by Ifreke Inyang
The Copa De Rey final at the Mestalla stadium saw Jose Mourinho cement his status as one of the best coaches ever in the game of football. Implementing an unexpected, shockingly rapid transformation in Real Madrid’s style of play, the Portuguese manager led his squad to victory over arch-rivals Barcelona and to their 18th Copa del Rey title, a competition the Merengues hadn’t won since 1993. The two Spanish giants had last met in the final of a competition back in 1990, when Barcelona defeated Real Madrid. The rare event of a clásico in a final match generated remarkable interest in the subdued recent history of Copa del Rey finals. The match was broadcasted for a record 140 countries, while touts were offering €2,500 for a tribune seat just minutes before kickoff.
Mourinho, having used his squad’s last two matches to build a rather pragmatic Anti-Barcelona approach, introduced specific adjustments for this final that resulted in Real Madrid’s best 45 minutes against Barcelona since Pep Guardiola first sat on the Catalan bench. Real’s tactics rested on the same basis as the Bernabeu’s match only three days earlier: physical toughness since the initial whistle, and constant long balls to take advantage of Barcelona’s aerial weakness, as well as to obligate the Catalans to start their build-up play from their own goal. One of Barcelona’s trademark features lies on their high-pace pressure in the rival’s own half, forcing quick ball recoveries in attacking positions. Real Madrid kept the ball as far away from their goal as possible, and thus effectively terminated the link up play by their defenders and midfielders.
However, Mourinho added two twists last Wednesday: Mesut Ozil joined the starting lineup replacing Benzema, and the Merengues started to press the Blaugrana a good 30 metres closer to their goal than they had done in the Bernabeu. With Ozil, Mourinho effectively had one more player to track down the Barcelona midfielders, especially Sergio Busquets, something that Karim Benzema hadn’t quite delivered on Saturday. Real, looking now far more compact and sharp in their defensive rotations, deactivated Barcelona’s connections between back four and midfield, and effectively left Andrés Iniesta, Dani Alves and Pedro, to name a few, out of the match.
Mourinho’s tactical riddles worked out brilliantly.
Regulation time ended with an amazing save by Pinto, Barcelona’s Copa del Rey goalie, after a cracker from Di Maria, and right from the beginning of the extra time the game seemed to lean towards Real Madrid. A glorious through ball by Xabi Alonso saw Cristiano Ronaldo shoot just wide, while Barcelona’s build-up efforts appeared less and less dangerous with each passing minute. Finally, a one-touch play between Di Maria and Marcelo ended in a sweeping cross from the former, emphatically headed home by Cristiano. Although Barcelona still had one full extra-time period to draw, not even Pep’s first two substitutions of the match gave his team the spark they so badly needed, and once more a final match ended in an underdog win.
In just ten days, the Squad Formerly Known as Real Madrid has become Internazionale de Milan in disguise, courtesy of Don Jose. We know his recipe by heart at this point: siege mentality, huge bonding with his players, well-structured game plans and physical power non-stop. Sounds simple, but it works. The recent games between Real and Barcelona have also shown that Pepe is an accomplished defensive midfielder. Mourinho’s search for someone to play that role could be over. If there was another Real hero other than Ronaldo on Wednesday, it was Pepe. Mourinho had moved the Portuguese international from his usual position in the centre of the defence to good effect on Saturday and repeated the ploy four days later. Adding to the Portuguese flavour of the team that Mourinho is starting to create in his own image, Ricardo Carvalho again provided a master class in astute defending.
Now the spotlight switches to the Champions League. We learned several things from Real’s cup win. First and foremost, it showed Barcelona can be beaten. Real Madrid should now have eradicated the inferiority complex that seemed evident in recent years, whichever coach was at the helm, and can approach the Champions League ties with some optimism of progressing to the final at Wembley on 28 May. It will be fascinating to see whether the Spanish public’s appetite for El Clasico was sated or only whetted by the Copa del Rey. The two clásicos in the next ten days will bring us closer to more accurate conclusions, although one fact still remains hard to discuss: this stubborn, arrogant former translator knows how to win titles. And my money is on him to even go on and win the UEFA Champions League trophy!