Manchester United and Bar?ca on Top of Europe

The past soccer week witnessed two of the most impressive games of the season so far, both of them leading to major changes in the English Premier League and the Spanish La Liga, re­spectively. On Monday, Barcelona equaled their biggest ever win against Real Madrid by pum­meling them 5:0 on the Nou Camp, whereas only two days earlier Dimitar Berbatov became only the fourth player in history of the EPL to score five goals in a single match, together with Manchester United legend Andrew Cole, New­castle’s greatest star Alan Shearer and Tottenham’s current leading goal scorer Jermaine Defoe.

Coming into the weekend, there was noth­ing suggesting that the EPL would provide so much excitement for fans and statisticians alike. True, United’s great star Wayne Rooney was fi­nally set to start for the first time in a couple of months after heavy contract negotiations and a prolonged ankle injury, but nobody expected anything more than a routine victory for the Red Devils against a struggling Blackburn side at Old Trafford.

However, if people had paid more attention to Sir Alex Ferguson’s words during the week, namely that Berbatov’s recent slump of form was exactly due to Rooney’s absence, they might have guessed that there was a storm coming now that the two would play together again. And they would have been right; United’s attacking duo kicked off the game with real determination and confidence. They were passing the ball with such precision and rapidity that one felt they could also do it with their eyes closed.

The inevitable happened very early on: by the 27th minute the Red Devils were already lead­ing by three goals, two of them courtesy of the Bulgarian international. Having not scored since the wonderful hat trick against Liverpool back in September, Berba was happy to get his name on the board again but I don’t think even he ex­pected what was going to happen in the second half. In any case, in the 70th minute Dimitar put away his fifth goal of the night to cap a most im­pressive performance. He even had a couple of chances for a record-breaking sixth but his shots were rejected by Paul Robinson, the former Eng­land goalkeeper, who probably wished to be any­where else but in Blackburn’s goal on Saturday. To top it all, Berbatov’s goals meant that Man­chester United would finally overtake Chelsea, who drew at Newcastle, in the very interesting battle for the EPL title.

Despite all of Berbatov’s efforts, though, the really amazing story happened two days later at Nou Camp. Having made the best start a new coach has ever made in La Liga and having beat Barcelona last year in the Champions League with Inter, Jose Mourinho was confident his side was capable of finally breaking the status quo and Barca’s dominance. After all, they had been undefeated in any competition and were leading Barca by one point at the top of the league.

However, right from the start it was clear that Madrid would have to work very hard in this game. Their defense was pushing very high up the pitch in an effort to leave less space for the Catalans’ creative players but this tactic soon backfired as Lionel Messi was able to get behind the last defenders fairly regularly in the first min­utes of the game. The home side was gradually increasing the pressure on the visitors when a mishandled ball by Pepe fell right in the path of Xavi Hernandez and he did not hesitate to put the ball past the helpless Iker Casillas. Eight minutes later, in the 18th minute, David Villa managed to spring the offside trap and his shot rebounded off Casillas’s hands at the feet of Pe­dro who had no trouble putting the ball in the open goal.

As shocking as this start was for Mourinho’s side, they did not give up and managed to con­solidate their game and actually created a few chances of their own before the break. Yet, it was 2:0 at half-time, and no team had ever been able to turn around a game after trailing 2:0 in the El Clasico.

It was not going to happen in this case either because Messi, who had already scored seven goals in his eight previous appearances in El Clasico, was simply unstoppable. The visitors tried to kick, grab, choke and tear him apart but they could only watch him pass by them and cre­ate numerous scoring opportunities. Time and time again, Messi was able to shake off his per­sonal guard and pass a wonderful through ball to whoever of his teammates was making a run behind the defense at that moment. After a few unsuccessful attempts, David Villa finally got a brace himself and killed any hopes Real Madrid might have cherished until then. Substitute Jef­fren added the final fifth goal in stoppage time to complete the rout.

In their exasperation and helplessness, the visitors lost their temper, as Cristiano Ronaldo pushed Barca coach Josep Guardiola when he refused to give him the ball, while Sergio Ramos got sent off for a dangerous tackle to Messi’s an­kle. To further increase Mourinho’s humiliation, this was also his biggest-ever loss as a coach, and it he sat quietly in the dug-out for the duration of the entire second half.

All in all, last weekend was, more than any­thing else, a reassertion of the status quo in the two biggest European Leagues. Both Manches­ter United and Barcelona proved that despite all the fierce competition in the face of Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal, on the one hand, and Real Madrid, on the other, they are still very much the teams to beat. As winter holidays are fast approaching, so is the most intense part of the season when we will see what each club is really made of.