Sport Soccer

Tuesday 23 January 2018

Barca closing in on Spanish title

Real Madrid 1
Barcelona 1

Pete Jenson

He ordered the ground staff to let the grass grow a few centimetres longer and not water the pitch before kick-off; he left his most talented player, Mesut Ozil, on the bench; and he gave central defender Pepe a roaming search-and-destroy role in midfield. But Jose Mourinho could do little to halt Barcelona's procession towards another league title.

All attention now turns to Wednesday's Spanish Cup final and to the two Champions League semi-finals that will decide which Spanish side plays at Wembley in May, because with eight points separating the two teams and just six games left, Real Madrid must win one of those battles to not finish the season without a trophy.

"Just once I would like to play them 11 against 11," said Mourinho after he watched his side go down to 10 men against Barcelona for the fifth time in his career. The Copa del Rey climax in Valencia in 48 hours will be as testing for the referee as for both sides after this bruising battle set the tone.

There were seven bookings and Raul Albiol joined Assier Del Horno, Didier Drogba, Thiago Motta and Sergio Ramos as players who have not lasted 90 minutes for Mourinho against Barcelona.

"I am tired of playing them with 10," he said. "My players know that in every team-talk we have to discuss playing with one player less."

This time the complaint was not so much that Albiol did not deserve to be sent off for hauling down David Villa inside the penalty area, but that when Dani Alves was adjudged to have fouled Marcelo for Madrid's penalty at the other end, the referee did not show the player what would have been his second yellow card.

"The fourth official told me it was because he is a full-back not centre-back.

What does that mean?" huffed Mourinho -- only he would try to turn football's richest club into the aggrieved little guy. The two penalties gave Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo the opportunites to break important scoring ducks -- it was Messi's first goal against Mourinho in his 10th game against the Portuguese coach and Ronaldo's first against Barcelona in his seventh encounter with them.

It was suggested by one Spanish newspaper in midweek that Messi is referred to as "the dwarf" in the Madrid dressing-room such is the antipathy to his annoying domination of the goalscoring and goal-assist tables in all competitions.

He had been subdued by Madrid's organised aggression for the most part of Saturday night's match, but his was his 49th goal in all competitions this season and it seemed he was going to be one step ahead of his Madrid rival once again.

Ronaldo, however, was just as lethal from the spot when his chance came, scoring his 41st goal of the campaign.

The two men will almost certainly top 100 goals between them before the season ends.

"Every team has the right to have the pitch the way they want it in their own stadium," said Pep Guardiola afterwards when asked if he thought the ball held up at times.

"I did not expect Madrid to be so defensive," added Xavi. "They closed up at the back and played very direct football."

It was a very different Real Madrid to the side that faced Barcelona in the league last November. Mourinho will make the point that a more open approach saw his side beaten 5-0. This was a step in the right direction. The league is gone but there are two competitions that can still be won.

"Wednesday will be different," he said. "It's a one-off game. One team will go home with the cup and one team will go home with nothing." (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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