Zidane rewards hard work, and is the league title back on? 4 things from Barcelona 1-2 Real Madrid
1. Luis Enrique mixes it up
The 10-point advantage Barcelona held over Real Madrid before kick-off meant it was always going to be tempting for Luis Enrique to test out alterations he normally wouldn’t consider in this fixture, and the Asturian seized his chance by tinkering with the positioning of his players.
The manager’s changes started at the back. For the first hour or so Jordi Alba was evidently instructed to be more reserved in his movement than normal, the Catalan avoiding his usual forays forward and instead leaving Neymar and Andres Iniesta to take turns stretching play on the left flank. Further forward, Lionel Messi didn’t take up his habitual starting position on the right wing, but was tucked firmly inside, operating as a floating midfielder, sometimes dropping deep alongside Sergio Busquets, and on other occasions pushing up into the hole. Luis Suarez ran the full length of the line, varying his movement between pinning the opposition centre-backs and drifting out to the right, where Messi would normally be.
In the first 20 minutes or so Barça seemed to have Madrid flummoxed: their numerical superiority in the middle of the pitch was clear, Messi helping to provide an extra passing option for whomever needed it, and the away team struggling to filter through meaningful passes to launch counter-attacks. As the match progressed however Zidane’s side looked more and more comfortable, and Barça’s left side became their Achilles Heel, Gareth Bale having much success in Jordi Alba’s zone.
The home team ultimately lost control of the game, and while there were phases of play in which Messi’s central positioning helped Barça to dominate the middle of the pitch, having him further away from the opposition area reduced his goal threat, which is never a positive outcome. Playing the No.10 on the right still looks like a much more profitable option for the treble holders.
2. Casemiro proves his worth
...and Zidane proves he’ll reward hard work.
Much was made of Rafa Benitez’s decision to drop Casemiro before the last Clasico, and when Zinedine Zidane decided to give the Brazilian the chance at the Camp Nou that his previous coach wouldn’t, the player knew he could prove a point. The midfield pivot rose to the occasion, making a clear difference to Madrid’s structural solidity by popping up with a number of big interventions to seize the ball from Neymar, Lionel Messi and Iniesta and prevent his team from being exposed on the break. It doesn’t take a genius to make the connection between playing with a natural defensive midfielder and having more defensive solidity, but it’s a different thing putting it in practice, and the 24-year-old shone.
Zidane hailed Casemiro’s role in the win as “vital”, and the pivot’s encouraging performance will have strengthened his manager’s hand when it comes to resisting Florentino Perez’s pressure to only field the stars. The Frenchman is clearly open to rewarding hard work when it counts: he further proved that by bringing on Jese and Luas Vazquez while Isco and James Rodriguez stewed on the bench. Zizou’s goal that won La Novena at Hampden over a decade ago made him the ultimate Galactico, yet ironically enough, the ultimate Galactico seems to be the one coach who finally has enough clout to run a true meritocracy at Madrid, not picking his team on Saturday based on their price tag, but on their suitability. Long may it last.
3. Pique more like Puyol with every game
Gerard Pique has undergone quite the transformation in the last year and a half, fighting back from a couple of seasons of poor form and heavy criticism to become Barca’s most important defender, proving plenty of doubters wrong by not only matching but improving upon his younger breakthrough years.
In El Clasico, Pique’s vital role in Barça’s defence was clear once more. In the first half he exuded calm, regularly frustrating Cristiano Ronaldo with his reading of play, and when Madrid’s attackers started to break through more often after the break, he stepped up to deliver a number of impressive recovery tackles on both the Portuguese and Karim Benzema.
It was also Pique who initially put Barça ahead, a powerful header after shrugging Pepe off one that was very much reminiscent of his old defensive mentor Carles Puyol. In the past, comparing the two Barça academy products would have seemed ludicrous, so different were their characters and approach. Yet quietly, the younger of the two has started to fill the vacuum that the club legend’s retirement left, not only in his authoritative defending, but in the fighting spirit he brings to his team.
4. Hay Liga?
Winning at the Camp Nou and ending Barcelona’s 39 game unbeaten streak is clearly a huge boost for Zidane’s Madrid, but with a seven-point distance that is effectively eight due to head-to-head left to make up, it is still highly unlikely that they will turn things around and lift the league trophy in May. Their battle is elsewhere, in Europe.
That doesn’t mean this result hasn’t impacted the title race though. Atletico are now six points plus head-to-head behind FCB, and while that is evidently a significant gap to close, it is gives the Colchoneros enough of an outside chance to create some much-needed tension in the final weeks of the season.
Barça have a kind run-in between now and May 15, but with Atletico looking confident and high-quality when they thumped Real Betis 5-1 earlier on Saturday, Diego Simeone’s team clearly aren’t going to make things easy for Luis Enrique while they still have a fighting shot. Hay Liga – “Is the league on?”, the Spanish papers will ask. Probably not, or at least, not yet, but if Barça needed a wake-up call, they’ve had it. It will be intriguing to see their response.