Barcelona’s record-breaking 39-game unbeaten run came to an end on Saturday evening after goals from Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo gave Real Madrid an arguably deserved 2-1 victory at the Nou Camp.
When the two sides last met in November, Rafael Benitez picked his starting XI based on the reputation, and not the form, of his players, and the results were disastrous. Barcelona totally outplayed an unbelievably disjointed Los Blancos from the first minute to the last at the Bernabeu, and the 4-0 scoreline would’ve been worse had Lionel Messi not started the game on the bench.
Reward for Zidane
Unlike his predecessor, Zinedine Zidane had the balance of his side at the forefront of his team selection and Madrid’s players produced a vastly improved performance. Despite the dismissal of skipper Sergio Ramos in the 83rd minute, Ronaldo struck two minutes later and the ten men held on to hand the 43-year-old Frenchman a win in his first El Clasico as a manager.
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Zidane left big-money signings like James, Isco and Danilo on the bench in favour of more defensive-minded players such as Dani Carvajal and most notably Casemiro. The 24-year-old Brazilian, who had only started 11 league games this season prior to El Clasico, made more tackles than anyone else on the pitch and was labelled man of the match by former Barca forward Thierry Henry after his strong midfield display.
Enrique’s change of formation
Ever since Luis Enrique became Barcelona manager in May 2014, the 45-year-old coach has set up his team in a 4-3-3 formation. In addition to a traditional back four, this constitutes of Sergio Busquets acting as a pivot in central midfield, with both Ivan Rakitic and captain Andres Iniesta either side of him, and a front three of Lionel Messi on the right, Neymar on the left, and Luis Suarez through the middle.
However, for whatever reason, ahead of the Clasico Enrique decided to change the shape of his team and adopted a 4-4-2 formation with a diamond in midfield. Busquets kept his defensive midfield position just in front of the back four at the base of the diamond, Rakitic and Iniesta were positioned slightly wider than usual, while Messi operated at the tip of the diamond, in behind Suarez and Neymar as opposed to alongside them.
What were the effects of Enrique’s decision?
By having an extra body in the central region of the pitch in the form of Messi, Luis Enrique’s men dominated the ball and controlled much of the game, with Real’s main threat coming on the counter attack. The Spanish champions enjoyed 68% possession and made 685 passes compared to 313 by Madrid, more than double.
Benzema was a fairly peripheral figure despite his stunning goal, but Enrique’s tactical switch gave wingers Gareth Bale and Ronaldo a lot of space to work in and offered Madrid’s midfield and defence a genuine outlet to escape Barca’s formidable style of play.
Bale and Ronaldo, who cost Los Blancos just over £165 million between them, provided the main attacking threat for Zidane’s men, who registered twice as many shots on target as Barcelona. The 26-year-old Welshman saw his headed goal harshly ruled out, while Ronaldo, 31, scored his 42nd goal of the season in all competitions (29th in La Liga).
What can Madrid achieve this season?
Many people thought that Real Madrid should view their daunting trip to the Nou Camp as a dress rehearsal for the remainder of their Champions League campaign, as it would give Zidane the chance to see how his players respond to the pressures of a big match.
Despite their victory over Barcelona, arguably the best team in European football at the moment, Zidane’s men are seven points behind the Catalan club with just seven league games to go.
That said, the nature of Madrid’s performance and victory at the weekend will give them great belief that they can beat anyone and therefore they must be considered one of the favourites to win the Champions League.