Real Madrid CF's UEFA Champions League semi-final defeat of FC Barcelona means a third season without silverware for the Azulgrana. Yet the reaction in the Catalan press the day after the 1-1 draw in the Santiago Bernabéu had condemned them to a 3-1 aggregate defeat was sympathetic.
Out with dignity
Sport's headline ran "They went down with honour". "The better team lost" was how El Mundo Deportivo saw it. Not much different, in fact, from the comments made by Barcelona coach Carles Rexach and his players. "We've gone out with dignity, said Rexach. "The difference between Real Madrid and Barcelona was they took more of their chances."
No stage fright: Certainly Barça were not affected by the so-called "miedo escénico" - stage fright - which was cited beforehand as a possible consequence of playing in front of more than 70,000 Madridistas. Rexach's side had 60 per cent of possession over the 90 minutes and, as in the first leg, hit the woodwork before falling a goal behind. From Rexach's viewpoint, however, where Madrid had Raúl González, Barcelona were without their own match-winner, the injured Brazilian Rivaldo. "Perhaps if he'd played, we'd have scored another goal and made life harder for Madrid," said the Barça coach.
Lacking penetration: Barcelona lacked penetration at times. Playing against a Madrid side who, defending a 2-0 lead, adopted a largely conservative approach, Barcelona produced only one telling effort on goal in the first period, when Philip Cocu's stretching shot struck a post. Of course, had that shot landed a couple of centimetres to the right, you might say Rexach's game plan had worked. After all, by that point, the home supporters were growing increasingly edgy.
First-half plan: The Barcelona coach, who started with the Brazilian Fabio Rochemback in the place of winger Marc Overmars on the left of a four-man midfield, explained: "We went out with the intention of controlling the ball, and for that I played Rochemback in place of Overmars. Our plan was to go into the interval with a 1-0 lead and then really go for it."
Barcelona lacking width: By the time they really went for it, however, Barça were a goal behind. Without a natural winger - and hindered further by a subdued first half from left-back Francesco Coco, injured early on in a challenge with Luis Figo and later replaced - Barcelona lacked width before the break.
Front men subdued: This is not to downplay the contributions of Xávi Hernandez and the excellent Luis Enrique, the pair of whom worked tirelessly and with no little intelligence in midfield, but Barcelona's only route to goal was through the middle - a route invariably blocked by central defenders Fernando Hierro and Iván Helguera and the covering Claude Makelele. Barcelona's two front men, Javier Saviola and Patrick Kluivert, made little impact.
Overmars stretches Madrid: Come the second period and the introduction of Marc Overmars, and Barcelona began to stretch Madrid. Indeed their equalising goal - an Helguera own goal following a deflected Cocu cross - came from one of their first effective incursions down either flank. With Geovanni then arriving on the other flank, more chances would follow. One ball from the left was turned by Kluivert into the path of Luis Enrique, who curled a shot a hair's width past the post. Kluivert himself then shot over.
First leg the key: Madrid coach Vicente del Bosque admitted that a lack of adventure from his side was inevitable. "We played a normal game, but it is difficult for the players to ignore the result of the first match," he said. A similar response came from Roberto Carlos: "We managed to defend well. The two games weren't easy but we won the tie in Barcelona."
Task beyond the visitors: Barcelona had only once overturned a first-leg home defeat in Europe; victory by three goals at the Bernabéu was a Herculean task. Madrid knew it and, understandably, took no risks. For Barcelona, a more expansive approach from the start may have been a risk worth taking.
Superb Raúl: For all the visitors' possession, however, Madrid had twice as many shots on goal (six to Barça's three). Del Bosque's men owed much of that to a superb
all-round display from their goalscorer, Raúl. Twice he played Guti in after the break - the second time with a deliciously curved cross after outstripping Abelardo down the left; he also worked unselfishly, chasing down defenders to win the ball; and he scored the goal of the tie, too.
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