Real has edge over Barca right now

September, 15, 2011

What did we learn among the big Spanish sides from the first group-stage games in the Champions League? Here's some thoughts?

Barca's defense under attack: During the summer, Pep Guardiola allowed the versatile and experienced Gabriel Milito to leave the club and promoted Andreu Fontas from the Barca production line with both Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol struggling for fitness. In the stead of Spain's center back pairing, Barca has fielded Javier Macscherano and Sergio Busquets, both holding midfield players by trade, with occasional center back Eric Abidal required to fill the hole on the left of defense and Fontas covering the breach.

Guardiola was forced to experiment with a back three against Villarreal in the opening round of Liga fixtures, a tactic that didn't do him any harm as Barca strolled to a 5-0 win. Against Real Sociedad and Milan, however, the makeshift moat has proved to very leaky indeed.

On Tuesday, Alexandre Pato left four Barca players in his wake with a single touch to open the scoring inside a minute. At the other end of the game, with Puyol on the field after a two and a half month absence, Thiago Silva, who Barca has often courted, rose highest under the attention of three defenders to head home, leaving Busquets on his face. Busquets will always be beaten for pace when Barca press up, as Pato shrewdly realized. Old warhorse Puyol might not have caught Pato, but neither would he have been so far out of position, or allowed his teammates to be, that the Brazilian would have had free rein in the first place.

It is a truism that good players play better when they are among great players. This is certainly the case in the final two thirds of the field with Barca. In the absence of Puyol, however, the team's patched-up defense has looked vulnerable.

"We're fine. We don't need to listen to what people outside the club are saying," Puyol said. But the rest of La Liga and Europe have taken note -- a team that concedes in the first and the 91st minute in a European tie needs somebody to thread it together. Guardiola's introduction of his captain against Milan will have been very welcome indeed, even if he couldn't prevent the equalizer. "We ended up looking pretty stupid," Guardiola noted after the match. If Puyol's return from injury holds out, he will not suffer fools gladly.

The four stops: Marcelo, Pepe. Ricardo Carvalho and Sergio Ramos spend very little time on the treatment table. It's rare that Real's back four looks any different and it has only conceded twice this season -- one to a fortunate bounce for Miku's first against Getafe, and the other to the same player after Iker Casillas rebuffed a shot on goal. Barca's Valdes, meanwhile, is a solid goalkeeper, but only as much as the wall in front of him holds firm. Spain's number three made just one save against Milan and conceded twice.

Possession ninth tenths of the bore: Lies, damn lies and statistics: true enough, but in Real and Barca's last league games, the latter enjoyed 73 percent of possession and 13 shots, with six on target for two goals. Real had 59 percent of the ball and 26 shots, 11 of which were between the posts for four goals to Getafe's two.

In their European ties, Barca had 74 percent possession, 21 shots and eight on target to real's 62 percent, 24 shots and 11 between the sticks. Barca's patented tiki-taka is rightly lauded, but Real's more direct manner is currently reaping the rewards.

Buoyant Benzema: Handed the undisputed starting spot in Jose Mourinho's 4-2-3-1 system, Benzema is coming of age. From a jack of all trades yet master of none, the France striker has become the fulcrum of Real's attacking machinery. Nearly bagging the first against Dynamo but denied by the crossbar, Benzema almost laid on the opener. But Real was denied by a great double save from Ivan Kelava. The No. 9 showed beautiful control and vision to thread a pass through three Dynamo players for the eventual decider just seconds after Jose Callejon and Gonzalo Higuain had started warming up on the touchline. Derided as a weak link but now the fabric that holds Real's attack together, Benzema has earned the elusive accolade of a Mourinho favorite.

Marcelo: There are few surprises on Real's team sheet at the back, but the Brazilian should heed the lesson of those who have fallen foul of the Portuguese. Shown a yellow for a typically rash challenge in the second half, the Brazilian subsequently saw red for a cynical dive in the box shortly afterward. Lionel Messi was carded for a similar "piscinera" against Milan in what appears to be the beginning of a crackdown on the practice, at least in Europe, this season. Mourinho was seen stalking from his perch in the stands immediately after the incident and few would have been keen to step into Marcelo's boots when they met in the locker room. An outrageously gifted player, he needs to rein in his excesses.

Fitness levels: Always the bridesmaid, in the early exchanges of the domestic and European season Real seems the team with the legs more likely to make it to the altar. Since Barca's drubbing of Villarreal, all of its goals have arrived in the first half and four points in Europe and La Liga have been dropped in the second -- Silva's last-gasp leveller for Milan joining Sociedad's two-minute salvo in the 57th and 59th minutes at Anoeta.

Pato's run defied the English translation of his name, but Barca visibly tired in the second half. In two matches, Guardiola has lost Andres Iniesta and Alexis Sanchez to hamstring injuries.

At the same time, Madrid scored three in the final half hour against Getafe and pressured against Dynamo after taking the lead through Angel Di Maria on 53 minutes -- even enjoying more possession after Marcelo's dismissal than beforehand.

In view of Guardiola's anorexic squad and Mourinho's vacant treatment room, it's advantage Real in Spain and Europe for now.



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