|Pepe's red card becomes the defining moment of the first-leg clash [GALLO/GETTY]
It was the night of the book in Madrid on Wednesday.
"But cricket was no mere game. Cricket was important."
Thus wrote one of the great British writers of the 20th century, Virginia Woolf in her highly acclaimed 'Mrs Dalloway', but the same could well have been applied to football and the Champions League semifinal here in the third and possibly decisive 'El Clasico' clash of four.
It was to be a game which would need a very important player to decide between the two teams.
Real Madrid and Barcelona, at it for the third time in just a matter of weeks, had left the entire city electrified ahead of kick-off, but at half time expectations had hardly been fulfilled.
It would need another performance worthy of the label 'best in the world' which Lionel Messi has been given by FIFA for the past two years, and deservedly so, judging by his fantastic double strike.
The magical second goal, stunning for its skilful weaving run and the importance it had in Barcelona's 2-0 win, left Mourinho's Real Madrid all but down and out of the Champions League.
Barcelona, meanwhile, are almost surely in Wembley, but Guardiola was ever the cautious coach afterwards.
Just the barest of chances were registered in the first half, mostly on the visitor's side, who dominated possession to the effect of 69 per cent - 31 per cent at the break. But of quality football, very little was to be seen.
The importance of the tie, likely, got the better of all those involved, and not a few might have preferred to take up a good book and sit back for a relaxing read.
With a final in Woolf's beloved London against very likely an English side - Manchester United - at stake, the two coaches had exchanged barbed pleasantries in their respective press conferences ahead of the tie, and the tense tactical battles which Jose Mourinho so prefers against a rival whose football is clearly the more beautiful soon unfolded.
'We live for you, win for us,' read the giant fan placard unfolded by the home faithful, reflecting the importance of football in the lives of those who found their way into the Santiago Bernabeu.
But they had very little to be pleased about in the first 45 minutes.
Carlos Puyol, the legendary Barca captain who has just returned from a long injury layoff, moved in to shore up the Catalans defence, and it took Real Madrid until the very 45th minute to generate real danger, with Victor Valdes spilling a Ronaldo shot but Mesut Oezil called offside in the follow up.
Before that it was more Barcelona than Real, first David Villa coming close in the 10th minute with a left-footed shot which whizzed just wide, then Messi putting Xavi through for a one-on-one with Iker Casillas, who produced a great save to deny his Spain team-mate.
Real Madrid, with the by now infamous trident of defensive midfielders choking both side's creativity, had little to reply in terms of offensive, attractive football of the brand that Manchester United had shown just a day earlier in Germany.
The most celebrated actions by the home fans were those of tough-tackling Pepe, which was indicative of the attractiveness of a tie labelled once more 'game of the century' here in Spain.
And it would be Pepe who would practically decide the game moments later with a dangerous tackle.
The second half began with Barcelona once again pushing forward, and the home side appearing now and then in quick counter-attacks such as the one which saw Ronaldo almost open the visitor's defence in the 51st minute.
But exactly on the hour mark came the decisive moment of this much anticipated clash; first Pepe flying in for a very high challenge which saw him red carded, and then Mourinho sent to the stands for his ironic applause and possible comments in the direction of German referee Wolfgang Stark.
|Mourinho was sent to the bench shortly after Pepe's red card [GALLO/GETTY]
"I didn’t say anything to the referee. I simply applauded his decision with two thumbs up, nothing more," a visibly charged Mourinho said after the match.
"If I tell him and UEFA what I think and feel, my career is over today."
But it was the match which was now almost over. And playing against 10 men, it was a chance Guardiola's team did not want to leave un-used.
There followed what was only the logical consequence of one team coming onto the pitch to play football, and the other coming to contain that magical brand of football which made Barcelona such deserved European Champions two seasons ago.
First, Messi slotted home decisively in the centre ahead of Sergio Ramos, who saw his second yellow card earlier and will be missing in the return leg, and then came the moment for which great players are made.
Taking up the ball in the middle of the pitch, with just four minutes left to play, Messi burst into the area after weaving past four defenders and hit a right foot effort which trickled past Casillas and into the back of the net.
"It’s not a drama for me," Mourinho said after the match, but his long monologue about the quality of refereeing against his teams over the years in the Champions League was not really important on the night.
Guardiola, then, did not want to reply to questions on Mourinho either. What counted most were the contented faces of the Barcelona players in the mixed zone after the game.
Pique smiled, and Messi, well, Messi was simply the most important player on this literary night in Madrid.
Source: Al Jazeera