After a disappointing home draw to Eibar to end 2020, Barcelona had to start 2021 perfectly. Away to Huesca, 20th in the league, Barça had to set the records straight, and win. As expected, Ronald Koeman reverted to his 4-2-3-1 and Ousmane Dembélé would start on the left wing as Antoine Griezmann would go back to the bench.
The French winger was the best player on the pitch. Dembélé wrecked the Huesca defence thrice in the first 20 minutes. First, after a good dribble on the edge of the area, his cross found Pedri, but Alvaro Fernandez denied him. A few minutes later, Dembélé made a mazy run from the centre circle and created an opportunity. However, he overhit his pass to Pedri, who could only get it back to Dembélé, whose shot ended on a Huesca defender’s face. Finally, Dembélé’s cross found Pedri in front of the goal, but the youngster’s header went over. What a display from the Frenchman, hopefully, he stays fit and in-form.
Then, came the opener. And who else than Lionel Messi to make an insane cross towards the free Frenkie de Jong, who opened the scoring. Messi, who was celebrating his 500th La Liga and 750th Barça appearance, made a similar cross to open the scoring against Valladolid in December.
Overall, Barcelona did well in the first-half. Away to a really defensive side, Koeman got his lineup spot-on with a real winger in Dembélé wrecking the defence. The Dutchman prevented another Cadiz and Alavés scenario by going with a really attacking lineup and got rewarded for it.
At half-time, Koeman did not change anything. The performance clearly encouraged the coach to go for the kill before Huesca got their leveller.
As usual, Barça got chances, but they could not score them. Clément Lenglet found Dembélé on the left wing, and the winger’s chip nearly crossed the line but a defender stopped the shot from going in. Messi and Pedri then displayed their connection again as the captain shot straight at the locals’ keeper. Dembélé got another chance to score, but he stumbled across the keeper. The 23-year-old should have shot quicker and could have cost his side.
During the whole game, the locals were not dangerous enough, but came close just once and could have gotten their equaliser. After Huesca got their first chance of the match, Araujo has to throw the ball out for a corner. The ball travelled through the whole box, and a Huesca attacker got their heel on it. Thankfully, Marc-André Ter Stegen saved the shot, and it was still 1-0 for Barça.
All in all, it was a professional job from Koeman’s men. Usually, the Catalans hate playing these sides, but they managed to get through an important fixture while being the dominant team. Also, some individual performances, such as de Jong’s or Dembélé’s, were more than encouraging and made every Culé feel good in front of their TV.
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.