Real Madrid triumphed 2-0 against Barcelona in last night’s potentially title-deciding El Clasico encounter, with goals from Vinicius Jr and Mariano Diaz the difference between the two Spanish giants in a pulsating encounter.
Despite the 2-0 scoreline, this was anything but a straightforward victory for Los Blancos, especially after Barcelona dominated proceedings in the first half. Should a few guilt-edged chances that were missed by Antoine Griezmann, Lionel Messi and Gerard Pique have been taken, the game could have gone a very different way and Barcelona would have a fairly assured stroll to another La Liga title. Rather, there were a few intertwining individual storylines that have shaped the narrative that sees Real Madrid reclaim their spot at the top of the table.
Vinicius: A new hero for a new generation
Vinicius Jr became the youngest player since Lionel Messi himself to score in a Clasico in the 21st Century and is also the first player born in the 21st Century to score in this fixture. He has so frequently been criticized for his lack of a final product, and on Sunday night it appeared it would be a repeat of that story line, where the young Brazilian terrorized the opposing defence all night but couldn’t find a way to get the ball into the back of the net. He only managed to get two shots on target all night, but fortune favoured him after his 71st minute shot, fired straight at Marc-Andre Ter Stegen, took a deflection off Gerard Pique to take it away from the German goalkeeper and open the scoring. Yet, with 12 dribbles attempted and four won, fortune favoured the brave on the night and Vinicius genuinely seemed to take the game by the scruff of the neck to vindicate himself and prove that he has what it takes to show up on the big nights.
A mainstay in Real Madrid’s lineup for more than a decade, Marcelo will go down in history as one of the best left-backs to play the game. However, this season, the Brazilian has faced criticism for his lack of defensive ability and has subsequently fallen behind Ferland Mendy in the pecking order for the position in Zinedine Zidane’s starting lineup. However, the French coach decided to stick with one of his most trustworthy servants to do the job on Sunday and Marcelo did just that. He made the position his own again, with all of the attacking flair, ball-paying and sizzling crosses that fans have become accustomed to over the years, but also through crunching tackles and excellent reading of the game. His big moment in the game, however, was his last ditch tackle on Lionel Messi who was through on goal and would inevitably have equalized if not for Marcelo. The 31-year-old celebrated this moment as if it were a goal and in that moment you could see what getting back to his best meant to him. One wonders what Zidane will decide to do with the left-back position going forward…
Kroos the Grandmaster General
Questions must be asked about Zinedine Zidane’s decision not to play Toni Kroos in the 2-1 Champion’s League loss against Manchester City on Wednesday, and perhaps the French coach’s prioritization of the La Liga title may be the answer. Either way, Kroos was very much in charge of the chessboard and tactical setup of Zidane’s team on the night and he showed exactly what his teammates were missing against Pep Guardiola’s team four nights prior. There was something iconic about Kroos’ waving of his hands directing Vinicius to break away and then playing the through ball that helped the teenager storm the box for the opening goal. Not only does Kroos offer precision passing, a long-range goal threat, a sublime set-piece delivery and the odd well-timed tackle, but he’s clearly taken up the role of a leader in midfield that drags Real Madrid’s attack kicking and screaming into the positions that allow them to score.
Benzema no longer a talisman
It is a genuine tragedy that Karim Benzema, who had taken the team on his shoulders in the first half of the season, scoring regularly, can no longer be counted on to provide the finishing touches to Real Madrid’s attacking moves. It’s now been six games without scoring for the Frenchman and just like it was when Cristiano Ronaldo was the talisman for his team, Benzema seems to be dropping back more and more and rarely finds himself in goalscoring positions in the box. And when he’s there, he just seems to lack that extra spice, that golden touch or that stroke of fortune that helped him find the net on 13 occasions earlier this season. With that said, he’s still in second place among the highest goal-scorers in La Liga and could make up the five goal lead that Lionel Messi has over him, with the Argentine going through a low-scoring season of his own, by the greatest player in the world’s own lofty standards.
Without Messi, Barca struggle
It must be said that, if Lionel Messi isn’t there to pick up the mantle, Barcelona don’t really have the capacity to win big, tightly contested games like this. It’s becoming more and more apparent that they lack a reliable goalscorer like Luis Suarez to share the burden of scoring goals. Try as he might, Antoine Griezmann has yet to find his goalscoring touch at the Catalan club. So, with Messi missing a couple of gilt-edged chances or completely shut out of the game by the masterful Casemiro in Real Madrid’s midfield, Barcelona and Quique Setien had no answers for Zidane’s carefully organised defensive tactics. If Barcelona are to return to the summit of La Liga or win the Champions League, they must find someone that can help Messi in terms of scoring goals when it matters. To expect the Argentinian genius to come up with the answers in every single game is unsustainable, especially with Messi entering his twilight years.
Alba and Semedo give Barcelona something to smile about
Jordi Alba has made the left-back position his own over the last eight years at Barcelona and they were delighted to have him back in the team after a spell on the sidelines with injury. With a pass success rate of 91%, two successful dribbles, two successful tackles and an aerial duel won, Alba did his job incredibly well, stop all of Madrid’s attacks down the right flank and propping up Barca’s on his left side.
And after years of ordinary performances in the right back position at Barcelona, ever since Dani Alves left the club, Nelson Semedo is starting to show real promise as a new ever-present in the position. He made more tackles on the night than anyone on the pitch, applied pressure on the Real Madrid midfield and was an attacking threat throughout. If not for Vinicius’ heroics, terrorizing him down the left-flank, Semedo may well have had a perfect game. Make no mistake, his performance was contradictory to the optics that show Vinicius the hero, occupying space that Semedo should have had covered.
A story of two goalkeepers
When all is said and done, this Clasico was largely decided by the two men with the gloves and Thibaut Courtois has now become the very first goalkeeper from Real Madrid to keep clean sheets in both league fixtures against their eternal rivals since the 1974/75 season when Johan Cruyff was wearing the blaugrana colours. And it was really the Belgian’s solidity in goal that inspired his team to victory. As the last line of defence, he made crucial saves against Messi and Arthur in the first half, while covering the defensive lines to keep Martin Braithwaite from scoring with his first touches after coming off of the bench. The Belgian was an immovable object that inspired confidence in his teammates, handing them a lifeline during their very few lapses in concentration throughout the game.
And, although Marc-Andre Ter Stegen was twice beaten at his near-post, there was very little he could have done about both goals and he was otherwise solid, once again, for his team. So often has he been the hero for Barcelona this season and it cannot be said that he let his teammates down on the night. One moment that stood out was his diving save to prevent Isco from curling a beautiful shot into the top corner halfway through the second half. In the end, he simply couldn’t withstand the onslaught of attacks that Madrid threw at his goal, but he’ll certainly be able to hold his head high after an otherwise solid performance between the sticks.
Prior to this weekend’s win for Real Madrid, both teams were locked on 72 wins each (and 35 draws) in the all-time head-to-head for El Clasico encounters and it seemed that Barcelona would eventually be the team to pull ahead, having dominated the fixture for the last decade or so. However, once again, Zinedine Zidane has shown his ability as a coach should not be underestimated. Real Madrid are also now the top scorers in La Liga history again, with 6.152 goals to Barcelona’s 6,151 and this might be the moment when we see the scales tip in Los Blancos’ favour for a historical rival that is unmatched around the world. What is for certain, on the other hand, is that the result of last night’s game could be crucial for the title race and Real Madrid and Barcelona’s seasons as a whole.