Two good, two bad as Lionel Messi stars in Barcelona's 3-0 win over Real Madrid

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Barcelona moved 14 points clear of Real Madrid in LaLiga as three second-half goals wrapped up a convincing 3-0 victory at the Estadio Bernabeu.

Zinedine Zidane’s men had the better of a tight first period but Barcelona took control in the second and Luis Suarez swept home the opener before a Lionel Messi penalty took the game beyond Real.

It was a strange spot-kick award by referee Jose Maria Sanchez Martinez, who could simply have awarded a goal rather than a penalty after Dani Carvajal handled on the line but then knocked the ball in as he lost his footing. The decision also saw Carvajal sent off.

Substitute Aleix Vidal added a third in stoppage time, and the title now looks almost certain to return to the Nou Camp as LaLiga prepares to enter its winter break.

Here’s our two good and two bad performances from the Bernabeu.

TWO GOOD

LIONEL MESSI

A class act.

The Argentine converted a second half penalty for his 17th goal against Real Madrid, more than any other player in La Liga history.

He oozed class throughout the contest and was a vital source of leadership to his side as they curtailed the influence of Ronaldo, Modric and Casemiro.

Looked a composed presence on and off the ball, and will prove critical for Ernesto Valverde’s side as the season progresses.

GERARD PIQUE

The Spaniard was at his menacing best, cutting down the impact of Karim Benzema and delivering a totemic display for the visitors.

He looked a composed and hungry presence, with a pass accuracy of 92.2% and seven key clearances.

In addition, he reduced Benzema to just 29 touches and two shots – the Frenchman’s lowest contribution so far this season.

TWO BAD

KARIM BENZEMA

The inconsistent Frenchman spurned two scoreable chances in the first half that could have put a different reflection on the match.

He had the best opportunity of the opening period when he met Marcelo’s cross with a bullet header that came off the post.

Although he was well marshalled by the impeccable Pique, he was unable to get space or on the ball in dangerous areas to engineer any sort of attacking threat.

He was replaced after 66 minutes for Nacho Fernandez.

DANI CARVAJAL

Although he was one of Real Madrid’s most industrious defenders with 68 touches, the 25-year-old was a villain in some respects.

He received a red-carded for handling the ball inside the box – gifting the visitors a penalty which Messi duly tucked away.

His stats may look glamorous but he was often out of place in his positioning – which offered Jordi Alba the chance to ghost in behind the defence at every opportunity.

Real Madrid v Barcelona - La Liga

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Dominant Barcelona move 14 points clear of Real Madrid in La Liga

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Barcelona moved 14 points clear of Real Madrid in LaLiga as three second-half goals wrapped up a convincing 3-0 victory at the Estadio Bernabeu.

Zinedine Zidane’s men had the better of a tight first period but Barcelona took control in the second and Luis Suarez swept home the opener before a Lionel Messi penalty took the game beyond Real.

It was a strange spot-kick award by referee Jose Maria Sanchez Martinez, who could simply have awarded a goal rather than a penalty after Dani Carvajal handled on the line but then knocked the ball in as he lost his footing. The decision also saw Carvajal sent off.

Substitute Aleix Vidal added a third in stoppage time, and the title now looks almost certain to return to the Nou Camp as LaLiga prepares to enter its winter break.

Cristiano Ronaldo headed in off the underside of the bar for Real in the second minute but it was rightly disallowed for offside, as the hosts made a bright start.

The Portugal star then swung and missed at a low centre from Toni Kroos, with Andres Iniesta just getting to the loose ball ahead of the onrushing Carvajal to concede a corner.

Real were dominating possession and Messi dropped deeper and deeper in a bid to influence the game as the inclusion of Mateo Kovacic in Real’s midfield looked a masterstroke.

Messi almost created the opener on the half-hour mark as his angled pass picked out Paulinho’s run from deep but the Brazilian midfielder hooked his shot over.

Seconds later Barca goalkeeper Marc-Andre Ter Stegen stuck out a foot to divert a Ronaldo shot wide after the Portuguese cut in from the left.

Real goalkeeper Keylor Navas got down well to keep out a glancing Paulinho header five minutes before the break, and then Karim Benzema’s headed effort clipped the post after he got to Marcelo’s centre before defender Thomas Vermaelen.

Barcelona saw more of the ball in the early stages of the second half and took the lead in the 54th minute when Ivan Rakitic broke forward, spread the play right to Sergi Roberto and his low cross was side-footed home by Suarez.

Real’s frustration began to grow as Sergio Ramos was booked for a foul on Suarez, and Barca added a second in bizarre circumstances in the 64th minute.

Suarez had a shot blocked by Navas and then hit the post before Carvajal was sent off for a deliberate handball.

It was a controversial call to award the penalty and send the full-back off as the ball ended up in the net mere seconds later, but Messi’s confident penalty made sure there were no further recriminations.

Gareth Bale and Marco Asensio were brought on in a bid to give Real more cutting edge, and Ter Stegen reacted well to keep out a shot from the Welshman.

The Germany goalkeeper also made an impressive near-post block on a Ramos effort as Barca held firm at the back, and there was still time for a third after Vidal’s shot squirmed under Navas after good work from Messi on the right flank.

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Casemiro vs Lionel Messi and other key battles that could decide El Clasico

Andy West 23/12/2017
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League leaders Barcelona will visit the Santiago Bernabeu on Saturday, to face rivals Real Madrid.

And while a win for the Catalans will take the league title further away from Zinedine Zidane‘s men, a few key battles might decide the outcome of the pre-Christmas clash.

Carvajal vs Alba

It might seem rather odd to highlight two full-backs as a major key to the game’s tactical battle, but Spain international teammates Dani Carvajal and Jordi Alba are fundamental to their respective team’s attacking plans.

Alba, in particular, has become exceptionally important for Barcelona since the departure of Neymar, literally filling the void left by the Brazilian’s absence to become a major attacking presence down the left-hand side, being credited with five assists so far this season.

Alba possesses a great understanding with Lionel Messi, whose angled passes into the runs of the speedy full-back have been a highlight of the campaign so far.

Directly up against Alba will be Carvajal, whose similarly impressive athletic abilities allow him to cover the entire flank both in attack and defence, especially if Zidane persists with the narrow midfield diamond he has favoured in recent weeks.

However, the surging runs of Alba may force Carvajal into a more defensive approach than usual, and the battle between these two international colleagues will be very important to the outcome.

Carvajal vs Alba

Casemiro vs Messi

It’s stating the obvious that Messi has the central role in Barca’s creative play, but this season in particular he has become even more important than ever, filling two roles at once as a fairly conservative team’s main playmaker and chief goalscorer.

Under new coach Ernesto Valverde, Messi has now abandoned the right-wing role he occupied during Luis Enrique’s reign, instead being given a free hand to roam wherever he sees fit in a 4-4-1-1 formation.

Perhaps more than ever, he is dropping deep into midfield to spark attacks before then bursting into the box to finish them off, and the man who will have to stop him is Casemiro, Real’s physical and positionally disciplined enforcer in the centre of the pitch.

Casemiro is an outstanding defensive presence and certainly has the ability to shackle Messi, but he has a tendency for rash lunges and must be careful to avoid conceding needless free-kicks in and around the penalty area – especially if Messi can coax him into picking up a yellow card early on.

Casemiro vs Messi

Ronaldo vs Vermaelen

Barcelona fans were concerned to say the least when defensive rock Samuel Umtiti went down injured earlier this month, especially with Javier Mascherano also sidelined. Those absences left Thomas Vermaelen as Valverde’s only option to partner Gerard Pique, and it was feared the Belgian would be badly exposed as he made his first Barca appearances for nearly two years.

Vermaelen, however, has been excellent during his four games in the team, looking comfortable and assured, with no signs of the rustiness or hesitancy you might expect from a man with so little football under his belt in the last couple of years.

This weekend he has one of the most challenging opponents any central defender could face: Cristiano Ronaldo.

The Portuguese star is back in form after a slow start to the season, scoring eight goals in his last seven games, and it can be taken for granted he will have at least half a dozen attempts on goal.

Vermaelen’s task is to ensure those chances are as difficult as possible – as they would say in basketball, he has to prevent Ronaldo from getting ‘good looks’. If he succeeds, Barca will be well on their way to another clean sheet.

Ronaldo vs Vermaelen

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