The El Clasico Trilogy - Part 1: The Battle Begins
Jose Mourinho famously once said that the world stops to watch El Clasico. Although El Clasicos seem to have lost some of their fire and fury since the colossal battles between Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola, don’t be fooled, there is a reason this is the greatest sporting spectacle in the world. It feels like forever since we have had the privilege to witness an El Clasico in an official competition outside of La Liga. However, here we are, the footballing gods have blessed the footballing world with three El Clasicos in the next month.
Real Madrid came into this game on improved form. Despite a disappointing season thus far, they have won their last five games. Benzema and Vinicius have been playing very good football recently, as have many of the youngsters that have been injected into the team this season. Real Madrid also have most of their injured players back after a troubling couple of months on the injury front. Barcelona came into the game in hot cup form after dismantling Sevilla 6-1 in the second leg of the previous round to over turn a 2-0 first leg defeat. In the league Barcelona still sit comfortably atop the standings despite a draw against Valencia last weekend. The first El Clasico of the season was won by Barcelona 5-1, giving Barcelona additional confidence coming into this one. It must be noted that Messi did not even play that game.
It was Real Madrid that got off to a dream start by scoring inside the first ten minutes. They came out with confidence and looking to get forward. If it were not for some poor decision making from Vinicius on the break away Madrid could have easily been up two goals early on. However, around the 25th minute Barcelona started to get into the game and looked more and more threatening. They were a little unfortunate to not go into the half tied up after having some great chances, most notably from Malcom, Rakitic and Suarez.
The second half belonged to Barcelona. From the start of the second half they controlled possession and looked the more dangerous side. The equalizer came in the 57th minute from Malcom. Just past the hour mark Messi and Bale were both introduced into the game. As you would expect, Messi was able to get involved immediately. He got plenty of touches of the ball and despite not scoring or creating a goal he asked questions of the Real Madrid defense. However, the same could not be said about Bale. His involvement in the game was sporadic, and when an opportunity fell to his feet to win the game late on he produced a horrendous piece of finishing.
For me personally Malcom was undoubtedly the man of the match. He was a constant threat down the right side, created several chances, won a number of free kicks and as the cherry on the cake he scored the goal. Him and Semedo exposed Marcelo’s defensive vulnerabilities down the right flank. This begs the question if Reguilon should start the return leg instead of Marcelo. Reguilon was introduced into the Real Madrid first team this season and has been very solid both defensively and offensively, playing with great maturity for his age. Him and Marcelo have been sharing the game time relatively evenly in the last few weeks, but whether he is prepared to play in such a big game yet remains to be seen.
I think on the balance of play a draw was a fair result for both teams. The statistics point to the same conclusion as the teams were evenly matched in most categories. The Real Madrid players may be a little disappointed that after scoring so early on they were unable to find a second goal for the remainder of the game. Likewise, the Barcelona players may feel that they could have gotten a second goal in the second half considering the control they exerted. This result certainly gives both teams a chance of advancing and will make for an entertaining return leg.
Both teams have positives that they can take away from this game. A draw away at the Camp Nou is certainly not a bad result for Real Madrid to take into the second leg. Real Madrid also earned some respect back after the annihilation they endured in the previous El Clasico. Vinicius once again showed glimpses of his enormous potential. What stood out to me, more then the performance itself, was his attitude. To have the confidence and bravery he showed at the age of 19 in an El Clasico to run at defenders, take risks and to want to be the focal point of the front line is truly remarkable. Benzema also continued his good form with another solid performance. The two center backs and Navas can also be pleased with their performance. They held Barcelona down to one goal at the Camp Nou and were solid for most of the game which is a big improvement from the many poor defensive performances Real Madrid have had this season against big teams. Navas in particular looked very sharp in everything he did and he made two spectacular saves against Suarez and Malcom.
I think Barcelona will also be pleased with the result. Despite starting off on the back foot and going down early they were able to regain control of the game and be the better team for the majority of the second half. Not allowing Real Madrid to score a second away goal was also crucial. They got superb performances from Malcom and Semedo who aren’t normally amongst Barcelona’s headline performers. Suarez and Coutinho were a little quiet on the night, but if they play better in the second leg they will give themselves a very good chance of advancing. In my opinion Barcelona are still favorites to advance, especially if Messi starts the second leg.
The next battle in the eternal rivalry will take place on February 27th at the glorious Santiago Bernabeu stadium. This will be the second leg and will determine who advances to the Copa Del Rey final to play the winner of Valencia vs Real Betis. The trilogy will close out on March 2nd when the teams meet in La Liga.