It was not easy, but substitute Iván Rakitić gave Barça a critical second-half win. A match review of the Barcelona 1–0 Athletic Club de Bilbao.
As the referee blew the whistle, it was relief for Barcelona. Or, maybe, the relief had come in the 71st minute, when Iván Rakitić broke the deadlock only six minutes after coming on. Or even the relief could have arrived in the 55th minute, when manager Quique Setién decided to introduce La Masía midfield prospect Riqui Puig. At long last, all culés thought. The time had been long overdue for him to get more than some miserable ten or twenty minutes of action in a substantial La Liga game. But, in a crucial clash and with the game tied at nil-nil, Riqui was subbed on and his impact was immediate.
Fans had been calling for him to be brought in much earlier. Mostly, after a dull first half in which the ball circulation had been sluggish and there had been a worrying inability to intimidate Unai Simón’s goal. With Luis Suárez and Antoine Griezmann partnering up with Lionel Messi upfront, the lack of threat out wide was obvious. And this, considering Athletic Club’s dense central organisation, possibly was not a good option for the blaugranas. For Griezmann, what will never change is his desire to work. But, unfortunately, what doesn’t seem to change either is him making interesting off-ball movements but never being found by his teammates despite being in a more advantageous position than them on many occasions.
Luis Suárez, on the other hand, got another start after completing the full 90 minutes against Sevilla, but maybe rest was more needed for the Uruguayan after a long period of time injured. From midfield, the battle seemed to be between veteran and ever-present Sergio Busquets and Athletic Club’s gem Oihan Sancet. Long legs but a lot of quality in their boots. However, by Busquets’ side, the interiors seemed to be contributing very little to the overall play. Arthur Melo, more and more linked with an exit to Juventus, failed to be consistently relevant in what should have been a vital start for him. Meanwhile, the always energetic Arturo Vidal struggled when pressed by Athletic, and his arrivals into the opposing box no longer were as threatening and constant.
Athletic Club seemed to have Barcelona under control in the first half | Photo by Eric Alonso via Getty Images
With another goalless draw on the scoreboard, it did not look for Barça at the break. The three points were desperately needed after losing the top spot to Real Madrid in the weekend. Something needed to change. For many, the changes were obvious: youth. Despite the high relevance of such duel, sometimes the youngsters can provide the needed spark of imagination. Nevertheless, Quique Setién decided to change nothing at half-time. Instead, he chose to wait for the minutes to go by. Ten later, in the 55th, it was time for Riqui to come on.
Aggressive on and off the ball, proactive, intentional, lively. The positivity, verticality, clarity, vision, technique and situational awareness from Riqui Puig was a breath of fresh air for Barcelona. The rhythm completely changed with him on the field. No longer lethargic, the locals became far more dynamic and purposeful. That said, the team continued to search for the goal, and that’s why Ansu Fati and Iván Rakitić replaced Antoine Griezmann and Sergio Busquets soon after. Their presence, again, was extremely noticeable since the first minute they were subbed on. Ansu enjoyed a big chance at first, but it was Rakitić who, keeping with his extraordinary form after the coronavirus break, found the net.
“We are very happy. The progress is there, but there are always things to improve. What we have to do now is win everything until the end of season”
Acting as the pivot, he awarded himself the freedom to go forward, press, help in recovering the ball and then receive a delicate pass from Lionel Messi to strike the ball past Unai Simón. Relief. Barça couldn’t drop more points, but, thankfully, they didn’t. The Catalans shouldn’t be happy with their performance at all, in spite of a fifth consecutive clean sheet. Even so, wins seem to be what matter the most in this stage of the season, and some lessons can be learned from such fixtures too. Using youth never is a bad option. And substitutes can indeed win you leagues.
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.