Over the next month, Real Madrid and Barcelona will meet three times. They face each other over two legs in the semifinal of the Copa del Rey, on Thursday and again, in the return game, on April 5. In the middle of those two matches, they meet at Camp Nou in what could be a critical LaLiga game on March 19.
Clasicos are always exhausting, emotionally charged affairs, but even more so when there are two trophies on the line. While Barca did thump Madrid in the Spanish Supercopa final last month, there’s still a feeling Xavi Hernandez’s team need to prove themselves against a Madrid side that won LaLiga and the Champions League last season. Knocking them out of the cup over two legs en route to the final would do just that.
– Copa del Rey Clasico! Barcelona vs. Real Madrid on ESPN+
Meanwhile, Barca’s shock loss to Almeria has given Madrid a lifeline in LaLiga. Carlo Ancelotti’s side will be fancying their chances of closing the gap further, having moved within seven points of the leaders. A Clasico win could cut the gap to four heading into the final stretch of the campaign, and would really test Barca’s mental strength and resilience.
If three games in a month seems wild in 2023, you don’t have to go back too far for the last time these eternal rivals had this many epic clashes in such swift succession. Back in 2011, four meetings in 18 days pushed the rivalry between Madrid and Barca to the very edge. It brought the worst out of coaches Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola, saw Madrid crowned Copa del Rey champions and helped Barca on their path to a LaLiga and Champions League double.
The fallout to each fixture was more spectacular than the last. Guardiola famously called Mourinho “the f—ing boss of the press room,” while the Portuguese manager played up theories about referees and UEFA favouring Barca. There were seven goals, five red cards and several broken friendships between Spain internationals who had won the World Cup together just nine months earlier.
The explosive scenes witnessed in 2011 are unlikely to be matched. Coaches and players involved in those games almost 12 years ago have since admitted that both sides were guilty of going too far at times.
To remember what happened, ESPN spoke to people on both sides of the Clasico divide during those four matches, including Raul Albiol (Madrid defender), Marcelo (Madrid left-back), Muniz Fernandez (referee), Adriano (Barca full-back), Sandro Rosell (Barca president), Aureli Altimira (Barca fitness coach) and Jordi Roura (Barca coach). Their memories are presented along with archival quotes to tell the fullest story of that epic spell for these eternal rivals.
With additional reporting by Moises Llorens and Rodrigo Faez
Game One: April 16, 2011 (LaLiga)
The first meeting between the two sides arrived with Barca firmly established as the best side in Europe. They had won back-to-back LaLiga titles under Guardiola and were in pursuit of a second Champions League trophy in three seasons.
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The response by Madrid? They appointed Jose Mourinho in an attempt to end Barca’s domestic dominance. However, Barca had won the first meeting between the two sides 5-0 at Camp Nou in November 2010. Madrid went into this game at the Santiago Bernabeu eight points behind Barca at the top of LaLiga.
Fernandez, referee for the first of their four games: “A referee for this type of match is accustomed to having a lot of experience. One of the qualities to officiate a match like this is the psychological aspect. If you’re not prepared to face a match of huge tension or rivalry, you’re not even qualified to be in the Primera Division.
“At that time, I was lucky enough to referee two Clasicos. The relationship between the coaches and the players was not very good. You could feel the tension on the pitch. We all knew that one club was on track to win LaLiga and the other, Madrid, with their style of football, was trying to stop that. There was tremendous tension on the pitch.”
Rosell, Barca president 2010-2014: “There was a lot of tension in the media during that period. The team was playing really well and we were all confident we would come through those four games against Madrid well.
“There was no fear about playing Madrid so many times [in quick succession] — not at all. Having Lionel Messi made everything much easier. Along with him, we had an amazing team and we had decisive players across the pitch. The majority of them had been World Cup winners with Spain in 2010.”
Marcelo, Madrid defender 2007-2022: “There was a league game and I thought we were playing in the Champions League … it was confusing. Honestly, it was really strange. I don’t think it was good for football because everyone waited all year to see a game between Madrid and Barca and it lost the [magic] … just for a moment.”
Mourinho was not going to play Barca at their own game. Instead, as he had done with his Inter Milan side when knocking Barcelona out of the Champions League in 2010, he went for pragmatism over aesthetics, trying to nullify Barca by picking centre-back Pepe as a defensive midfielder.
Roura, Barca analyst under Guardiola: “We were not surprised to see Pepe as a midfielder keeping in mind the Madrid coach was Mourinho.”
It didn’t work. Madrid could not get the three points they needed. Albiol was sent off in the second half and Messi converted the resulting penalty. Cristiano Ronaldo saved the game for Madrid, scoring a penalty to tie the match, which saw Fernandez award seven yellow cards in addition to Albiol’s red.
At full-time, Mourinho moaned that he was “tired of always playing against Barca a man down. It’s mission impossible.”
Adriano, Barca defender 2010-2016: “We had problems with the referees. Pep told us that we had to control our heads, that we knew what we had to do. He told us to forget about the referee, to play and that’s it. And [Madrid] complained that they always had a player sent off, with the kicks they gave us.”
Fernandez: “Being a special fixture and with the rivalry between the sides, it was not easy when it came to refereeing. When the teams want to collaborate it is much easier, but when they are not behaving correctly, you have to make big decisions, which brings more media noise. Before, during and after were high-voltage matches in the best league in the world and it was not easy for us.”
Result: Real Madrid 1-1 Barcelona
Game Two: April 20, 2011 (Copa del Rey final)
Next up was the Copa del Rey final, played at Valencia‘s Mestalla stadium.
Roura: “We watched a huge number of Madrid games even though the normal procedure was to [study] the opponent’s last five matches and their last game against us. We wanted to control what could be controlled and not miss anything, even though our opponents always used some kind of tactical variant to try and surprise us.”
Altimira, Barca fitness coach under Guardiola: “For this type of games, you don’t need to pull many strings. The players are waiting for these matches to arrive. The motivation comes on its own. You work on the psychological aspect, of course, but the group was experienced, seasoned in those situations and always wanted to win.
“One thing [coaches] Paco Seirul.lo, Lorenzo Buenaventura and I did propose to Guardiola was two days’ rest before the game. So if the game was on Saturday, the team would not train on Thursday. Then, on Friday, the team would do some activation work to be fresh for the game.”
A fierce 90 minutes ended goalless but not without incident. Pedro had a goal ruled out for Barca, who were furious about what they felt was an Alvaro Arbeloa stamp on David Villa in the first half. After every big decision, referee Undiano Mallenco was surrounded by players from both teams in unsavoury scenes.
Albiol, Madrid defender 2009-2013: “Despite the fighting on the pitch and the benches, you learn a lot from two great coaches like Mourinho and Guardiola and from two great teams with great players and an obsession to be better than each other. Obviously, the image given was not the best, but everyone remembers those games, which shows they were special matches.”
Rosell: “The relationship with Real Madrid was very good institutionally. There was a lot of respect. Another thing is what happened on the pitch. There were some tough moments and there was a lot of tension, but everyone defends their own interests.”
The game went to extra-time, with Ronaldo heading in the winner to end Madrid’s three-year wait for a trophy. His teammate Angel Di Maria was sent off at the end of a foul-ridden encounter for a second booking.
Marcelo: “The final in Valencia is the Clasico I remember best of any I played in, when [Ronaldo] scored the header. I do a one-two with Di Maria, Di Maria crosses and Cris scores. I think because that was the first trophy [of the Mourinho era] and, above all, because it was against the best Barca ever.”
Adriano: “They kicked the crap out of us in that final. I know Marcelo very well, and I did not think he wasn’t like that. He was always a very technical player. They felt helpless and that’s how it came out, with kicks.”
The celebrations didn’t go as well as the final for Madrid, with Sergio Ramos hilariously dropping the trophy off the bus, but the scene had been set for the looming Champions League semifinal between the two sides, with Barca out for revenge.
Result: Real Madrid 1-0 Barcelona
Game Three: April 27, 2011 (Champions League semifinal, first leg)
The first two meetings clearly took their toll on the coaches. Before the Champions League semifinal first leg, Guardiola bemoaned Pedro’s disallowed goal in the Copa final. Mourinho mocked Guardiola for criticising a refereeing decision, which in turn compelled Guardiola to unload in the pregame news conference.
“In this [news conference] room, he’s the f—ing boss, the f—ing guy and I won’t compete with him here,” Guardiola said at the Bernabeu.
Roura: “Guardiola was very demanding. He had a very innovative spirit. He asked for every last detail on the opposition. He wanted everything to be very precise, how they played, what they could do, the changes they could make … he wanted to see everything.
“Every game during that series was key to win the mental battle in preparation for the next fixture. We had to put up with a lot — perhaps too much — but I remember that when Guardiola did that news conference in Madrid, when he said that Mourinho was ‘the f—ing boss,’ the team received him like never before back in the dining room at the hotel with a huge ovation.”
Adriano: “Pep was very clever with the ‘f—ing boss’ news conference. He studied everything. What he did was change the rules of the game completely. That news conference was the key to the match and the tie.”
A tense game followed, arguably the fiercest of the four. Theatrics, spite and bad blood were on full display as players exaggerated the impact of tackles, mobbed the referee and brawled as they left the pitch at half-time. Midfielder Seydou Keita made a beeline for Arbeloa, whom Barca were particularly unhappy with following his clash with Villa in the Copa final and a challenge on Pedro in this game. Everyone else piled in by the tunnel in front of referee Wolfgang Stark. Barca’s substitute goalkeeper, Jose Pinto, was eventually sent off for a slap on Arbeloa.
Early in the second half, Pepe was dismissed for a high challenge on Barca defender Dani Alves. Replays showed his foot was high, but he did not touch the Brazilian, infuriating Madrid, who posted a video on YouTube after the game titled: “TV images show Pepe never touched Alves.” Mourinho was sent off, too, for taking his protests over Pepe’s red too far.
From there, Messi took over, scoring twice in a 2-0 Barca win. The second was a brilliant individual effort.
Altmira: “Having Messi was a huge advantage. We had known him since he was young. Playing as a false 9 at times was nothing new for him. [Assistant coach] Tito Vilanova put him there in an U16 game. It was already an impressive Barca team, but if you then add the Messi factor, it made us even better. Lionel was always exceptionally gifted and he fixed things for us many times.”
Adriano: “What Messi did in the first leg was spectacular, it was the key. We knew what he was going to do. When he was on fire, he was unstoppable for the opposition — which was very relaxing for us. He gave us immense confidence. Knowing what the game was going to be like and the atmosphere, the fear was that they would kick him and take him out of the game.”
Now it was Mourinho’s turn to rant, with his focus falling on Pepe’s red card rather than Messi’s heroics.
“If I say to the referee or to UEFA what I feel, my career ends today,” he said after the game. “Why? Why [Tom Henning] Ovrebo, why [Massimo] Busacca, why [Frank] De Bleeckere, why Stark [for Barca games]? Why? Why? I don’t know if it’s Barca’s sponsorship with UNICEF. They have to be in the final and that’s it. Why send off Pepe?
“[Guardiola] won one Champions League which I would be embarrassed to have won, with the scandal of Stamford Bridge. And this one he will win the with the scandal of the Bernabeu. I hope one day to have the chance to win the Champions League with Madrid, but without any scandal behind it.”
Marcelo: “Mourinho was an expert at getting in your head. Not was. Is. He changed me defensively. He helped me become more aggressive, to fight. He also managed to change other players. He put things in my head. In that regard, how he talked to the players, how he could change you, he was the best.”
Adriano: “[Madrid] always broke games up because of the helplessness they felt. We played with a very high intensity and they only stopped us by kicking us. It was the only way Mourinho, as a good strategist, found to stop us. We knew we were going to find that. I remember fights between the Spain and Brazil teammates.”
Albiol: “With Spain, the players from Madrid and Barca grew apart, but there were never any fights or disrespect shown. Everyone got on with their own jobs, without exceptions, knowing that once on the pitch we were defending the country. We gave everything for our teammates, whether they played for Barca or any other team.
“The fact [Spain] kept on winning [they won Euro 2012 the following summer] shows that the players were completely professional and that [the fallout from these games] didn’t affect the national team.”
Result: Real Madrid 0-2 Barcelona
Game Four: May 3, 2011 (Champions League semifinal, second leg)
Barca had one foot in the Champions League final going into the second leg, but the wear and tear between the two teams was evident. In addition to all the complaints about refereeing between matches, Madrid alleged that Sergio Busquets had racially abused Marcelo — something which was never proven.
“Some players that use racist insults will play, while others can’t,” said Madrid assistant coach Aitor Karanka, filling in for Mourinho, who watched the game from the hotel after being sent off in the first leg. A suitable spot for him could not be found at Camp Nou.
However, a more placid affair than expected followed.
Altmira: “By that stage of the season, we had hardly any time to train. The work was already done and it was about taking on board the different tactics that could be applied in the games. That is what we worked on when we were all on the training pitch. It was a superteam that knew how to get the best out of themselves and that showed.”
Pedro opened the scoring after a Gonzalo Higuain goal had been ruled out, with Marcelo equalising for Madrid. Barca advanced on aggregate, going on to beat Manchester United in the final.
Rosell: “It was really satisfying to knock them out of the Champions League and to go on and win the trophy at Wembley, just as it was to win the league by four points, hammering them 5-0 at Camp Nou. We are left with that nagging feeling of losing the Copa final. That final in Valencia with Pedro’s goal ruled out … It was a shame because we would have won the treble.”
Adriano: “We played all those games by the book, winning one, drawing two and losing the Copa final. If we were to count the time played in the four games, we would probably only accumulate the time of one game, 90 minutes! But you always ended up seeing the Madrid’s helpless faces. It was a magical year in which we played spectacular football. Everyone knew and was talking about Barca.”
Result: Barcelona 1-1 Real Madrid (Barcelona win 3-1 on aggregate)