Peerless Barca march into final
Real Madrid 1
(Barcelona win 3-1 on agg)
Published 04/05/2011 | 07:28
So Wembley will have the privilege of seeing Lionel Messi, a one-man age of enlightenment, in the Champions League final on May 28.
So Wembley will also have the embarrassment of entertaining Javier Mascherano, a practitioner of the dark arts. Barcelona are coming, good and bad, though mainly good and, in Messi's case, sensational.
Barring the theatricals from Mascherano, this was a far greater advertisement for the game, and La Liga, than previous episodes of the 'Antics Road Show' between Barcelona and Real Madrid. For those expecting a fight, a football match broke out, particularly in the second half.
Pedro's fine goal, following a pass from the gods by Andres Iniesta, was soon cancelled out by Marcelo as Madrid rediscovered their attacking principles. At the final whistle, as 'Simply The Best' pumped out, Barca players did a huge jig, again with Messi in the centre. How fitting.
If the star of the first half was the peerless Messi, a zephyr blowing elegantly between white shirts, ensuring that Barcelona enjoyed 69pc possession, then thoughts were still distracted by a famous absentee.
Although banned, and apparently back in his hotel room, Jose Mourinho haunted the occasion like Banquo's Ghost, springing a surprise by picking a more adventurous team than expected.
Gonzalo Higuain spearheaded a 4-2-3-1 formation while Kaka operated in the hole. The £55m Brazilian was immediately involved, following through on Sergio Busquets, who would not win many popularity contests in Castille. Yet the presence of more attackers on the field was a welcome sight, far more in keeping with Real's great tradition.
If Kaka is hardly associated with the dark arts, it was hardly the greatest surprise when Ricardo Carvalho was the first to enter referee Frank De Bleeckere's book. Returning from suspension, he stretched out his right boot into the left instep of the darting Messi. He pleaded it was his first offence of the night. In vain. Carvalho was cautioned and so began a night of living dangerously for him.
The art of dispossessing a high-speed insurgent was effortlessly demonstrated by Gerard Pique, who slid in to steal the ball away from Angel di Maria. Barcelona's relentless pressing tactics, a sophisticated swarm hounding Madrid players, ensured regular turnover.
To the delight of the Catalan faithful, Messi was seeing plenty of the ball, soon embarking on a series of dribbles. This was a joy to watch, a reminder of that La Liga is home to the planet's finest player.
His sublime skill panics opponents. A bemused Marcelo soon conceded a corner. When Xavi swung the ball across invitingly, the unmarked Busquets put his header too close to Iker Casillas. No matter. Barcelona kept creating, kept weaving their triangles of terror.
Inevitably Messi was at the heart of all their elegant movement, the ball riding a joyful carousel with him Madrid simply could not deal with Barcelona. Carvalho went through the back of the little Argentine. As Camp Nou chorused "ole" after "ole", Messi went close, and then set up David Villa, who was denied by Casillas.
Then Dani Alves cleverly cut the ball back from the right for Messi to control it instantly. As Xabi Alonso slid in, Messi danced away with the ball. The space brilliantly created, Messi dragged his shot wide.
Still Barcelona rolled forward, working the ball effortlessly around white shirts. Pedro shot wide. Messi unleashed a low drive through a crowd and Casillas pushed away.
Madrid were allowed brief acquaintance with the ball shortly before the half closed. Alonso, showing superb vision and execution of pass, picked out Ronaldo down the right. The Portuguese attacker swept the ball across but Victor Valdes had read the danger, darting out to collect in front of Higuain.
Higuain thought he had scored early in the second half, putting the ball past Valdes, but De Bleeckere stopped the move, indicating an offence by Ronaldo, who was deemed to have fouled Mascherano. Harsh. One awaits Mourinho's verdict on that passage of play. Almost inevitably, Barcelona went down the other end to score.
Valdes and Alves were involved early on but the moment of real majesty came from Iniesta, who conjured up a pin-point pass to release Pedro. The winger's first touch was perfect, his second was devastating. The ball was drilled unerringly past Casillas.
It seemed all over. But Madrid drew on their great traditions and attacked and attacked. Di Maria ran down the inside-left channel, and when his shot hit the post, the winger kept his composure, controlling the ball and squaring it to Marcelo. Madrid's left-back swept the ball into the net and Real began to dream.
TV reporters pitchside indicated that members of Real back-room staff kept nipping down the tunnel, inevitably triggered speculation that there was some form of communication with Mourinho. Certainly, the Real subs seemed to be making their mark, particularly Mesut Ozil, who began scheming behind the front-line of Emmanuel Adebayor and Ronaldo.
Mourinho's mood cannot have been improved when Marcelo was cautioned, the left-back sliding in with excessive vigour on Messi, who went skimming across the glistening surface. It was the eighth foul on Messi in the game, a record on one player in this season's Champions League.
Ronaldo was struggling to get much from De Bleeckere, and looked to the heavens for divine assistance when not earning a free-kick following a foul by Mascherano.
A game to restore the faith in Spain's finest finished on a wonderfully moving note with the return of Eric Abidal, who received an impassioned welcome from Camp Nou after overcoming cancer. (© Daily Telegraph, London)