Suárez & Mathieu: two rather unlikely heroes of the evening, celebrating.
It felt strangely indifferent to wait for the 230th El Clásico. Maybe it was because of a serious overflow of Real vs Barcelona games in recent years – or maybe Juan Mata’s brilliance and Steven Gerrard’s shocking stupidity already entertained me enough for a day. Either way, the direct clash between two contenders for the title in Spain seemed like a game that might seriously disappoint anyone with above-average expectations. Why? Well, after all, Real, who have conceded four goals at home to an overwhelmingly boring Schalke team had to face Barcelona – the same Barcelona that basically toyed with Manchester City much harder than the final result would suggest. The current form favoured Blaugrana. The location favoured Blaugrana. League standings favoured Blaugrana. Messi vs Ronaldo 2015 statistic comparison favoured Blaugrana. And then, there was also a history of bad tackles, brawls, awful referee decisions, faking injuries and third-rate acting – something a team like Real could restore to in an attempt throw the rivals off their well-known tracks; something Real probably should’ve done anyway considering how badly they needed to avoid a defeat on Camp Nou. No, this wasn’t the most anticipated match of the year so far – especially since it turned out just as badly as I predicted.
Don’t believe the hype: skill-wise, yesterday’s clash wasn’t a particularly good game either. From the 4th minute, when Sergio Ramos nervously tried to fool Claudio Bravo with a hundred-yard long lob, it was evident that both teams were going to play nervously – possibly even through the entire game. Ultimately, they did. Their attacking build-ups were uninspired, the players made bad decisions, passing wasn’t working for either side, shots that would’ve pierced the nets of Almerias or Elches kept going wide. Anxiety-induced mistakes could be justified: in many ways, it was almost a title-decider match, in which the winners would’ve made it so much easier for themselves, taking a commanding lead in La Liga just ten matchdays away from the season’s end. This simple math was on everyone’s mind: unsurprisingly, later in the game, the nervousness caused by the numbers has been channelled into the standard Castille vs Catalonia malice, with a total tally of eleven yellow cards shown by the incredibly competent referee, Mr Antonio Mateu Lahoz. Sheer determination displayed by both teams in tackling and tracking back did not undo the fact that they were struggling offensively, scared to take the risks in the final third and simply not at their best – at least until their backs were truly against the wall.
But there was still one thing that kept me in front of a TV screen long enough to sit through the entire game. A thing – or rather a man. After weeks of slow recovery, Luka Modrić has come back to Real’s lineup – and, as expected, he gave Galacticos a whole new level of quality they urgently needed to face Barcelona. Involved in the game like no other player in Los Blancos’ shirt, the Croatian playmaker has completed 95% of his passes and might’ve been the only player in the visitors’ team that managed to read the game as quickly and effectively as Barca’s midfielders did. Qualitatively, there was no difference between the fully-fit Luka from 2014’s spring and the man who’s just come back to playing after spending four months sidelined with a thigh injury. The thinking was the same, the movements were brilliant, not a shade of hesitation existed when Modrić went down to sweep the tackles – only stamina evaded him a bit, but that’s understandable. Along with Marcelo, he was the star player for the team in white shirts – and, needless to say, he also had to be the one most disappointed with the final result, as his team’s performance took off strongly only to decline, decline and decline into an eventual defeat.
It was, in fact, a game of wasted chances – for both sides. Barcelona’s right wing was leaking in the few opening minutes, leading to couple dangerous runs by Marcelo and producing a massive danger when Ronaldo got at the end of a cross. The angle was narrow and Bravo reacted properly to cover the goal, but a player who’s been holding the Golden Ball for two years straight should’ve done better. He didn’t – and not long after that, Barcelona punished him with a goal for themselves from Jeremy Mathieu. The rollercoaster did not end there: even quicker reverse of karma came in the 30th minute. The Catalans, more dangerous from the set-piece crosses than they ever were, executed two decent corners and after the second one, Pique’s cross from the far post fell to Neymar, who’s been unmarked and onside. Child’s play, one might say: Casillas stood far off from the centre of his goalline, leaving a wide gap for the Brazilian to aim at. But he didn’t. Instead of scoring, he pulled off Robert Pirès, gifting a pass to the goalkeeper. Seconds later, the ball went from Iker to Kroos, from Kroos to Bale, from Bale to Modrić, from Modrić to Benzema and from Benzema, on a backheel, to Ronaldo, who buried it with an improvised shot. Some will say: brilliant. I say: karma’s a bitch indeed.
Madridas were happy to equalize; however, their problem was that it happened as late as in the 31st minute. It was a massive momentum switch; the whole royal team started to pass very confidently, Neymar’s runs were kept well under control, for a while the game could not escape Barcelona’s half as the ball was being quickly intercepted in the middle of the pitch thanks to well-organized pressurizing from the visitors. Sadly for them, there was not much time left on the clock in the first half to capitalize on this. Bale managed to break through to chase a difficult pass played into space, but Pique made an inch-perfect tackle to save the day. It was a class display from the centre-back; after a dip of form in the previous season, he’s looking strong recently, regardless whether it’s Bartra, Mascherano or Mathieu he has to work with. Nevertheless, he’s almost paid the prize for leaving the marking of Bale to Rakitić when Ronaldo’s flick-on landed on the Welshman’s foot and then in Bravo’s net. It was a quite brilliant teamwork from two Real Madrid players, except for the fact that CR7 was millimetres offside at the time the cross was delivered to him. Two minutes later, Cris released his anger by firing a powerful shot saved brilliantly by Bravo; then, Bale missed another opportunity from a corner; then Pique had to do a lot of work again…
…and there was the half-time – the break after which nothing was ever the same again. Unable to escape the pressure in the middle of the pitch, Luis Enrique’s team started to avoid that zone and play down the wings or over the top instead. Coming back to the game with their defence and midfield set up very close together and the forward three far upfront, the home side was settling for a counterattacking style of football one rarely sees from the Catalan side, especially on Camp Nou. It had it’s drawbacks – Benzema almost punished FCB immediately with a close-range shot parried by Bravo – but ultimately, it worked. Two runs from the deep by Neymar and Messi were stopped by Real at the cost of two bookings and they did not seem to be prepared or aware enough to deal with more of that poison. All of a sudden, Dani Alves has found Luis Suárez, providing him with a tremendous long ball. The finish to this move needed to be flawless to succeed; Pepe and Ramos kept chasing Barcelona striker and there was no other support for him in sight. But Luis Suárez is truly something special. His first touch took the ball into the remnants of open space he had left – and then he hit in on his right foot towards the far post. Fantastic. Inspired. Messi-esque, I’d even say.
As for Leo, he’s been seriously unable to find his comfort zone out there. Normally relying on a cooperation with Rakitić and Iniesta based on short passing, he’s been suffering from extra defensive responsibilities his two teammates had to occupy themselves with. Since the play has not been gluing together for either of teams, technical ability or creativity of Barca’s number 10 hardly mattered. Because instead of a brilliant, free-flowing footballing, we’ve seen dives from Cristiano Ronaldo rewarded with a yellow, another dive from Mascherano aimed at providing CR7 with a second booking, a cut on Iniesta’s elbow after a dire clash with Ramos, several expressive dips to the ground by Neymar, Iniesta’s painful kick into Carvajal’s ankle… Even Messi took his part in this awful “show” by clipping Kroos from behind – but it was more a sign of his frustration than an actual challenge and fortunately, no harm was done to the German midfielder. Up until the 70th minute, the second half consisted of approximately 10 fouls per one attempt of goal – not the ratio the world expected from this game; not the type of development that would suit Real either, as they badly needed to find their chance in the final third. This was exactly the moment to go all-out on Barcelona and prove the worthiness of being Champions League winners.
Real has failed. Severely. From the 70th minute onwards, from Messi’s first venomous long shot that missed the goal by few inches, the game was moving only in one direction: towards the visitors’ goal. Neymar, who’s been absolutely dreadful that evening, kept cutting inside on his right foot to create acres of space either by himself, or with the help of the others. Aware of the danger, Carlo Ancelotti has subbed on Raphaël Varane to match the pace of Barca winger, but other adjustments were needed more than this one. As Barcelona kept bringing solid and rested midfielders on in form of Busquets, Xavi and finally, Rafinha, Real’s been missing injured James Rodríguez more and more. There were obviously no viable alternatives for Ancelotti to replace the invisible Isco or exhausted Modrić; rapidly, the middle of the pitch has been taken over by Blaugrana and that was soon translated into pressure in front of Real’s goal. Jesé and Lucas Silva did not help much: late in the game, Neymar missed another good chance and Casillas stopped one-on-one chance from Jordi Alba as well as another powerful shot by Messi. A single, awkward shot from Benzema that was deflected and thus turned out much more dangerous than expected – just not enough for a team that hopes to regain La Liga lead.
Man of the Match, hands down. And no, I’m not talking about Messi or Ramos.
And now, they’re four points down to their rivals. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves: with away games to Sevilla and Atletico still to come, Barcelona is by no means comfortable in their lead. What the do seem comfortable with, though, is the new variety of styles Luis Enrique is providing them with. Adaptation is a new trend in Europe among the strongest teams and Barca are surely quick to catch up with it; just like Bayern, Juventus and PSG, they’re willing to adjust their approach during the game if the usual possession & passing ideas don’t work. If Enrique is so adept at tactical coaching that he can force both Dani Alves and Jordi Alba to perform as the standard full-backs, then the whole variety of his options increases drastically. Los Blancos were unable to cope with that; they have their own problems, including the incompatibility issues of Gareth Bale and a likely two-game slugfest against Los Colchoneros in the Champions League that should further exhaust their players or – God forbid! – create new injury concerns. All of that while the clock is ticking: in seven weeks, we’ll reach a third anniversary of Real Madrid’s last domestic title…