The Santiago Bernabeu was the venue for this season’s first La Liga Clasico, where a victory for Real Madrid would have seen them ascend to the top of the table, while three points for Barcelona would open a significant six point gap between themselves and their oldest foes. The fixture was billed by many pundits to be a cagey, tight affair, however it ended up being anything but. Rafael Benitez has long been lauded for his aptitude at setting a team’s defense up to be difficult to break down, but whether due to managerial oversight or player performance Real Madrid were easily dismantled by a relentless and methodical Barcelona attack. Sometimes these games come down to fine margins and one or two moments can be pointed to when searching for where it all went wrong, but Real Madrid’s problems run deeper than a few superficial oversights – this Clasico requires a slightly lengthier post-mortem.
A question will be asked of Benitez’s starting lineup, which looked to be more about the Bernabeu’s big names rather than in form players. James Rodriguez, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema were all lacking in match sharpness but found themselves in the starting lineup nonetheless. Cristiano Ronaldo rounded out the front four, but his indifferent form of late continued and he failed not only put his name on the score sheet but he painted a frustrated and almost distracted figure throughout the entire match. Had he converted a one on one chance against Claudio Bravo he may have redeemed himself and his team, but brilliant keeping shone a bright light on Ronaldo’s waning level of contribution to a team that has depended on him for so long. That Ronaldo is an unbelievable goal scorer is beyond doubt, but the trend of fitting square pegs into round holes (Gareth Bale as a number 10…?) does not make it any easier for Ronaldo to rediscover his untouchable form of last season.
Further back in the lineup Modric and Toni Kroos were run ragged by Barcelona’s pressing and energetic midfield, not seeing nearly enough of the ball to put their creative abilities to good use. Simply put, from attack to midfield, and midfield to defense, Real Madrid was not at the races. While they have an expensively assembled set of star names that appear invincible on paper, the increasing lack of structure in the team’s play was revealed by the direct opposite that was exhibited by Barcelona’s smooth and practiced display both on and off the ball. In offense the Blaugrana moved the ball quickly and seamlessly into open space, while they doggedly pressed their opposition for the short periods that they were without possession. Their attacking pressure opened up the Madrid backline as early as the 11th minute when La Masia graduate Sergi Roberto teed up Luis Suarez after a quick transition from midfield and the Uruguayan easily finished across Keylor Navas into the far corner.
Although Barcelona did not add to the score line until five minutes before the break they’s set a precedent for the rest of the match, and for the rest of the half the team in white chased at shadows until the lead was doubled in the 39th minute by Neymar. The young Brazilian was played through by a dinked pass from Iniesta, one could make the argument that he was marginally offside, but he didn’t pause to find out. Coming in from the right hand side and drifting into the box he latched onto a through ball that he slid underneath Navas, who managed to get a touch on the finish but couldn’t stop it from rattling into his goal. Madrid went into the break 2-0 down, but resumed play with a little bit more composure about their attack. James Rodriguez called the Barcelona keeper into action a couple of times, but ten minutes after the restart a good setup from Neymar allowed Iniesta to sprint into the box and lash a shot into the roof of the net, effectively ending any hope Madrid had of getting back into the match.
It wasn’t for lack of trying from Madrid though, as the home team grew in attacking threat despite being 3-0 down. Were it not for an exemplary performance from Claudio Bravo in goal Madrid could have scored through numerous efforts from Rodriguez and Ronaldo. They would be left to rue missed opportunities though as Suarez knocked the final nail into the coffin in the 74th minute – prompting the home fans to wave white placards at their dismally misfiring team, an ominous sign. A red card for substitute Isco capped a forgettable evening for the ten time European Champions, and may well be sounding alarm bells for the Madrid higher ups. Fans had doubts about Benitez’s suitability to lead a club as prestigious as Real Madrid to silverware, and his tactical caution combined with Perez’s alleged influence on team selection saw the Spaniard log Madrid’s worst home defeat in the league for several years.
There is a popular belief among the Spanish press that Real Madrid president Florentino Perez has favourites among the squad, and in subtle or not so subtle ways puts pressure on his manager to play those names. Gareth Bale is one of those supposed favourites, and it is Perez’s wish that the team be built around him. Good performances from Galacticos makes them more marketable and accelerates shirt sales and endorsement deals, a tactic that has supported Perez’s business model for the club for some years. However much financial sense it may make to the president though, there seems to be growing discontent among fans and media exponents alike that Perez’s meddling is actively detracting from Real Madrid’s ability to win
silverware. Attempting to meddle with the manager’s better judgment appears to continuously disrupt the team’s results.
The scoreline flatters the Catalan giants though, their front three were in enviable form and Neymar and Suarez did brilliantly without club talisman Lionel Messi beside them, but Madrid did enough to warrant at least a couple of goals. Bravo kept his clean sheet, but on a different night the score could have been significantly closer. Ifs, ands or buts will do little to console Madrid fans though, as it’s clear that they’re in need of something different to shake up a lethargic team. Their squad is in need of a bit of an overhaul, and the laboring questions of whether Ronaldo is finished at the top level or if Gareth Bale has a long-term future at the club still loom large over the Bernabeu. They have an opportunity in midweek to erase the memories of this Clasico in the Champions League, but any success there may serve as little more than a brief reprieve from what may be growing difficulty for the pride of Spain.
A few additions to the squad, a managerial change, Florentino Perez to pack his Galactico bags? Are any of these the solution to a change in fortune for Los Blancos? One thing is certain, winning one La Liga title in seven years is unacceptable for a club of their stature. Chances are changes will come, but they key question is: Where will they be?