Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Greatest Christmas Gift...

Madrid have beaten Barcelona 0-1 at the Camp Nou, riding a stunning goal by Julio Baptista to victory.

This season, Barcelona has kept the tradition of turning the Camp Nou into a fortress alive, posting a perfect 8-0-0 record going into Sunday's Clasico with Madrid. Their dominance at home was backed up by impressive statistics, such as a 2.75 goals per game average, compared to a miniscule 0.50 goals against average. They had outscored opponents 22-4 at the Camp Nou, and without question Madrid were in for a difficult match.

Things started to turn in Madrid's favor last weekend, when Barcelona's (and arguably the world's) best player Lionel Messi was lost to injury and ruled unavailable for "El Clasico."

Messi is Barcelona's key player, disrupting defenses with his blistering pace, setting up his teammates (6 assists in all competitions so far), and finishing with deadly accuracy (12 goals in 19 matches in the current 07-08 season). He's a player to behold, and he uses his diminutive size (5-7, 148 lbs.) to his advantage while running circles around defenders.

Barcelona just isn't the same without the Little Genius, but that should not take away anything from a hard fought victory for Madrid. It just needs to be noted, Barcelona wasn't 100%, or even 90% at that, since they were also without Thierry Henry.

To Madrid's credit, they had what is, in my opinion, the recipe for success at the Nou Camp: defend, counterattack, defend, counterattack, score, defend, defend, counter when given the opportunity, defend, defend, etc. Madrid did not leave themselves exposed very often, and their back 4 were exception tonight.

Sergio Ramos, Cannavaro, Pepe, and Heinze were simply brilliant as a unit, and the fact that Barcelona was held goalless at home in such a big game speaks volumes, with or without Messi.

Special mention must be given to 30 million euro centerback Pepe, who showed today why Ramon Calderon thought it'd be wise to pay thrice what any defender of his pedigree should cost. He was epic, combining excellent endeavor with brave, well-timed tackles. He also put a nice header on frame, redirecting excellent service and showing off some heading skills.

Also flashing brilliance was, surprise surprise, keeper Iker Casillas, who quashed several Barcelona opportunities. He was especially good on a Bojan Krkic missile in the 84th, a shot which could have equalized and kept Barcelona within 4 points of Madrid at the top of the table.

As it turned out, Barcelona dropped a game to Madrid at the Camp Nou for only the third time in a stunning 24 years. Madrid had a plan, stuck with it, and executed to perfection. Madrid even had a few more good opportunities to make it 0-2, but they couldn't finish a couple nice chances against Barcelona keeper Victor Valdez.

Also of note in this game is the continued emergence of Julio Baptista, a player for which this writer has been lobbying for all season. He has gotten his chance, and he is running with it. His goal today was pure magic, and it will be hard for Schuster to do anything but continue to play the Beast. I'm alright with that.

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