The Big Match: Real Madrid-Barcelona

It was one of the most important El Clasico matches one could remember. The winner would undoubtedly hold a major advantage in claiming the title with only 7 matches remaining. So when Real Madrid and Barcelona battled at the Bernabeu on Saturday evening it was all set up for another classic confrontation.

 

In the end what we saw probably wouldn’t reach classic status yet it was an enthralling fixture complete with some back and forth football and no shortage of intensity and desire from the combatants in question.

Xavi's Brilliance Led Barcelona To Victory

 

Real came out of the blocks quickly perhaps to no surprise. After last season’s 6-2 embarrassment at home to Pep Guardiola’s side, the Madridistas surely wanted to exact some revenge especially in a match of such importance. And let’s be honest, in the opening exchanges it was Manuel Pellegrini’s side who looked a bit more composed and dangerous in and around goal.

Pellegrini issued instructions for his players to remain compact at the back and when Barcelona were in possession they had two separate walls of white shirts to look at. Unlike Arsenal, Real were in no mood to give the likes of Lionel Messi room in which to receive the ball, turn and run at their backline. The plan was to deny service to the Argentine magician and it seemed to work for a while.

Meanwhile, Madrid were looking to exploit one of Barcelona’s biggest weaknesses which is a rearguard that lacks much pace. Once Real would steal the ball there was an immediate intent to release Cristiano Ronaldo and score on the counter. It was in this type of fashion that Real threatened on a couple of occasions where either poor decision-making in the final third or good defensive work by Barcelona’s defense denied them an opener.

As the first half wore on, Barcelona finally began to keep possession a little bit better as Xavi started to really pull the strings in midfield. One question that had to be asked even before the result was known was where was Lassana Diarra? Surely this sort of ball winner and midfield force would have been useful against the likes of Xavi. However, Pellegrini opted for a midfield tandem of Xabi Alonso and Fernando Gago.

Messi broke free down the right less than 15 minutes into the match and made his way into the box, though he slipped at the crucial moment when trying to cut the ball back from the endline. That was Barca’s best chance of the half until their opener on 33 minutes.

Messi was obstructed by the erratic Sergio Ramos. The Catalan side played the free-kick quickly and Xavi chipped in a delightful ball for Messi to first chest down and then roll past Iker Casillas, 1-0 to the visitors, cue badge showing by Messi to the disappointed Bernabeu. The goal oozed of pure class, the orchestrator and the soloist of this superb side combining yet again.

Real’s only response to the goal were a couple half chances, the best which had Gonzalo Higuain blast over from a wide position. Halftime was upon us and the first half was a breathless affair though not exactly a showcase of breathtaking football, not a surprise perhaps considering what was at stake.

The second half began and whatever Pellegrini’s team talk consisted of it didn’t have the desired effect as Barcelona really looked like the side most likely to score again. And they did just that on 53 minutes. Man of the match Xavi gave a perfect through ball to the onrushing Pedro and the youngster capped his fine display with a composed finish that made it 2-0. Barcelona were in full control now.

The home crowd would have been buoyed by Real’s good response as finally it appeared to awaken the side and provide the sense of urgency lacking from their performance. Ronaldo, Rafael Van der Vaart and Higuain all went close, but Victor Valdes denied those chances with some solid goalkeeping. Prone to the occasional blunder or soft goal, Valdes is nonetheless a competent netminder who is as underrated as they come.

After the goal, Barcelona were actually below average in holding onto the ball and continually gave away possession, but though Real  came close on a couple occasions as mentioned, one had the sense that they just were not going to score. The introductions of Guti and Raul after the second goal had a positive influence on the team, with Guti in particular delivering a couple of fantastic passes, however besides his contribution Real looked short of ideas. Ronaldo on the left appeared tired and perhaps feeling the effects of a first-half knock. He looked ominous with the ball in the first stanza, but seemed to lack a clear head in the second as fatigue and frustration set in.

Barcelona looked comfortable even if they didn’t reach their usual heights and Xavi and Messi nearly combined to make it 3-0 a couple more times.

Towards the end Real seemed to accept their fate and Barcelona’s players celebrated their fourth straight El Clasico victory and more importantly a result that put them three points clear at the top of La Liga. Also holding the tiebreaker over Real now thanks to the better head-to-head record it’s surely Barcelona’s title to lose at this point.

THE GOOD: Xavi’s passing and influence. Messi’s moment of brilliance for the first goal. Marcelo and Ronaldo looked good going forward in the first half. Gerard Pique and Gabriel Milito looked good at the back and you had to feel for the latter when he went off, hopefully his injury is minor after being out so long.

THE BAD: Madrid’s decision-making around goal. Sergio Ramos’ display, it was a wonder how he wasn’t sent off after a few clattering tackles.

REAL MADRID REPORT: After a promising start, Real began to fade fast. Pellegrini opted to for his side to rely on counter-attacks hoping that speed and power would bring about a goal. Had they scored perhaps it would have been a different match. Questions will be asked of Pellegrini for his decision to leave out an established ball-winner in midfield and truth be told this result could mean Pellegrini’s exit come the end of the season. Now, Real are facing yet another season without a trophy unless Barcelona falter down the stretch.

BARCELONA REPORT: A professional performance from the Blaugrana, which didn’t reach dizzying heights but had enough class to ensure a crucial win. Xavi showed that he must be included in any discussion of the world’s best players, while Messi came through once again scoring his 40th goal of the season (all competitions) which is pretty mind-boggling. Pedro and the entire backline also produced solid performances. Guardiola’s charges are well placed now to win back-to-back domestic and Champions’ League title. Who would bet against them at this stage?

MAN OF THE MATCH: Xavi. Unbelievable vision and passion from this quiet star. A simply superb performance which saw his influence on grand display. Both of his assists were world class and his understanding with Messi means that Barcelona are currently operating at a different level than other sides.

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