Real Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane accepted responsibility for a bruising 3-0 El Clasico defeat on Saturday that left the European champions 14 points adrift of Barcelona at the top of La Liga on Saturday.
However, the Frenchman insisted Madrid will come back stronger in the new year after La Liga’s winter break and refused to concede the league to Barca.
“We are down because it is a defeat that hurts,” said Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane.
“Madrid never give up, whatever happens. It is a difficult moment because we’ve lost by three goals. I could say we don’t deserve it, but that is football.”
Defeat leaves Madrid still down in fourth with Barca now nine points clear of their closest challengers Atletico Madrid.
Zidane took the surprise decision to start Mateo Kovacic for the first time in La Liga this season to try negate the threat of Lionel Messi as the Croatian had so successfully when Real thrashed Barca 5-1 in the Spanish Super Cup on aggregate in August.
However, after Madrid missed a host of first-half chances, Kovacic was powerless to stop Messi wrestling control of the game as the Argentine netted from the penalty spot after Luis Suarez’s opener and then teed up Aleix Vidal for Barca’s third in stoppage time.
“Tomorrow they are going to hammer me, that is football but it won’t change how I think or what I do,” added Zidane.
“I am the coach and I will continue like this as long as I am here.”
Any chance of a Real recovery after Suarez’s opener was dented as Dani Carvajal also saw a red card for punching the ball off the goal line before Messi’s spot-kick.
“The first goal comes from an error by us and the sending-off completely changes the complexion of the game,” added Zidane.
“Playing with 10 men 2-0 down is very difficult both mentally and physically.”
A 3-0 defeat is also Zidane’s heaviest since he took charge of Real nearly two years ago.
However, there didn’t appear to be such a margin between the sides in the first 45 minutes as Madrid dominated.
Cristiano Ronaldo miskicked with the goal at his mercy after just 10 minutes and Karim Benzema hit the post just before half-time.
“They pressed us very high and it forced us to play long,” said Barca boss Ernesto Valverde.
“We couldn’t play as we are used to. It was an open game with no side in command, but in the second-half we managed to impose our control on the game.”
Valverde refused to accept he had tactically outfoxed Zidane and insisted Barca can’t celebrate taking back the title from Madrid just yet with 21 league games still to come.
“Our intention is that no one beats us,” he added when quizzed whether his side, on a 25-game unbeaten run, are capable of dropping enough points to led Madrid back into the title race
“Winning points is extremely difficult and losing them is easy. There is a long way to go.”
However, whilst Messi once again shone, Valverde reserved special praise for Thomas Vermaelen who contributed to another clean sheet in the absence of the injured Samuel Umtiti.
Vermaelen has been much-criticised since joining from Arsenal in 2014 for poor performances and unfortunate history of injuries.
“People ask me a lot about Vermaelen as if it seems something bad is going to happen.
“What I see is a player who trains well, plays, well, is strong and can play with the ball.
“At times in Barcelona we want to put on the bandage before there is a wound.”
Cristiano Ronaldo may have beaten his fierce rival to the Ballon d’Or this year but on the pitch Lionel Messi is dominant as he helps Barcelona streak well clear of Real Madrid in the LaLiga title race.
Messi scored a penalty to reach 17 goals against Real – a league record – but he was not the stand-out performer, while Ronaldo certainly endured another off-day by his usual lofty standards.
Here, Press Association Sport looks at how the two players considered the world’s best fared in El Clasico on Saturday.
Real arguably edged the first half, with Ronaldo and Karim Benzema using the channels well to test Marc-Andre ter Stegen on several occasions. But the Portuguese was out of sorts and an embarrassing air-shot in the 11th minute was symptomatic of his woes in front of goal.
Messi, despite converting a spot-kick to improve his excellent record against Real, was more of a creative force.
PULLING THE STRINGS
With Luis Suarez taking centre-stage with his goal, Messi and Ronaldo were instead occupied with pulling the strings for their team-mates. Messi performed better than his great rival here, too, creating nine chances and providing one assist while Ronaldo set up only one scoring opportunity, which was not taken.
Ronaldo relishes notching in El Clasico as it gives him licence to perform his haughty goal celebration, a leap and half-turn before planting his feet to resemble a classical statue.
Messi likes to keep it more simple, and the enduring image from this showdown was the skilful Argentinian approaching the touchline before opening his arms in a gesture of embrace towards the travelling Barca faithful.
Provided by Press Association Sport
Lionel Messi converted the resultant penalty and set up Aleix Vidal for the third in injury time to give the Catalans a 14-point lead over their rivals.
Here’s a look at three things learned from the encounter.
MESSI POSITIONING CREATED PROBLEMS
Zinedine Zidane decided to sacrifice Isco in order to deploy Mateo Kovacic to help keep tabs on Messi. Many have tried and failed to keep the Argentine quiet though and once again, the Barcelona star used his intelligence to work around Madrid’s strategy.
Despite playing as part of a two-man attack with Suarez, Messi drops into midfield to get on the ball, but on this occasion, he dropped even deeper than usual to shake off the attention from the Croatian and what it did was pull the Madrid midfielder out of position, allowing space for Barcelona to exploit.
That’s precisely what happened in the build up to the first goal. With Casemiro caught up the pitch, Kovacic had shadowed Messi all the way to the halfway line, leaving acres of space through the middle for Ivan Rakitic to run into.
He did just that, spread the ball to Sergi Roberto who then laid it on a plate for Suarez to finish.
ZIDANE TO TURN ATTENTION TO CHAMPIONS LEAGUE
After becoming the first team to secure back-to-back Champions League triumphs last season, Madrid may now have to gun for an unprecedented third straight win if Zidane is to remain in a job come the end of the season.
The bar is set audaciously high at Real Madrid and even though Zidane somehow managed to exceed expectations since taking over, no manager has immunity at the Bernabeu.
Barcelona’s 14-point lead over their rivals appears insurmountable, even though Madrid have a game in hand. It may be time for Zidane to turn his attention to the continental tournament if this season is going to end a success.
TER STEGEN PLAYED A HUGE ROLE
Barcelona scored three goals without reply but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Madrid had their chances, quite a few actually, and it’s a small miracle that they didn’t hit the back of the net – well, other than when Ronaldo headed in from an offside position.
Marc-Andre ter Stegen has been in top form this season and put in a great display again on Saturday. Some of the saves he pulled off were outstanding. He had no right to get his foot to a ferocious low drive from Ronaldo to deflect it wide of the post in the first half.
Gareth Bale came on in the closing stages and tested the German who was up to the task, denying the winger on two separate occasions.
Much has been said about Barcelona as a more compact and disciplined unit this season but Ter Stegen deserves every bit as much credit for their defensive record which is the best in the league.