Inside Spanish Football’s Jen Evelyn reflects on the importance of last week’s Clásico victory for Barcelona against Real Madrid, indicating the Catalan side are proving they can confront the challenges ahead, with silverware in La Liga, the Copa del Rey and the Champions League all within reach.
By the end of March 2014, Barcelona had beaten Manchester City in the Champions League round of 16 and defeated Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu with a Lionel Messi hat-trick. They were in the quarter-finals of the continent’s top competition, whilst only a point away from Real Madrid and its city rivals Atlético, who lead the league. They had everything left to play for, a Copa del Rey final looming in the horizon, too.
This season, Barcelona have beaten Manchester City in the Champions League round of 16, scoring one goal less than they did in the same fixture last year. They beat Real Madrid in a Clásico that was intense, open and, in fairness, could have gone either way. Just like last year. And just like last year, they have a Cup final to look forward to at the end of the season.
It doesn’t seem like an awful lot has changed, except for the fact that Barcelona now leads the way in La Liga. But it feels like everything is different.
It is fair to say that Barcelona were outplayed in the first half of the Clásico by a quick, aggressive and strong Real Madrid. The game unfolded just like Carlo Ancelotti wanted: it became an end-to-end affair where Barcelona rushed the ball to their forwards and couldn’t get any control of the midfield whatsoever. The Barcelona lines were stretched and far apart as Marcelo, Benzema and Ronaldo wrecked havoc. It could have been 1-3 for the visitors by half-time, but Gerard Piqué, Jeremy Mathieu and Claudio Bravo refused to let that happen.
In many ways, it was a similar story to the first Clásico of the season, which ended in Los Blancos’ 3-1 win. Barcelona scored the opener, Real Madrid equalized via Cristiano Ronaldo and then took control of the game. Both matches were 1-1 at half-time, and after the first 45 minutes, there was a fear in Catalonia that it would all end like it did in the Bernabeu meeting.
But Luis Enrique had learned a lesson and things changed after half-time. Barcelona became more patient with the ball, defended as a unit and used sharp passes to Luis Suárez as timely assets to keep the visitors’ backline on their toes. Unlike in the first Clásico, Barcelona managed to identify the issue, react to it, and finally, make adjustments to turn the momentum around.
When the final whistle blew, there was little doubt about which had been the fitter and more dominant team in the second half.
Barcelona was that by playing far from their sharpest level on Sunday night. Jeremy Mathieu admitted after the match that they had still been tired after the clash against City. They couldn’t play their usual high-tempo game and lost balls easily, allowing Los Blancos to cause panic.
But in realization of the fact that the team didn’t have enough energy for the quick, direct game-plan that requires a lot of running from the front three and the two attacking midfielders – the approach which had brought results against Atlético and Man City – Barcelona changed things in the second half, opting for a calmer approach. Lionel Messi moved towards the central areas when in possession, which gave Barcelona the all-important added passing lane where they needed it the most.
Only a few times did Barcelona go for the long pass forward (one of which resulted in Suárez’s winner) – they rather chose to keep the ball and look for openings. This became even more evident when Sergio Busquets came on to calm things down and dominate proceedings in the center of the field. The return of the Spanish international is undoubtedly a huge boost for Barcelona as they balance on the tightrope between the possession-based Barcelona of the past and the rock ‘n’ roll version we’ve seen this season.
Most importantly, Barcelona showed that they can adapt to the challenges presented by a match against one of the greats. “If we can’t play the way we want to, we have to adapt our style”, Luis Enrique said after the match, proving that perhaps, after all, he’s not as stubborn as some media has claimed him to be. Not to mention, the match was also a proof of the physical fitness of Enrique’s side, who had played a midweek clash in the Champions League but still overran their opponent in the last 20 minutes. One could easily argue that the Barcelona of 2013-14 didn’t have either of these qualities, nor could it score in such variety of ways – certainly not from set pieces.
In the press room, both managers were quick to stress that the Clásico didn’t decide anything. Both were right: Barcelona’s schedule for the upcoming month of April is especially tricky, with matches against Valencia, Sevilla, Espanyol and PSG. But if Barcelona make it through April and are still “alive” in the two big competitions, stopping them might be more difficult than it was last year. To get there, though, they can’t put a foot wrong.
This content was originally published here.