On the back of a two-game winless run, which saw Barcelona mauled at the hands of PSG as well as drop points against Cádiz in the Camp Nou, the Catalans recorded a comprehensive 3-0 victory over Elche in the Nou Camp. Thanks to a brace from Lionel Messi and two assists from Martin Braithwaite, third-placed Barça kept up the pressure on their rivals up top.
It was, in many ways, a game of two halves for the hosts. In the opening 45 minutes, they struggled to generate any real chances on goal, and if not for a mistimed effort from Lucas Boyé, they easily could have been a goal down. Overall, a poor showing from the hosts in the first period.
Following a few structural changes from Ronald Koeman, the team’s shape improved and thus too their propensity to win. Elche were far more open defensively than in they were in the first half, and searching for blood, Barcelona took advantage of the slightest of spaces to punish their opponents. Their second-half performance should serve as a confidence boost ahead of their crucial league tie away at Sevilla this weekend.
1. A weary Messi seals all 3 points
Despite having scored a brace and played a large part in the creation of the third goal, Lionel Messi was far from his usual best for a large chunk of the match. Either due to a lack of motivation or fatigue due to the tight fixture schedule, his passing was off, and he lost plenty more balls than he usually would.
Following Ronald Koeman’s tactical adjustments, most notably with the entry of Ousmane Dembélé following Miralem Pjanić’s exit, the Argentine was a far more liberated figure in attack. By partnering up with Martin Braithwaite centrally, he became much more involved in play as he had all of zone 14 to himself.
Two minutes after the restart, he opened, scoring off a phenomenal backheel assist from the Dane and sealed his brace with a moment of individual brilliance as he slots the ball home past a helpless Badía. As the cherry on the top of the cake, La Pulga played a delightful dink into the Barça number 9, who then set up Jordi Alba for the third and final goal.
Even at 75% capacity, Messi was the best player on the pitch. His presence on the pitch, as always, was invaluable to the side.
2. Pjanić seals his fate
Miralem Pjanić has often been the first to complain about a lack of game-time, perhaps under the impression that there is a supposed conspiracy against him by the Barcelona manager. Offered an opportunity to prove himself against one of them minnows of La Liga, he once again proved to the Dutch manager precisely why he sits out so many games.
His first half was one of his individual worst in a Barcelona shirt, and possibly his most lethargic performance in years too. Tasked with playing in the pivot role, the Bosnian was meant to act as an anchor from which the team could find balance, but rather than give it, he took it away.
Either due to a misplaced pass, poor positioning, slow and poor releases of the ball — or all of the above —, barely anything went right for the 30-year old. Despite having periods in which his influence was helpful, many other actions he made took their toll on the team, and so much so that he had himself withdrawn from the team at the break.
It is rather unfortunate that he played in such a woeful manner, as given the sheer magnitude of Barcelona’s next three or four games, a good performance here could have earned him a spot. He did seal one, though, on the dugouts rather than on the pitch.
3. Back to midfield dominance?
Despite a myriad of problems under Ronald Koeman, the midfield has gradually taken back the importance bestowed upon it by legendary managers from Johan Cruyff through to Pep Guardiola. While Miralem Pjanić was a far cry from what one would call exceptional, his replacement in Sergio Busquets with 30 minutes to go as well as the two interiors in Pedro González and Frenkie de Jong were absolutely sensational.
When it comes to this Pedri, next to anything seems possible. On the night, bar his usual creative duties, the 18-year old was all over the pitch. As an artist with a paintbrush, his actions were skin to streaks of acrylic on a canvas to form the most majestic artwork. He desired to get as involved as he could with as many individuals as possible, also making up for others whenever in need. His pressing game was through the roof, as despite being designated the right halfspace, he was more than open to helping out up forward and out wide too.
As for De Jong, he reverted to his new-usual self. Contrary to the old, more conservative yesteryear version, the Dutch midfielder was a constant threat to the Valencians’ defence through his unmatchable dribbling and in-game awareness. Through his differential dexterity in this particular trade, he attacked the holes that Elche would leave behind, and it was in this was that he quite brilliantly set up Messi for his second of the game. Quite a commendable performance from him.
While nothing more than a cameo performance, Sergio Busquets offered all that Pjanić couldn’t and more. It seems as though he is gradually returning to his former self, with yet another exemplary performance. With him, ball circulation was a notch faster, and with it at his feet, there was a prevalent sense of security that could be sensed with every pass to and from him.
Three talking points from Real Madrid 2-1 Barcelona
In the final edition of El Clásico in the 2020/21 domestic campaign, Barcelona incurred their fifth defeat of the league campaign. It was end-to-end stuff in the Alfredo Di Stefano stadium, as an exceptional first-half performance from the hosts was followed up by a tantalizing second from Barça.
This game had everything someone could ask for in a Clásico. There was controversy, passion, goals and for the first time in a few years, a red card was the cherry on the top. These are Barca Universal’s takeaways from the game in the capital.
Real Madrid’s efficiency on show
With four shots on target, 1.58 Expected Goals, and two goals to their name, Real Madrid put to show their sheer efficacy in front of goal, as well as in defence. For the first half at least, Zinédine Zidane’s men were always at the right place, at the right time making all the right movements and to devastating effect.
Los Blancos‘ philosophy is one of winning, and doing so regardless of how the victory is earned. Contrary to the Catalans, who not only need to win, but also do it a certain way, Los Merengues are more than capable of abandoning their usually proactive approach to games in favour of a more reactive one. The fact that they are not bound to a specific ideology makes winning matches one of the simplest of tasks.
They held the ball for only 32% of the game, which goes completely against what a majority would expect them to. At the end of the day, however, possession matters significantly less than what one does with it. With every lapse in concentration from the Garnet and Blue, Madrid had enough men forward, and well enough positioned, to hit them where it hurt.
Despite the relatively low xG, they had enough big chances to even lead 4-0 come the halftime whistle. When it came to defending, their tight-knit defence, in stark contrast to that of their rivals, barely broke a sweat. They imposed an impenetrable low block, and applied a collective press to force as many errors as they could.
In addition to this, Zidane has the luxury of having a starting eleven of devastatingly versatile footballers in his arsenal. Fede Valverde for instance was as much a right-back as he was a central midfielder and a winger. He executed each role to pristine perfection, and so did his peers to ensure all 3 points, and bragging rights stayed in Madrid.
Excellent mentality shift
Following such a harrowing performance in the first half, few, if any, could have expected Barcelona to mount a comeback. Had this been any other team, that would have been possible, but given Real Madrid’s first-half performance, this was all but envisageable.
Indeed, the Catalans did fail to get any points from the Alfredo Di Stefano stadium, however, the sheer mentality they showed in the second half was a sight for sore eyes. Ronald Koeman made the necessary adjustments to the side, reverting to the 4-3-3 and with it, they wrought trouble in the Madrid backline.
Lionel Messi celebrating the goal. pic.twitter.com/ZX1HzWSqAR— Barça Universal (@BarcaUniversal) April 10, 2021
If in the first half Barça seemed caged in endless cycles of worthless possession, then in the second they made thorough use of it. The Blaugrana created eleven chances for themselves in the second period, and while doing this, they in turn limited Los Blancos to just a single shot on goal for the entirety of the half; a complete turnover from their performance in the opening 45 minutes.
It was nail-biting stuff up until the final second of the game, as Ilaix Moriba’s volleyed effort struck the underside of the crossbar. Given the overall performance from both sides, a draw would have been a considerably fairer result, but even in defeat with this version of Barça, the players and fans know that they can keep their heads held high.
A game of fine margins
Games of the magnitude of El Clásico will forever be decided by the most minute of details and the same was the case here.
The first significant one was the frame of the goal. In the first half, following the umpteenth counter attack from Real Madrid, Fede Valverde, who up until then was having yet another phenomenal showing against Barcelona, struck the frame of the post with a shot that crucially bounced underneath Sergio Busquets.
In the second half, Ronald Araújo nearly scored an own goal, but with Ter Stegen rooted to the spot, the ball rolled delicately onto the post and out for a corner. In the final minute of the match, and with Madrid fighting for their lives, Ilaix Moriba struck the underside of the crossbar to end this sensational tie on an emotional high.
Jordi Alba has often been criticized for being just as much a blessing offensively as he is a curse defensively. In the build-up to the hosts’ opener, he had one task to fulfill: mark his opposing fullback. This is one he absolutely failed, as he drifted too far inside, and by the time he had noticed his error, Lucas Vázquez already had Karim Benzema in his sights. Too little, too late.
The final significant detail was in the goal that won Los Blancos the game. After what many consider a poorly given free-kick from the referee’s standpoint, Toni Kroos surely could not believe his eyes when he saw the sheer state of Barça’s wall. Marc André Ter Stegen’s poor leadership of his defenders left him utterly vulnerable, and his German counterpart spared him no blushes, slotting it home to seal the victory for his side.