It was the match of the weekend, one of those occasions on which we all expect to see top players make an extra effort. However, only one team came along. While Barcelona performed in their most solid version, Real Madrid failed to show up. Funnily enough, the Madridista’ display was consistent with what they’ve done so far. “This 5-1 is what we’ve done all season”, said Casemiro in the post-match interview on the sidelines of the pitch, the Camp Nou still packed with fans celebrating Barcelona’s win. Any listener could probably replace “5-1” with the word “crap” and Casemiro’s sentence, already clear, would become an even more eloquent statement.
Derbies and clásicos have the power of turning seasons around for better or for worse, but in this case it was extremely hard to foresee anything different from a Barcelona victory if you had followed both teams’ latest performances. And if, during a very short spell of the match, there was any doubt about the final result, an outstanding Luis Suarez made sure that it would be the case.
The first half was 100% Barcelona. Lionel Messi was indeed missed on certain occasions in which the hosts could not find the right pass in the danger areas, but one has to say that Barcelona’s high press worked wonders with Rafinha occupying the Argentinean’s place. Real Madrid could barely break it, as the poor form of its back four and its midfielders became blatantly obvious. Valverde’s team monopolised ball possession, enjoyed the best chances and punished the visitors time and again through Alba, much faster than Nacho and the star of Barcelona’s most accomplished offensive moves.
The most concerning sign for both Real Madrid’s fans and for Lopetegui’s job stability was how lazily the team tracked back when caught out of position. Yes, more often than not Nacho was slow to react when Barcelona fed Alba in space, but on the opposite side Marcelo could be seen watching those plays from midfield, especially the one that resulted in Barcelona’s first goal, when Coutinho appeared at the far post and enjoyed all the time in the world to finish coolly.
Valverde’s line-up decisions worked well. The team was perfectly positioned, so well in fact that they only allowed Real Madrid a couple of long range efforts during the first half. Although the promising Arthur was below his recent performances and more careless with the ball than he’s been to date, Rafinha, Busquets and Rakitic took care of matters and kept finding Alba and Suarez in spots in which they excel.
2-0 down at halftime and looking like a zombie on the bench, Lopetegui took a couple of good decisions. First, he replaced the apparently injured and again reckless Varane — another silly penalty on his scoresheet — with Lucas Vazquez. Second, he changed the tactical formation by pushing Casemiro to the back with Nacho and Ramos on either side. That way he added an extra man to build plays from the back and improved the team’s chances to beat Barcelona’s press. Vazquez and Marcelo became wingers, with fewer defensive responsibilities which enabled them to threaten Alba and Sergi Roberto, who up to then had enjoyed an extremely pleasant match.
The switch did not generate immediate results. In fact, four minutes into the second half Barcelona showed how risky that approach was and enjoyed a fantastic opportunity on the break in which Suarez plus another four Barcelona players faced just the three Real Madrid centrebacks. Suarez made one of his only two wrong decisions of the match — the second one being a horrendous challenge on Nacho that should have meant a red card — and the play ended up out of bounds, but the telling point was all the remaining seven Real Madrid outfield players watching the whole thing unfold from the distance.
However, Lopetegui’s modifications did work to some extent. One minute later, Lucas found Isco on the right, and the ensuing cross ended up finding Marcelo, who for the first time in his career scored in three consecutive matches. That generated a completely unexpected 10-15 minutes, during which the visitors enjoyed most of the possession and had two glorious chances to draw level, one of them through Modric, who hit the post, and another from the head of Benzema after a cross from Lucas.
Barcelona looked rattled for a while, as though they did not expect the visitors to react — neither did many of us. But they knew they would have their chances to kill the match — “Real Madrid always leave plenty of space at the back”, said Suarez when the game finished, and indeed they knew how to make the most out of it.
In an underappreciated tactical move, Valverde introduced Semedo at right back, which took Sergi Roberto to a more advanced role. The canterano loves a clásico, and started to see more of the ball. It was a question of time until the hosts enjoyed another chance to catch Real Madrid’s three centrebacks with no help, and when that happened, Sergi found Suarez and the Uruguayan forward headed the ball home with a flabbergastingly powerful neck move.
That was the final blow for Real Madrid, and very likely for Lopetegui. After that, there was only one team on the pitch. Suarez got his hat trick, again fed by Sergi Roberto after a calamitous mistake from Sergio Ramos, and the home fans emptied their lungs screaming cruel chants such as “Go coach the national team, Lopetegui”. Barcelona open up a seven-point advantage over Real Madrid after only 10 matches, but the fact is that, it feels more like a 20-point one. Remembering how easily Arturo Vidal scored Barcelona’s fifth, the verdict is clear: Real Madrid look dead. The azulgrana will have to fight Sevilla and Atletico for the title, but it’s extremely hard to imagine Real Madrid mounting a comeback at this point.
It’s hard not to see this match as the result of the summer decisions by both teams. Real Madrid lost an iconic coach and a perhaps even more iconic top scorer, and the replacements have not been up to par. Barcelona’s Valverde is not what the Guardiolistas wanted, but has developed a very solid style of play and a deeper bench than ever. A few decent signings allow the team to play confidently without Leo Messi, something unthinkable since Neymar left. What happened during the summer in Madrid demanded that a few players step up this season to keep Real Madrid relevant, but it hasn’t happened. Messi’s injury has seen Suarez recover his hyperactivity of yore, and even his accuracy in front of the opposition’s goal.
“It’s a very tough hit, but I feel strong and trust the squad”, said Lopetegui after the match. He’s looked neither strong nor trusting of the squad for a good three weeks, but the guiltiest part in all this is the club management, leaking his dismissal a couple of times and changing their mind at the last moment. He’s as good as gone, and the main question is who will accept such a huge challenge in the current context.
While Barcelona celebrated their win over their arch-rival plus the top spot in the standings, elsewhere very few things happened. It felt as though the rest of LaLiga decided to keep a low profile and preferred to keep the noise down. The most attractive match of the remaining nine was Athletic vs Valencia, which ended in a stalemate, and wasn’t one of the entertaining kind. Atletico de Madrid defeated an underwhelming, soft again Real Sociedad, but Diego Costa extended his scoreless streak to 17 LaLiga matches.
Celta’s Iago Aspas scored a hat-trick after sleeping on a hospital couch waiting for his daughter to be born. Betis keep disappointing in the domestic tournament, and lost to Getafe without scoring, probably Setien’s biggest concern. And what hurt them the most was Sevilla, who disposed easily enough of Huesca (2-1), to move to third in the standings. Plucky Alavés stay second, after coming from behind to defeat Villarreal, with the winner in the 93rd minute.
Next weekend normal service resumes. I’ll write the Quiniela with huge expectations to see Valladolid, my grandparents’ team, come to the Bernabeu. They could not have chosen a better time.