Ozil is Real's best weapon against Barca
It all makes sense now.
Getting rid of Rafael van der Vaart, who went on to blossom for Tottenham Hotspur; benching Kaka, the second-most expensive player of all time; and making Cristiano Ronaldo, the most expensive player of all time, stick to the right wing or play up top instead of allowing him to drift into the middle.
And the reason is Mesut Ozil, Real Madrid's pesky German playmaker.
We've known he was good for some time now, since his days with Werder Bremen, since his World Cup this summer with Germany, and for all of this season too.
But just how influential the 22-year-old Ozil really is has revealed itself over these first two games of the four-part fight to the death between Real Madrid and Barcelona. They've contested a league game and the Copa del Rey final and next will duke it out over the next two weeks to determine who will go to the Champions League final.
In the Copa final on Wednesday, he was the best man on the field in the first half. He was, as always, creative, persistent and dynamic. But he was also, for lack of a more evocative explanation, Real's X-factor -- the way he has been in both games with Barca. In the first game on Saturday, Real looked devoid of ideas and hapless going forward until Ozil came on in the 57th minute after Barca had gone ahead. Ozil provided a desperately needed spark and helped the Merengues win an equalizer and a tie. On Wednesday, he was on for 70 minutes, during which Real was largely the better side, and certainly had the best chances. In the span, every decent chance Real got was of Ozil's making. His brilliant cross saw Pepe head it off the post, and several great balls through to Ronaldo, playing up top to stay out of Ozil's way, were for naught as the Portuguese star couldn't convert.
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Once Ozil came off, Barca became the better team again, the way it always seems to when the German leaves the fray. Suddenly, the spark was gone. Real was no longer a threat and dumped back into its own half, defending and hoping for the best. While Madrid was able to scrape out a win on a marvelous header by the otherwise wasteful Ronaldo in the 103rd minute, it was Barca that had dominated that spell of the game.
And that's what doesn't make sense.
Real coach Jose Mourinho has been taking Ozil off prematurely all year. At first because of fitness reasons, but later as a tactical choice. Real is much the better side with Ozil on the field. Whenever he played, Real could compete with Barca, challenge for the ball, hold onto it, make strides in possession and create chances. But when it comes down to it, Mourinho, who bought Ozil from Werder, doesn't seem to trust him when his side is playing for all the marbles.
Mourinho seems to have discovered a method for combating Barca's dominance over these past two games, by playing three holding midfielders and letting Ozil wreak havoc up front by feeding Ronaldo and Angel Di Maria. But if he continues to insist on letting Ozil play only a part of those games, he might torpedo his own method. And he might come unstuck in his grand plan for dethroning Barca in Europe.
If Real is to make it to the Champions League final, it will have to let Ozil orchestrate its understaffed offense all of the time. And not a second less.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.