By Dermot Corrigan
Minutes after Real Madrid had exited the Champions League on penalties to Bayern Munich last Wednesday, club coach José Mourinho had his excuse ready. The Portuguese carefully chose his answer to the first question put during the post-game press conference deep inside Madrid’s Estadio Santiago Bernabéu:
“It is more difficult to play this match when you are still in the fight to win the league title than when you are not,” said Mourinho. “I remember the semi-finals I lost with Chelsea against Liverpool. They faced Fulham in the previous clash with their reserve players, while we used our main men in our weekend clash and ended up suffering from that. It is our fault because we would have used different players in our previous game if we were not fighting to win the league title.”
The point was that Madrid’s excellence in La Liga had left them at a disadvantage compared to Bayern, who have lost out to Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga so could rest eight players for their unimportant game against Werder Bremen in between the two semi-final legs. Madrid had to go full tilt for their La Liga deciding clásico at Barcelona’s Camp Nou. It was “our own fault” we lost, because we have been so much better than Bayern in our own domestic competition.
Mourinho was correct in what he said, but he has created at least some of that problem himself by choosing to play his strongest available XI in pretty much every La Liga game this season, even those when a just slightly under-strength Madrid side should have been able to win. Cristiano Ronaldo has appeared in all their 34 matches to date, Xabi Alonso has just missed two (both through suspension) and Sergio Ramos has missed just three. Of the 4,680 minutes Madrid have played in all competitions so far (52 games), Ronaldo has played 4,539, Ramos 4,227 and Alonso 4,209. The likes of Kaká and Gonzalo Higuaín have played very little lately, and potential occasional replacements for Ramos and Alonso have barely featured all season (Raúl Albiol 815 minutes in total and Nuri Sahin just 596).
(Outgoing) Barcelona coach Guardiola, in his more elegant way, has also talked of how it is difficult to expect his players to win every game, given the huge demands. This season has been particularly packed for the Catalan club. Its commercially driven pre-season schedule involved six games in 15 days in Croatia, Germany and the USA last August before rushing back to Spain for the Superocopa double-header against Madrid. There was then December’s successful tip to the World Club Cup in Japan, and the need to peak again soon after the winter break with two Copa del Rey clásicos.
Barca’s main players have therefore also been always on the go – talisman Lionel Messi has played 33 of Barca’s first 34 La Liga games, being suspended for the one he missed. In the last 15 weeks Messi has played all 90 minutes in each of the 26 games for which he has been available. Barca’s other key men such as Carles Puyol, Andrés Iniesta and Xavi Hernández have been used slightly more sparingly, but rarely rested when fit. Indeed Xavi played for weeks despite having an injured calf muscle, and only when they had dropped out of their two priority competitions was he given the time off he needed to properly recover.
The reason both coaches have flogged their key players so hard is that the level needed to win La Liga has risen so high in recent years. The last time Madrid won the league, four seasons ago, they finished with 85 points, eight ahead of Villarreal in second, and 18 ahead of Barca in third. In Guardiola’s first season (2008-09) Barcelona got 87, then 99 and then 96 last year. Madrid finished second each time with 78, 96 and 92 points. Under Juande Ramos in 2008-09 and Manuel Pellegrini’s in 2009-10 Madrid set various club records for consecutive wins, but still fell just behind Barca. This season Madrid have already broken the record for goals scored in one season (set at 107 back in 1989 by John Toshack’s legendary ‘Quinta del Buitre’ side) and four more wins will give them a record 100 points for the season.
In his pre-Bayern second leg press conference Mourinho alluded to this required level of performance, saying that the 2011/12 season was a marathon which his side had run at middle-distance speed, and they now needed to up the pace again.
“I do not suppose anything until we win the title,” said Mourinho, about the previous weekend’s Camp Nou victory. “That was three more points in a marathon which we are running at 1500 metre pace. We are in the last metres now and need to sprint to the end.”
He also said that he felt his players were in “perfect” condition, but to extend the marathon metaphor the Bayern loss suggested they had hit the wall. Key playmaker Alonso’s stats tailed off dramatically just as the season was coming to a climax, and Madrid began to stumble with draws against Málaga and Villarreal. They were able to lift it to win in Barcelona, and all but ensure they won the league with four games left to play, but the effort of doing so clearly contributed to their Champions League displays in both semi-final legs. The penalty misses from Ronaldo, Kaká and Sergio Ramos, and the debatably offside goal in the first leg in Munich, were all key moments, but overall Madrid lost out because of an inability to control midfield in either game.
Barcelona also looked jaded against Chelsea, none more so than Messi. The Argentine was reportedly ill with a stomach complaint after the Madrid loss and missed a day’s training. The penalty miss last Tuesday looked to drain the last reserves of energy from his body, and he finished the game with the worst pass completion rate of any Barca player. Guardiola had noted the lack of zip in his team’s play and tried to change things by introducing young wingers Cristian Tello and Isaac Cuenca, but main men like Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fábregas and Dani Alves were unable to summon up the verve and spark to make a difference.
Besides the physical exertions, a La Liga campaign ran at full pelt takes a mental toll. Once a team drop points – Madrid at Levante in September, Barcelona at Getafe in November, through Barca at Osasuna in February and Madrid’s draws with Málaga and Villarreal in March, there is an instant brouhaha among the media and supporters. It immediately looks like one bad game has potentially ruined a whole season. This is the type of pressure Guardiola spoke about on Friday when he said he was leaving the club at the end of the season.
Guardiola knew the impact the constant need to win each and every game was having on himself and his players. Mourinho was making the same point, in a different way, when he spoke after the Bayern game. But they are both at least partly to blame. The Catalan coach raised the bar in La Liga when he entered, and the Portuguese has had to lift it even further to triumph. Both have this season poured so much of their resources into outdoing the other on home ground, that not enough was left to compete overseas.
Real have more than likely won their marathon but for many Madristas a tenth European Cup, the legendary décima, was what really mattered. Barca tried and failed to keep pace in La Liga, and in doing so lost their chance to cement their immortal status with back-to-back Champions Leagues.
Dermot Corrigan is a freelance Irish sportswriter who lives in Madrid and writes about soccer for publications including The Score, FOXSoccer.com, Sport 360° and When Saturday Comes. Contact him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan.