The momentum lies with Barcelona in the La Liga title race as they claimed a hard-fought 2-1 win over Real Madrid at the Camp Nou on Sunday night. Luis Suarez was the hero for Luis Enrique’s side, as Cristiano Ronaldo’s goal neutralized Jeremy Mathieu’s header.
The formations were fairly standard, with Real Madrid playing a 4-3-3 when on the ball, while Bale tracked back from his usual position with the BBC to make it a 4-4-2 off the ball.
Barcelona also opened with their traditional 4-3-3, with Javier Mascherano deputising for the injured Sergio Busqets.
The match was truly a game of two halves, with Real Madrid showing impressive resolve to dominate for an hour till Suarez’s goal, following which Barcelona closed out the game in a solid manner.
Opening Hour- Real Dominate
The opening hour of play was probably the one that surprised most fans, including me. Real Madrid pressed and dominated play, forcing Barcelona to defend for long periods of time- something which they’re not used to. At half time, it looked like Ancelotti’s side would be able to win at the Camp Nou, but Barcelona fought back well after the break.
Modric Return Sparks Revival
The return of Luka Modric was probably the catalyst for this reaction from Real. Modric pressed well, cut past his midfield opponents with ease and helped Real Madrid dominate the midfield. His positional play, especially his timely pressing was something Real missed sorely for months, and Modric was undoubtedly the best central midfielder on the pitch. Modric pressed and harried Iniesta and Mascherano, overloading wide areas and retaining the ball well. His dribbling allowed him to skip past challenges too. A look at his dashboard before Suarez’s goal shows his midfield domination, which was arguably more impressive than any player on the pitch.
Bale Works Hard
Another reason Real dominated the opening stretch was due to Gareth Bale. For all the criticism he recieved, Bale tracked back into a 4-4-2 off the ball and 4-3-3 on the ball. This type of play is something Real haven’t seen since Angel Di Maria left to Old Trafford. His performance in the 2-1 win over Barcelona in the cup final last year wasn’t given the credit it was due. He acted as a forward and midfielder at the same time, something which Bale tried to emulate this match. The first half in particular was wonderful, as he saw plenty of the ball and created multiple chances, even scoring one which shouldn’t have been given offside. Bale was at the heart of Real’s attacking forays.
The two dashboards summarize Bale’s evening. He dominated the right side of the pitch in the first half(left), but faded badly in the second(right), with all the marks representing all his touches really. . Curiously, Bale turned in a similar performance against Bayern Munich in a 4-0 win last year. Real scored the solitary goal in the second half in that match, but it’s worth noting that Bale is far more tired at this stage of the season than he was last year. Ancelotti’s rotation policy, and Bale’s longer season are factors for this.
Messi Well Policed
It’s no secret that that Lionel Messi turned in one of the best performances of his career against Manchester City only 4 days before the clasico. The Camp Nou was awaiting yet another masterclass from the Argentine, who’s form this year has been ridiculously good at the least (keep in mind this is coming from a Real Madrid fan). But Real Madrid came prepared. They had Isco and Marcelo man mark Messi together, which worked out extremely well. Marcelo’s advanced positioning, and Isco’s not-so-advanced positioning meant that they were always in the right positions to either intercept passes or tackle Messi.
Messi tried time and again to receive the ball by walking into the midfield zone. In the first hour, Messi was simply tackled time and again in that first hour. At half time, the Camp Nou atmosphere had been strangely muted and filled with tension too. Messi was caged up. The second half, especially in the build up to Suarez’s goal saw Messi on the right side of the halfway line for extended periods too. Eventually, he got more of the ball. Strikingly, Messi had a similar clasico in the reverse fixture in October, as both, his first and second half positions contradicted each other. More on this similarity later, but click here to read about the reverse fixture.
Marcelo in particular was a key part of Real’s attack, often playing as a midfielder, not as a defender. He created multiple chances, continuing to show everyone how he’s transformed since the World Cup campaign. His advanced positioning allowed Real Madrid to strangle the midfield, but it came at a cost. He increased the defensive burden on Isco. In the first clasico in October, this wasn’t a problem as Real took their chances. But this time, Isco was limited in terms of time on the ball, which meant he couldn’t showcase his dribbling when he got the odd chance up front. Marcelo was one of the players who got more involved in the second half though, a rare situation for any Real player on the pitch.
Pique Keeps Barca In The Game
The consistent barrages of through balls, crosses and moves of attacking intent could have and would have put Real far ahead of half time if it weren’t for Gerard Pique. The Spaniard is known to implode in big matches, with plenty of examples in previous clasicos showcasing his frailty. After a dismal campaign at the World Cup, and a poor clasico earlier in the season, many expected more of the same. But Pique defied the odds. His 50/50 challenge on Gareth Bale was one of many great tackles he made. He also kept the dangerous Benzema from scoring, although Claudio Bravo deserves equal credit for that feat. Pique’s timely interventions summed up his form in the past few weeks, which has exceeded expectations. Pique is back to his no nonsense game, and he surely picked the right game to show everyone so.
Last Half Hour: Barcelona Take Control
Real Madrid tired, as a team with so many players returning from injuries and minutes under their belt has a limit too. But the turning point was probably Luis Suarez’s goal, which completey deflated the visitors. The striking part was that it was so much against the run of play. Real’s fading was also partly due to Luka Modric’s lack of match minutes.
Alba Makes An Impact
A key feature of Real’s dominance was Bale’s dominance. But Jordi Alba showed impressive resolve to take the game to the opponent later on. Alba easily took out the tired Bale in the second half, and then marched forward into enemy territory. He would’ve made it 3-1 too, if it weren’t for Iker Casillas’ impressive saves in the dying minutes.
Rakitic Finally Gets Going
Real’s midfield pressing meant Ivan Rakitic was often cramped for space. But as the visitors tired, Rakitic looked ready to impose himself. He allowed seamless transitions into attack, and his energetic legs seemed to be more effective than the aging Xavi as a whole.
Luis Enrique’s substitutions must be given some credit for changing the flow of the game. The introduction of Xavi and Sergio Busquets certainly meant that Barcelona were given more time on the ball in midfield. Coupled with the fading of Luka Modric and Toni Kroos in the latter stages, the game looked like the Catalans’ for the taking.
Summer Signings Have Their Say
Barcelona is a transformed team when compared to previous years, with multiple summer signings making a difference. Claudio Bravo single handedly saved Barcelona the blushes, while Jeremy Mathieu and Luis Suarez scored their goals. Take into account Ivan Rakitic’s midweek goal against City, and your looking at Barcelona’s new blood carrying them through the storm. Not the usually brash summer business associated with Joan Laporta and co eh? Too bad they fired the men who made signings, not every team can watch 150 million euros worth of talent win matches in such a manner. It’s hard to imagine another center back scoring from a set piece for this side, and one would doubt Victor Valdes’ ability to make such saves. But to top it off, would Lionel Messi in a central role have really made such a run and scored that kind of goal? The answer is probably no. Which is why the win is all the more sweeter for Barcelona.
The match can effectively be looked at like this: Real Madrid dominate for an hour but fail to capitalize, Barcelona seize the opportunity and win. Both sides could have easily been up by a pair of goals at various moments, but Luis Suarez’s individual quality made the major difference in the end. The Uruguayan’s well taken goal was the ultimate decider in an interesting, but not pulsating match. A worry for both sides approaching the business end of the season is that their finishing has been pretty terrible in their last few games, something which needs to be addressed sooner than later.
Strikers Outshine the Rest
In a match which boasted arguably 4 of the best wingers and wide players in the world, it was surprisingly the strikers who outshone the rest.
Luis Suarez, while quiet made his mark on the game with a wonder goal reminiscent of his days with liverpool. while Karim Benzema made his case for a man of the match award, his stats tell us about how well he actually played. Real’s underrated man had a great day in the office. The two strikers outshone the best players in the world and their apparent heirs.
Real, Barca go through mini role reversal?
When Mourinho and Guardiola fought over some of the most fiercely contested clasicos in recent years, Real Madrid were symbolized by the counter attack, while Barcelona dominated through their possession play. This match was a far cry from those years. Real looked to dominate and scored a wonderful goal reminiscent of Barcelona at their devastating best, while Barcelona asserted themselves with a long ball and a set piece- something known to be very unlike their style, but more like their rivals’. Rather than branding this a role reversal, one could say both sides have adapted very well to different play styles.
Neymar Wasteful In Front of Goal
Neymar’s form this season has improved a lot when compared to last season. The stats show it. Neymar looks it. But his past few matches haven’t been so great, with the goals and assists drying up. This match continued this barren run, with Neymar hitting the post right before Real’s goal, and fluffing a pair of chances towards the end. He wouldn’t want to keep this going for too long- just ask Bale, who deservedly broke his voodoo the weekend beforehand.
Real Madrid Still Have Reason To Believe
Real Madrid’s performance in the first half suggested there’s still plenty of unused gas in the tank. Real went to their dreaded enemy’s home, watched them take the lead in the most unlikely manner, yet they managed to fight back. Taking the game to Barcelona is something which even teams like Bayern and Atletico haven’t done- those sides inhibited Barcelona’s play and hit them on the counter. Real Madrid’s possession stat very nearly overtook Barcelona’s too. Their play suggested they could compete with the top sides in Europe. The performance was epitomized by the rapid passing which led to the second goal, which was beautiful even when watched over and over again.
Problems do remain though. Real were too tired to continue after the hour mark, and question marks remain over their profligacy in front of goal- they could’ve, and should’ve been up by 1 or 2 at the break. It felt like the Real of the 22 match winning streak, but one notable difference was there. Real couldn’t sustain their energy, and as many suggested earlier in the season, even the incredible Real athletes (Lisbon 2014) will struggle to play like this for an entire season. Real performed at their high level, but the lack of rotation from Carlo Ancelotti has left them gasping for breath.
Barca On the Rise, But Cannot Get Complacent
Barcelona fans will no doubt be satisfied with the result. A strange Camp Nou silence at half time was replaced by vibrance by the time of the final whistle, as Luis Suarez had redeemed his 80 million euro price tag. Barcelona’s performance concludes 3 months of great success in Catalonia. Enrique’s rotation policy has left Barcelona in great physical and mental shape at this crucial point in the season. Cup Final, last 8 in the Champions League and at the top of La Liga, not a bad situation to be in.
Yet, the argument against Barcelona is of what happened last season. They lost in the Champions League quarterfinals quite deservedly to Atletico Madrid, collapsed in La Liga and lost the cup final to Real Madrid. Despite being in a better position then last time, there is a sense that the season is still not ready to be deemed a success. One worrying aspect for the Catalans is that they were so well pinned back by Real Madrid in the first half. As Real Madrid learnt last season, having a 3 man midfield means all 3 of your midfielders need to toil off the ball. It also means that the big games against quality opposition (maybe even PSG) this could serve as a problem. 3 man forward lines work well against smaller teams, but against serious European opposition it could do more damage then good. Real Madrid exposed one of the few tactical flaws in Enrique’s setup.
The result confirms what everyone has suspected for a while now, all 3 Spanish sides look good money for a Champion’s League trophy, and La Liga produces the best teams in the world. Bayern Munich’s stutter over the weekend went unnoticed but their blips are no longer far and few in between. Barring a major setback, at least 2 out of the big 3 in Spanish Football are well poised for a great season.
It remains to be seen how these sides pick themselves up after this victory. Can Barcelona come up with a more effective big game plan and win the treble? Can Real Madrid sustain themselves to dominate in an opposition’s home, to retain the coveted Champion’s League? Many questions remain, but this match wasn’t a conundrum for either manager. Their talk after the match suggested a calmer era of clasicos, signified by the least controversial clasico in the past 5 years. No red cards speak volumes, as do the lack of penalties. Just an uncharacteristic header, perfect , and a certain Uruguayan’s wonder goal.
If your looking for another perspective on the match click here. It’s another analysis.
The full match can be seen here.