Real Madrid 0-1 Barcelona: Gerard Pique outshines Lionel Messi and Co. for Catalans

Andy West 3/03/2019
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Ivan Rakitic was the match-winner as Barcelona surely wrapped up another La Liga title with a 1-0 away victory over lacklustre Real Madrid.

The Croatia midfielder kept his composure to beat Thibaut Courtois after a smart one-two with Sergi Roberto split the host defence at Santiago Bernabeu.

Frenchman Karim Benzema and Raphael Varane threatened at the other end, but Los Blancos offered little in the way of stopping the champions from going 10 points clear.

Here are the Barca player ratings:

BARCELONA (4-3-3)

Marc-Andre ter Stegen 7: Carefully watched dangerous strikes from Kroos and Vinicius, and sparked several attacks with fine distribution.

Sergi Roberto 7: Lovely through ball for Rakitic’s opener and did a decent job against Vinicius, also using the ball well.

Gerard Pique 10: Truly magnificent in the centre of defence, providing a textbook display with a series of blocks, tackles and interceptions.

Clement Lenglet 9: Made important blocks on shots by Varane and Vinicius, and was dogged, disciplined and tenacious throughout.

Jordi Alba 7: Did a good job shackling Bale and was enterprising coming forward, but lacked precision with his delivery into the box.

Ivan Rakitic 8: Opened the scoring with a beauty and that capped an outstanding display, also featuring defensive diligence.

Sergio Busquets 6:  Made a big early error and didn’t always look secure, but held his nerve to support the back four well.

Arthur 7: Back from injury and initially struggled to reach the pace of the game but soon settled and gave Barca control.

Lionel Messi 6: Came close with an early chip but was often imprecise with possession. Enraged by a challenge from Ramos.

Luis Suarez 6: Tested Courtois with a left-footed strike. A nuisance with his tireless running but lots of clumsy touches.

Ousmane Dembele 5: Always an outlet on the break and got into dangerous positions, but decision-making was often poor.

SUBSTITUTES

Arturo Vidal 7: Replaced the exhausted Arthur for the last 20 minutes and did an impressive job winning the ball in midfield.

Philippe Coutinho N/A: Came on for Dembele in the latter stages and had some decent touches but nothing decisive.

Nelson Semedo N/A: Introduced during stoppage time to shore up the Barca defence.

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Rafinha believes Barcelona are complete and react well to decisive moments

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Rafinha Alcantara

Barcelona midfielder Rafinha believes the team is complete and reacting to decisive moments very well.

The Brazilian has sat out the majority of the season due to injury, making just eight appearances in all competitions.

The 24-year-old admitted to an increase in the intensity and tiredness which usually occurs at this point of the season.

“I see a great team,” the Brazilian said to Radio MARCA.

“When January and February arrive, you notice the fatigue because it is normal.

“When important matches come, there is motivation and less tiredness.

“I see a complete team and [Barcelona] react to decisive moments.”

Rafinha also had some positive words for Brazil team-mate Philippe Coutinho, who has been enduring a tough time at Camp Nou in recent months.

“He is very good,” he added.

“When it seems that things are not going to plan, he is criticised. He is contributing and helping the team.

“At one end he is asked for goals, but what he gives and how he fits, we see that he helps us in an extraordinary way.

“He’s cheap for his quality.”

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Dembele's brilliance means it isn't all about Messi anymore for Barcelona

Andy West 1/03/2019
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Ousmane Dembele.

Lionel Messi, despite being probably the greatest player in the history of football, cannot do everything on his own.

That’s quite a consoling idea, reminding us that – however much we like to focus on individuals – football is a team sport and even the Greatest Of All Time can’t achieve much on his own.

It’s also true. If you don’t believe it, just look at the way Messi’s greatest triumphs came when he was the central part in a smoothly functioning collective which also allowed others to take a prominent role.

In the Champions League victories he has gained with Barcelona, for example, he received an enormous amount of help from (among many others) Thierry Henry and Samuel Eto’o in 2009, Xavi and Andres Iniesta in 2011, and Luis Suarez and Neymar in 2015.

Conversely, on the occasions where the quality of individuals or the general team structure have not been strong enough – such as Barca’s season under Tata Martino in 2013/14, the last couple of Champions League failures and with Argentina always – even the presence of Messi has not been enough to overcome those collective shortcomings.

Last season, for example, Barca were unable to withstand Roma’s spirited comeback in the second leg of the Champions League quarter-final partly, it seems, through fatigue, and partly through complacency. But partly also because they were too predictable, too reliant upon Messi to rescue them. And when he couldn’t, there was nobody else to step up.

This year’s Barca vintage, however, is a different matter, and Wednesday’s Copa del Rey victory at Real Madrid showed that one very important new element has been added to the mix. And his name is Ousmane Dembele.

Barca did not play particularly well at the Bernabeu, especially in the first half when they were repeatedly opened up by the home side. They only reached the half-time interval with the deadlock still intact thanks to a helpful combination of wayward finishing and desperate last-ditch blocks and saves, having offered next to nothing going forward.

In the same situation 12 months ago, Barca would have been forced to hope that Messi came up with something special or that a defensive mistake gifted them a goal (as happened, for example, in the Champions League last 16 first leg at Chelsea). If neither of those things happened, they probably wouldn’t have been able to overcome top-class opposition.

But 12 months ago they were unable to consistently call upon the services of Dembele, who was suffering a tough first season at the club as he struggled to find fitness after a lengthy injury absence and also needed time to adapt to the style of the team.

Now, however, Dembele has made that adaptation and he is ready to provide the missing ingredient. Wednesday’s game showed exactly why as he created the first two goals, using his pace to burst clear of the Real defence and then delivering pinpoint crosses for Luis Suarez to convert (Raphael Varane got in the way of the second to put the ball over his own line, but that hardly mattered). Suarez grabbed the headlines, but Dembele changed the game.

Messi was kept quiet by Real Madrid.

Messi was kept quiet by Real Madrid.

Strangely, the best thing about the victory at the Bernabeu from Barca’s point of view is that Messi had a notably quiet game, not making a direct contribution to any of his team’s three goals and failing to muster a single shot on target.

In some Barca teams, that would have made all the difference between winning and losing. But not with Dembele, because he provides something the team otherwise lacks: raw speed. The Frenchman’s velocity allows the team to launch counter-attacks, and allows him to decisively penetrate defences in a way that Messi and Suarez, for all their obvious qualities, simply cannot.

Of course, Dembele needs his teammates too, and the fact that Messi was demanding so much attention from Madrid’s backline on Wednesday night – forcing him into such a quiet game – created space for Dembele to exploit.

On other occasions, perhaps it will be the other way around, with the potential of Dembele to wreak havoc opening up more room for Messi to strut his stuff or link up with Suarez.

Whichever way it works, though, Dembele’s flourishing this season has added a new dimension to his team’s attack. As Wednesday night’s win at arch rivals Real Madrid showed, now they can win even without a decisive contribution from Messi.

That is not enough, of course, to guarantee they will finish the season as European champions. But it makes that outcome much more likely.

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