Two goals from Lionel Messi gave Barcelona a 2-0 victory over eternal rivals Real Madrid in the Champions League semi-final first-leg, putting the La Liga leaders on course to meet Manchester United in the final at Wembley. Messi provided the highlights of a tetchy game that saw three red cards, including one for Jose Mourinho, five yellows and 40 fouls.
Real Madrid started the game with the striker-less formation that triumphed over Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final, a trio of Cristiano Ronaldo, Mesut Ozil, and Angel di Maria as front runners, with a barrier of Pepe, Lassana Diarra, and Xabi Alonso in midfield. Sergio Ramos shifted from right-back to centre-back to replace the suspended Ricardo Carvalho, with Alvaro Arbeloa coming into the side, while Barcelona’s defensive absences meant Carles Puyol acted as a makeshift left-back and Javier Mascherano slotted into the centre of defence. Seydou Keita replaced the ill Andres Iniesta.
The first-half passed by in a hail of half chances and unsubtle fouls. Madrid’s determination to prevent Barca playing by, paradoxically, letting them have as much of the ball as possible, resulted in a stifled game punctuated by rare sights of goal and all too frequent squabbles. Barca broke through the Madrid resistance via David Villa and Xavi Hernandez, but the first 45 minutes was a drab affair. Madrid had an occasional foray forward but their attacks were under-resourced and infrequent. Barcelona toiled but their patient passing played squarely into Madrid’s hands, never pulling the dogged home side out of position long enough to create a meaningful chance. The petulance from both sides in the first-half, however, far outweighed any semblance of quality football, and the bad behaviour continued even after the referee called a halt to the first period.
A bad tempered half boiled over as the teams trudged towards the tunnel at the break, when Barcelona reserve goalkeeper Jose Pinto was sent off for his part in an unseemly melee, quickly followed once the game resumed by Pepe for a challenge on Daniel Alves, with Mourinho also dismissed for his protestations. The 10 men of Madrid, now including Emmanuel Adebayor, a half-time substitute for Ozil, held firm for a quarter of an hour, until Messi met Ibrahim Affelay’s cross and put Barcelona ahead with 25 minutes remaining. The loss of Pepe, the largest and most effective brick in Madrid’s defensive wall, proved a hammer blow to Madrid’s defensive game plan. Spaces began to appear between Madrid’s defence and midfield where the towering Portuguese had previously stood. Messi exploited the gap to the fullest with a stunning second goal, a solo dribble from just inside the Madrid half.
Madrid frustrated Barcelona for much of the game – until Madrid were reduced to 10 men – but with the loss of both Pepe and Ramos, who received a booking that rules him out of the return, Mourinho’s system may be in tatters. A more expansive style in the Nou Camp may be Madrid’s only hope of the three-goal win they need, but it would also let the ever-dangerous Messi off the leash again.