Real Madrid edge thrilling Cup final

Cristiano Ronaldo scores the winning goal in extra time as Real Madrid ended an 18-year Copa del Rey trophy hunt.

     Zouher and Maysara from Syria soak up the atmosphere outside the Mestella Stadium in Valencia [Matthias Krug]

    It was to be the night of high drama, tactical battles and fierce rivalries: Guardiola against Mourinho; Messi versus Ronaldo; Casillas against Pinto; Maysara versus Zouher.

    The latter was perhaps the most surprising, and also the friendliest rivalry as the final of the Copa del Rey saw the first of three possible trophies being played out between Real Madrid and Barcelona on Wednesday night here in Valencia.

    Whilst Guardiola and Mourinho were preparing the tactical outlooks for their teams ahead of the unprecedented quadruple clash, the two friends who support rival teams but share a deep football passion travelled from Syria to Spain to fulfil their dreams of watching not one but two 'El Clasico' games.

    "We came together all this way from Syria to watch the two matches, first last weekend's El Clasico in Madrid, and then we came here to Valencia because we love football and we love our teams," Zouher, who wore a jersey with the rather distinctive shirt name, 'I am fanatic Madridian from Syria', recounted as they mingled with an expectant crowd in front of the imposing Mestalla stadium.

    "With us, it is a very friendly rivalry, we joke about it with each other when our teams win or lose, but luckily the game on Saturday ended in a 1-1 draw."

    A drawn result was impossible in Valencia on Wednesday, in a city awash with colours, scarves, shouts, trademark Valencian oranges, chants and car horns, where television helicopters buzzed over this usually laid-back Mediterranean city and old ladies smiled wisely at the commotion caused by Spain's fiercest of footballing rivalries.

    Real Madrid players huddle before extra time
    [Matthias Krug]

    Just how fierce that rivalry can be quickly become evident to the visiting Syrian fans: "We were walking through the Real Madrid fan area, and they saw me with my Barca shirt and started throwing stones at me. I had to take it off for a while," Maysara said, with his Syrian flag now carefully covering the Barcelona shirt.

    "But otherwise the Spanish people are very nice."

    The global ramifications of this distinctly Spanish rivalry are aptly demonstrated by this unusual sporting friendship, one of a thousand such small, touching stories which took place on the sidelines of the larger media spectacle.

    But as the game itself commenced the atmosphere turned extremely hostile in the Mestalla stadium, all the more so after the expected whistling of the Spanish anthem by large sections of the Barcelona fans.

    Conservative start

    It was a first half in which expectedly little free-flowing football was played, which was exactly what Jose Mourinho was looking for in a game he started with three holding midfielders.

    The highly conservative tactical outlook, much criticised by Johan Cryuff before the game, saw Pepe and Khedira often appearing in the position of attacking midfielders, going entirely against their main capabilities, in order to stem Barcelona's famed creativity.

    As a result, Barcelona's skilful trio of Xavi, Messi and Iniesta had very little time to manoeuvre, whilst Real Madrid had less creativity, relying instead on quick counter-attacks which almost resulted in a Pepe goal on the stroke of half-time. But the ball came agonisingly back off the woodwork.

    The incredible expectations created by the national media on either side of the Madrid – Barcelona divide was entirely evident in the first half as balls were lost, tackles and insults flew about freely between rival fans, and tempers flared.

    In the second half Barcelona visibly improved, pressing back their rivals to the edge of their box for most of the remainder of this explosive tie. As both sets of fans chanted out their pleasure at still being alive in the match in the midst of a fantastic atmosphere, it became evident that one or two scenes would decide the final, a notion which will likely be true for the coming semifinal clashes in the Champions League as well.

    Pedro Rodriguez came closest for the artistic Catalans, who won the Copa del Rey final here in 2009 to commence their golden trophy winning era under Pep Guardiola.

    But the skilful winger's 54th minute shot sailed just over the bar, whilst his goal at the hour mark was called offside as doubts remained behind in the already celebrating stadium.

    Then it was time for Iker Casillas, Real Madrid's and Spain's World Cup winning captain, to decide the match with two crucial interventions; first tipping over a dipping effort from the wonderful Pedro, then turning Iniesta's fine effort out for a corner when it looked a certain goal.

    The match, having threatened earlier on to fizzle out into heated tackles and tactical nuances, now celebrated the magnificent artistry on the ball of Guardiola's team, and the tenacity and tactical shrewdness of Mourinho's side.

    A Xavi pivot on the ball here, with no opponent daring to doubt his control of the ball, a Messi turn and run there provided the hidden delights for those, like Maysara, with Barcelona ticking in their hearts.

    Eighteen years to win the trophy, a matter of hours to drop it under the team bus [GALLO/GETTY]

    But it would be Ronaldo, with a finely timed header, who took the honours in the battle of star forwards on the night.

    At the end of the first half of extra time, one of Madrid's permanently dangerous counter-attacks on the left hand side ended in the goal which effectively put a final touch to this epic final. Ronaldo's header beat Pinto, the Barcelona substitute goalkeeper who had played a fine game until having to pick the ball out of the meshes.

    Then it was all over. And Mourinho, always susceptible to be more spectacular off the pitch than his team on it, thus decided the third of five duels with Guardiola this season in his favour.

    The two teams are finely poised.

    Whilst the Primera Division seems decided in Barcelona's favour with eight points of advantage, the Spanish Copa del Rey has now gone Madrid's way. Some critics might call it the triumph of ugly football, but there is little doubt that Mourinho was brought in to win trophies, and not play beautiful football, in the face of Barcelona's outstanding domination in recent years. 

    The trophy itself was partly destroyed in the resulting celebrations when Sergio Ramos let it fall from the open-topped bus celebrating the first trophy in the Spanish capital since 2008. But the imminent Champions League re-match provides a poignant opportunity for Barcelona to recover some lost pride.

    And with the return of Puyol to the centre of defence, it may be a case of the triumph of beautiful football, after all. On this night of high emotions in Spain's favourite, most heated and emotional of derby's, one that has taken on such international proportions in recent editions, it was in the end Zouher who celebrated his team's triumph.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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