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.
The league leaders ran away with a 3-0 victory in midweek as Luis Suarez pounced twice in the second half to make Real pay for their profligacy in front of goal, and now they have the chance to effectively end their bitter rivals’ title challenge by extending the gap between the teams to 12 points.
After already playing against each other as recently as Wednesday, both managers must surely be considering changes this weekend. And the question of whether or not that will happen is the first of our talking points ahead of the action.
Dare the managers make changes?
Logically, this should be an ideal game for respective managers Santi Solari and Ernesto Valverde to freshen up their teams with a series of changes to their starting line-ups.
After an emotionally charged cup semi-final just four days ago, and with the return of the Champions League around the corner – especially for Real, who host Ajax on Tuesday – in normal circumstances we could fully expect to see superstars rested and fringe performers given an opportunity to shine.
But dare either of them do it? Both coaches know that, although Barca’s current nine-point advantage is sizeable, it is by no means insurmountable. A home victory would see Solari’s men cut the gap to six points, sparking fresh hope that their challenge could still be alive with another 12 games still remaining.
Solari certainly wouldn’t want to be condemned by history as the man who simply gave up on Real Madrid’s La Liga title challenge, and neither would he want to be remembered for losing two Bernabeu Clasicos in the space of four days. And Valverde certainly is not the type to take any risks in theoretically his team’s toughest remaining league outing, especially when his team has the luxury of a free midweek. So the rotations probably will be kept to a minimum, and strongest possible XIs will be fielded.
Undroppable Alba risking fatigue
On the subject of strong line-ups, one piece of welcome news for Barca which almost got lost in a busy week was the contract renewal of Jordi Alba, who has agreed a five-year deal with an eye-watering €500 million release clause.
Alba again showed his importance to the team with an excellent performance during Wednesday’s victory at the Bernabeu, including a neat combination with Ousmane Dembele in the build-up to the crucial opening goal.
The significance of Alba’s status within the squad is further enhanced by the fact his position of left-back is the only one lacking a convincing back-up, with youngster Juan Miranda looking out of his depth on the few occasions he has played. So although Alba is among the chief players due a rest, that possibility is sharply reduced by the lack of alternatives, and he has consequently played more minutes in La Liga than any other Barca outfield player except Gerard Pique.
Valverde is a man with a dry and subtle sense of humour, so the irony won’t be lost on him that the one player he most wants to rest is the one that he can’t. It will be a big surprise if Alba isn’t in the starting line-up once again.
Real’s Kroos control threatened?
Toni Kroos has been an unquestioned starter in the centre of midfield ever since he joined Madrid in the summer of 2014, with his smooth-as-silk performances alongside Luka Modric forming the backbone of the team’s style throughout his 200-plus outings for Los Blancos.
A mark of his consistency has been the fact that Kroos has always escaped criticism – until now. The aftermath to Wednesday’s defeat has seen him caught up in two controversies, firstly with the club firing youth team coach Alvaro Benito after he criticised Kroos, Casemiro and Sergio Ramos in his role as a radio pundit on Wednesday night.
Then Kroos received more negativity on the airwaves from former Real midfielder and manager Bernd Schuster, who sniped that his compatriot has turned from an ‘Audi engine’ into a ‘diesel engine’ who ‘jogs around and does nothing’. Kroos didn’t back away from confrontation with Schuster, responding on Twitter with a simple message: ‘Who???’
Kroos’s numbers show he is just as involved as ever, with his league record this season of 82.9 passes per game and completion rate of 93.5 per cent exceeding his career averages. But he is making less impact in the final third, registering only 2 assists so far this season compared to 7, 12 and 10 in the last three campaigns, and has scored only 1 goal in all competitions. So perhaps Schuster has a point? This would be the ideal game for Kroos to prove him wrong.
Real Madrid and Barcelona players are getting set for a second El Clasico in four days at the Santiago Bernabeu as both sides have to quickly move on from Wednesday’s second leg of the Copa del Rey semi-final.
That will be easier said than done for Los Blancos given they were on the wrong end of a 3-0 defeat, while their rivals will be buzzing after that performance.
But Saturday is a new day and a new game, with Madrid needing a win to keep alive their faint La Liga title hopes, as they trail leaders Barca by nine points.
Here’s a look at the key players for Saturday’s encounter.
Vinicius Junior vs Ousmane Dembele
Wednesday’s loss could have gone quite differently if Vinicius Junior had brought his finishing boots. The young Real Madrid star was looking on top form, especially during the first half, and finished the game with six shots – more than the entire Barcelona team. But only two were on target and none found the back of the net.
Former Madrid manager Jorge Valdano pointed out in the aftermath that club legend Raul also had trouble with his finishing early in his career. Given everything else in Vinicius’ armoury, if he can sort out this one flaw, he’ll be lethal. His first chance is on Saturday.
If Vinicius needs a player to model himself after he could do worse than look across the pitch on Saturday and see the man now being touted as the successor to Lionel Messi. Ousmane Dembele had a tough initiation to Barcelona but he, like Vinicius, has individual brilliance that can set him apart.
Unlike the Brazilian, Dembele is a more reliable goalscorer, having managed 13 this season to go along with his five assists. Allying his blinding pace and wizardry on the ball with that sort of end product is what’s drawing the Messi comparisons; he can showcase it all again on Saturday.
Toni Kroos vs Arthur
Toni Kroos had one of his better games of the season on Wednesday despite his side’s loss. His mark of three chances created were joint-most for the game as Vinicius and the same as Barcelona managed as a team.
If that vintage of Kroos shows up again on Saturday, Madrid should fancy their chances. They already know the 3-0 scoreline in Wednesday’s loss was harsh on them, and Kroos’ performance was a definite positive. It should also serve as a sign of hope that they can overcome their fierce rivals for the first time this season.
Arthur made a welcome return from injury on Wednesday and there’s a chance he could be involved from the start in this fixture, having made a late substitute appearance earlier in the week.
It’s a mark of how important a player the 22-year-old has become in just his first season at the club that his team looks more like Barcelona when he’s playing. His passing and movement, similar to Kroos, set the tone in a way that no one else at the club can quite manage.
If he’s dominating the ball, Barcelona are likely to be in good shape for a second Clasico win in four days.
Sergio Reguilon vs Jordi Alba
Coming up against the likes of Messi and Dembele is never an easy task but Real Madrid’s young left-back acquitted himself well on Wednesday, with Sergio Reguilon among a handful of players to emerge with credit from the game.
No one would have expected that the 22-year-old would be the first-choice player at his position for Madrid this season, but Marcelo’s sudden loss of form has provided an opportunity that the Castilla graduate has grasped with both hands.
Saturday provides the opportunity for an encore. He knows what he’s up against and he knows he can handle it: can he do it twice in four days?
Real Madrid may have been forced to ditch their heralded, veteran left-back this season but Barcelona have had no such problems. Jordi Alba keeps chugging along, and it was no surprise that he was awarded a new contract this week – one with a prohibitive €500million release clause.
Though this team is full of attacking talents, no one underestimate’s the Spaniard’s importance, as he is often the crucial player in attack, with his attacking instincts occupying space and defensive attention in a way that allows Messi, Luis Suarez, and co to flourish.
Time for the 29-year-old to show exactly why Barcelona gave him that bumper new contract.