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article imageAncelotti outwits Martino's Barcelona in Copa del Rey final

By Tyrrell Meertins     Apr 16, 2014 in Sports
Following Real Madrid’s Clasico defeat at the Bernabeu, many questioned whether Carlo Ancelotti's side could compete against the best sides in Spain and Europe.
Failure to defeat Atletico Madrid or Barcelona domestically had put a dent in Madrid’s title quest, and three days later a loss to Sevilla appeared to be the final blow.
The issue Madrid encountered against Barcelona in their 4-3 defeat was the amount of space they conceded between the lines, specifically to Lionel Messi. Messi haunted Madrid on the night with a hat trick, as Ancelotti’s side failed to outplay their league rivals.
However, the Copa del Rey final provided Ancelotti the opportunity to not only win his first trophy in Spain, but also claim his first victory against a top-side this season. Gerardo Martino’s questionable tactics played into Madrid’s hands, but here, Ancelotti’s modifications ensured his side didn’t encounter the same issues.
The two teams played identical formations, with Martino fielding Neymar on the right, and Andres Iniesta on the left, as he intended on dominating the midfield. Likewise, with Cristiano Ronaldo unavailable, Isco was placed in midfield and Angel Di Maria started the match on the right.
Ancelotti, however, approached the match with a bit of pragmatism, and while his side pressed Barcelona higher up the pitch when they aimed to play out of the back, Madrid dropped into two banks of four without the ball. Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema took turns pressing Sergio Busquets, and Angel Di Maria aligned himself with the midfield three on the right flank to form a bank of four. Barcelona’s attack was stifled in central areas, and despite drifting into good positions down the left flank, Martino’s side failed to trouble Iker Casillas.
While Madrid’s game plan was evident, it was difficult to identify Martino’s. Madrid squeezed the space between the lines, and Messi struggled to get involved in the match; with so many men pushed forward, Busquets was left covering too much space in midfield. Ancelotti’s men sprung powerfully on the break, and the quartet of Bale, Benzema, Isco and Di Maria exploited Barcelona’s back line on numerous occasions.
Di Maria’s opening goal exemplified Madrid’s intent on the counter. Isco did well to dispossess Dani Alves, and the Spaniard played a ball behind Busquets to Bale, who found Benzema on the left flank. Benzema’s first time ball fell into the path of Di Maria, and his shot slipped between Jordi Alba’s legs and past Pinto.
Madrid’s next best chance came when Barcelona attempted to squeeze Madrid into their half. Busquets’ effort to press Di Maria in midfield allowed the Argentine to play a pass to Isco between the lines and the Spaniard picked out Bale on the left flank. The Welshman subsequently zipped past Alves, and Isco received his cut back pass, but his shot was blocked by Alba. On two occasions Di Maria and Benzema exploited space behind Alba, but a timely Busquets clearance and a poor finish from the Frenchman kept Martino’s side in the match.
Ancelotti’s men continued to pose a threat on the break in the early stages of the second half, but Marc Bartra’s sensational header against the run of play sparked Barcelona’s resurgence. Messi’s influence on the match increased as he drifted deeper into the right channel, and cleverly evaded challenges before looking to combine with his teammates; but the final ball and extra bit of quality in the final third was non-existent.
Still, it was Isco that conducted Madrid’s swift breaks. His incisive passes allowed Bale to drive at Barcelona’s defence but the Welshman fired his effort directly at Pinto. Subsequently, Isco’s pass played Benzema free down the left flank, but his squared pass to Di Maria saw the Argentine fire his shot over the bar.
The quartet tormented Barcelona’s back line every time they received the ball, and to no surprise two members were involved in the winner. Isco’s ball to Fabio Coentrao led to the Portuguese left back slipping past two defenders and his pass to Bale saw the Welshman blitz past Bartra –– who was dealing with a hamstring injury –– and coolly beat Pinto.
"Bale scored an important goal at a critical moment. Everyone played well because they played as a team, compact as always," Ancelotti said. "We gave away a few balls in the first half but the team worked hard and did well."
While Ancelotti’s pragmatism should rightly be applauded, it’s difficult to ignore Martino’s tactical naivety. Martino’s inability to identify Busquets’ difficulty in midfield, and his continued reluctance to play to Messi’s strengths is alarming. When asked about his team selection in his post-match interview, Martino stated “It was the same team which had an excellent result twice v Real Madrid & twice v Man City.” That may be true, but it’s evident that the performances were poor, and Martino has failed to display that he’s tactically astute.
"We have had problems in the last 25 metres and that's unusual for this club because normally one of these players produces some brilliance and scores. But we haven't been able to do that this week," Martino said.
Similar to the aforementioned performances, Barcelona’s display was subdued. Victory may have alleviated the pressure off Martino, but with the Catalan side set to end the season trophy less, the Argentine’s days are numbered.
More about Real madrid, Barcelona, Copa Del Rey FINAL, Messi, Ronaldo
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