We had the intention to keep the game at 0-0, then bring on a striker, then a third phase with a No. 10 behind three forwards. But the ref didn't allow it".
Mourinho was of course referring to the decision to dismiss Pepe. Until that point, Real's restrictive approach had ensured the match was panning out as their coach had hoped, but shorn of their defender-cum-midfield-enforcer, Real were powerless to suppress Xavi and Messi, who stamped his mark on this game in unforgettable fashion, scoring his 51st and 52nd goals of the season. At 23, he is Barcelona's third all-time leading goalscorer, a phenomenon, a marvel.
But Pepe's key dismissal feeds into the second key debate: Barcelona's behaviour. Though the Portugal international's boot was high, it certainly felt as though his dismissal had as much to do with Dani Alves' exaggerated reaction and the hounding of the referee by Barcelona players as it did the challenge itself. A yellow card would have sufficed, but Alves ensured Real, and a Mourinho team, would yet again lose a player in a match against Barcelona. His brief departure on a stretcher only added to his dramatic performance.
In this, though, Alves was far from alone. Pedro and, unsurprisingly, Sergio Busquets, were guilty of the most rank and reprehensible play-acting seen in some time. Real are far from innocent on this front of course, but seeing players of the quality and ability of the two World Cup winners indulge in the dark arts was painful. Perhaps it is the knowledge that Barcelona do not need to stoop to such depths that made it hurt so much; their ability alone is enough to ensure their superiority, and certainly over two legs.
Either way it was an unedifying spectacle, particularly from a club that prides itself on doing things the right way. More than a club? Pedro, Alves and Busquets seemed intent on convincing the referee that Madrid's challenges were more than a tackle, more than an assault even.
Real were guilty to a lesser degree, but it was Barcelona who surrendered their hard-won moral high ground with their histrionics. We can expect some devilish behaviour from Real Madrid, managed by Mourinho and containing Pepe, but it is becoming an ever more evident part of Barca's approach as well. If Real were said to have abandoned their principles by adopting an oppressive yet legitimate defensive strategy, then what of Barcelona and their behaviour?
Few would cite Emmanuel Adebayor as a paragon of virtue or the yardstick by which modern footballers should be judged, but his post-match comments, while exaggerated, still ring true.
"Whenever you play against Barca, whenever you touch them they are on the floor crying like a baby," he said. "Everyone talks about Barcelona and their fair play but I think they are very far away from fair play. Whenever you make contact when going for a one-on-one or 50-50 ball they are on the floor crying, putting their hand up near their face. Their manager, fans and the players on the bench are always crying. Barcelona is a fantastic club, has fantastic players, but they have to stop that."
On Thursday morning, Barcelona's carefully crafted, shiny image looks a little duller than usual.