A draw with Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu is always a good result for any team, but the feeling here, after the 223rd El Clasico--and it was truly a classic: fast, furious, spectacular--finished 1-1 in the first leg of the Copa del Rey semifinals, is that FC Barcelona let this one get away.
For several reasons I do not share the optimism of some part of the Catalan press or Barça fans commenting on the internet regarding the outcome of the return game on February 27 at the Camp Nou. Like Gerard Piqué, and probably most of his teammates, I was left with a sour taste in the mouth by the result and the Blaugrana's inability to finish off an opponent that was down and almost out.
There's no guarantee that Barça will win at the Camp Nou and make it to the final. There's never a guarantee for any team when facing Real Madrid. This is, after all, the second best team in the world, whatever Manchester United, Chelsea or Bayern Munchen fans think. This is a talented, mean, nasty team. Maybe Real feared Barça two or three years ago, but Mourinho has adjusted, that's why he's a great coach. Insufferable to his own players, but great.
In their last four visits at the Camp Nou, Ronaldo & Co. have scored four goals each time: 2-2 last October in La Liga; 2-3 in August 2012 in the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup (followed by a 2-1 win in Madrid, which gave Real the trophy on away goals); a 2-1 league victory last April, as the madridistas were triumphantly marching toward the title; and a 2-2 in the quarter-finals of the 2011-2012 Copa del Rey in January 2012. Real Madrid can score goals and, let's not forget, Barcelona has Pinto (or Valdes) in goal, not Lev Yashin or Peter Schmeichel. Anything is possible.
Madrid is dangerous and never gives up. Madrid is dangerous even when it plays with five subs, including a goalkeeper signed up for this game, who knew teammate from foe only by the color of the jerseys. That's why, when you have your biggest rival down, you go for the kill. You can't squander chances like you do when you trash the Osasunas of the world 5-1. You, you Pedro, you score from five yards out, alone with the keeper, nobody else in the same area code. You make it 2-0 with 12 minutes left, then pass the ball around until everybody falls asleep.
Unfortunately, Pedrito is one of the very few Barça players technically challenged, if only slightly. Maybe it's time to give David Villa a chance, he was a great goleador before he broke his leg, remember? If you don't sell him give him a chance, because with Messi's exception this pretty team does not seem to have the killer instinct.
When Messi has an off day Barça's attack is stalling. When Mourinho puts three or four defenders on Messi--and at least one fouls him almost every time-- other star players must produce more. The universally revered Wizard of Dribbling, Iniesta, should assert himself and take control of the game, create chances, score goals. The artistic impression is celestial, his stats abysmal. Some consider him Messi's equal. He should prove it. If Iniesta scores one goal for every five of Messi's, Barça will become the greatest team ever. Hands down.
A bizarre stat from the game illustrates the kind if teams the two giants are, and perhaps validates the belief of some Barça fans that their team got jobbed by referee Clos Gomez. Barcelona, the visitor, committed just five fouls but got three yellow cards. Host Real Madrid also had three players with yellow cards, on 19 fouls. There were at least a half-dozen more on Messi that Gomez never called. Instead, he gave Madrid a corner that wasn't, which led to the equalizer. He also wrongly whistled offside stopping Messi on a breakaway that would have made it 2-0.
But all this is history now. In soccer a good performance is not always rewarded with a good result. Barcelona must win at Camp Nou to advance, because 0-0 is out of question with these heavyweights. Hopefully by that time Tito Vilanova will be back on the bench.
Vladimir Moraru played soccer for 15 years and has watched it for 60. He hasn't seen a player like Messi and a team like FC Barcelona.