Barcelona concluded a memorable week by beating Real Madrid at Santiago Bernabeu for the second time in four days, following up Wednesday’s 3-0 win in the Copa del Rey by gaining a narrow 1-0 La Liga triumph courtesy of Ivan Rakitic’s cool strike.
The Catalan side remain on track for the treble and can now enjoy a midweek break in high spirits, while Real will prepare for Tuesday’s Champions League meeting with Ajax knowing their whole season will be on the line.
The victory gives Barca a surely decisive lead in the title race, and that is the first of our talking points from the game:
Give Barca the trophy now?
If there was any lingering possibility before the game that Real Madrid might force their way back into the title race, surely all hope for Los Blancos has now been well and truly extinguished.
Barca are now 12 points ahead of their bitter rivals – and you can make that gap effectively 13 points with the head to head advantage decisively secured. Even though 12 games and therefore 36 points are still up for grabs, it’s hard to imagine the league leaders losing four fixtures even if – as looks extremely unlikely – Real are somehow able to win all their remaining games.
So the only challengers are Atletico Madrid, who are now 10 points behind Barca with a game in hand (at Real Sociedad on Sunday). But with a Champions League challenge on their minds, especially with the final taking place at their own stadium, it’s unlikely that Diego Simeone’s men will be able to sustain the consistency needed to really get close to the current leaders.
More or less wrapping up the title gives Ernesto Valverde and his players a glorious opportunity to focus all their efforts on the Champions League, and the boss will surely make wholesale changes for next weekend’s home meeting with Rayo Vallecano, which comes just before the last sixteen second leg against Lyon.
Of course, regaining the European crown will not be easy. But Barca have given themselves a fantastic chance.
Barca take the initiative, but need defence
Unlike the first half of Wednesday’s Copa meeting, when they were largely pushed back into their own half and attacked mainly on the counter-attack, Barca quickly seized the initiative in this encounter and appeared determined to spend as much time as possible in possession and on the front foot.
The return from injury of outstanding passer Arthur certainly helped Barca establish more control in the centre of the pitch, but the real star of the show was Ivan Rakitic. The Croatia star continued his long-standing habit of delivering outstanding in El Clasico with a remarkably smooth and commanding performance, controlling the midfield with impressive authority.
However, Barca were pushed back in the second half and needed a masterful performance from Gerard Pique to maintain a clean sheet – their second at the Bernabeu in four days. Pique was ably supported by the excellent Clement Lenglet, with Marc-Andre ter Stegen looking as safe as houses while Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto defended their flanks with determination.
If the back four can remain this solid, and the forward line add a little more potency and precision, this Barca team will take some stopping – by anyone.
Vinicius stands up to physical challenge
The bright spark of Madrid’s attack during the cup game on Wednesday was undoubtedly Vinicius Junior, whose repeated speedy and skilful bursts down the left wing created all sorts of problems for the visiting back line.
Unsurprisingly, Barca appeared to have made special plans to face the threat of Vinicius on this occasion, starting with the selection of Sergi Roberto ahead of Nelson Semedo in the right-back slot. More than that, however, was the adoption of a straightforward and rather old-fashioned tactic: give him a good kicking.
The Brazilian starlet was fouled three times in the first half, and subjected to several more physical challenges as Barca made sure he was not given space to turn and run with the ball. The ‘rough him up’ approach bore fruit because, although Vinicius made a few sharp bursts, he was far less influential than most of his recent outings.
To the youngster’s great credit, however, he did not hide away from the ball despite the physical buffering he was facing, and became a lot more dangerous as the game started to open up in the second half. He always looked the most likely source of an equaliser and never stopped testing the visiting defence, in stark contrast to fellow winger Gareth Bale who appeared to be going through the motions before being replaced.
Vinicius will have better days and his finishing clearly needs work, but the attitude he showed to keep pushing hard in adversity shows he has the right character to go far.
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