Football Features

“It’s a Real race now!” – Five things learned as Real Madrid win rain-soaked El Clásico to go top of La Liga

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 22:31, 10 April 2021 | Updated: 19:26, 10 September 2021

In a torrential night of football, 10-man Real Madrid beat Barcelona 2-1 at Estadio Alfredo di Stefano to go top of La Liga.

What did we learn?

1. Valverde the burst god

In the first Clásico of the season Real Madrid took an early lead through Fede Valverde as the Uruguayan  completely shook up the biggest game on the planet with an incredible run from deep, exchanging passes with Karim Benzema before scoring.

In this Clásico, Real Madrid again took the lead and although this goal was scored by Karim Benzema and set-up by Lucas Vázquez, the key man was once again the Uruguayan. And more, he was key in much in the same way he was the key man in that first game with a driving burst up the right side of the pitch exposing Clement Lenglet and Jordi Alba (after which he freed Vázquez to make the assist).

Marco Asensio has scored in his last four games and Zinedine Zidane leaving him out for Valverde seemed odd, but Zidane knows that Valverde’s ability to burst from a jog to a sprint at the drop of the hat has a history of destabilising Barcelona. And so it came true, putting Madrid on a path to Clásico victory for the second time this season.

2. Koeman out-thinks himself

Ronald Koeman dropped Antoine Griezmann to play an extra midfielder and dominate the middle of the park. And it worked! Alright Madrid went 2-0 up through absurd defensive errors but the Blaugrana dominated the game. Still, with no goals a change had to be made.

Ronald Koeman brought Antoine Griezmann on for Sergino Dest and played 4-3-3. At first taking off the attacking Dest seemed weird and bringing on Griezmann given his potential to be a non-event was a risk.

But the 4-3-3 shape allowed Barcelona to dominate the game, the Frenchman was doing ok and what’s more he even played a lovely dummy on a Jordi Alba cross to allow Oscar Mingueza, raiding in from right-back, to stab home a goal to give Barcelona hope in the game. Koeman’s subs worked out perfectly, he was 2-1 down but had done so well.

Ronald Koeman took Sergio Busquets off for Sergi Roberto. Now taking Busquets on has become A Thing this season but he’s usually replaced by Ilaix Moriba or Riqui Puig, Sergi Roberto was fresh back from injury and with all due respect to the man very much played like it. Suddenly Barcelona’s momentum began to wane as they missed Busquets’ propulsive passing, Frenkie de Jong’s penetrative runs (he was now in Busquets’ role) and Roberto was a passenger.

Ronald Koeman took off Ronald Araujo for Ilaix Moriba and switching to 4-2-3-1. Now bringing on Ilaix was smart, but taking Araujo off, thus removing Mingueza from the right-back spot where he was causing problems and had just, y’know, scored, and playing him at centre-back was terrible. It completely sucked Barcelona’s momentum from that right-flank, an issue compounded by moving Roberto to right-back when even a fully-fit Roberto is at best an average right-back and he was nowhere near fully fit. And of course 4-2-3-1 is a horrible formation that meant Barcelona couldn’t build the ball up fluently and so couldn’t get into good attacking rhythm.

Ronald Koeman brought on Martin Braithwaite and and Francisco Trincao for Ousmane Dembélé and Pedri. Taking Dembélé off when he was playing well and bringing Trincao on in a game that needs the kind of quick thinking he never provides was pretty galaxy brain.

Braithwaite coming on for Pedri again pushed a bright attacking player, in this case Ilaix Moriba, back into a defensive role. In the end Ilaix did hit the bar from a scrambled effort but the truth is for the last 20 minutes of the game, even after Zinedine Zidane had taken off his two dangerous strikers, Barcelona had no capability to break Los Blancos down.

Every single decision Ronald Koeman made in the first hour of the game was correct. He was brave and decisive. Everything he made after the hour, after Mingueza’s goal had given them hope, was intensely and hilariously wrongheaded.

Yes Koeman will point to the many refereeing decisions that went against his side, including them being denied a penalty and the referee only issuing four minutes of added on time when he spent a good three minutes fixing his own equipment, but ultimately as much as he complains the Dutch coach was Madrid’s most important player in that final half-hour, doing as much to stop his own team as anyone else in white (or, indeed, volt and black).

3. Militao is no mere back-up

Much of made of the absences of Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane from these three colossal games for Real Madrid, but in the end Los Blancos have not missed them. Not against Liverpool and not in the Clásico tonight.

Now that does owe a lot to how they defend as a team (at one point Karim Benzema made a block on the edge of his own box) but it also speaks volumes about the defensive performance of Eder Militao. The Brazilian was signed at the start of last season but don’t feel bad if you had forgotten that because so had everyone else. He’s barely played and when he has, he’s been nondescript at best.

Yet lately he’s been a colossus. Tonight Barcelona could get nothing by him no matter how much they tried and the 23-year-old showed that he’s no mere back-up; there is real potential for him to be a starter for Los Blancos. Six clearances and three blocks were both game-highs as he repeatedly shut the door in Barcelona’s faces to keep the dominant Blaugrana out.

4. Mingueza shows Liverpool the way

Oscar Mingueza had an intensely dramatic night in his first-ever El Clásico. The most notable thing is he scored Barcelona’s first goal of the night, arriving to shin home Jordi Alba’s cross in the most unorthodox fashion to give Barcelona hope.

But the most interesting thing this night was how he defended Vinicius Junior, that Brazilian ball of energy who so terrorised Liverpool in the Champions League. Common wisdom would seem to be to either play offside or to get physical with him early so that he can’t start running and use that terrifying speed of his.

The thing is, Mingueza showed the flaw in those strategies: if you guess wrong, Vinicius will destroy you. And Mingueza guessed wrong 25 minutes into the game jumping up to try and press Vinicius on the half-way line only for him to misjudge the distance and the winger to kick the ball beyond him into space. Rushing back to stop him, Mingueza and Ronald Araujo combined to foul him and that free-kick led to Real Madrid’s second goal via a fortunate deflection off Sergino Dest. Mingueza made the same mistake later and Barcelona were lucky to keep Madrid out.

But Vinicius only got Mingueza like that a couple of times; for the most part the young Spaniard had a degree of control over the winger. How, you ask? Well he defended him by quite simply running with him. He knew he had the legs to run with the Brazilian and so that is exactly what he did, and most of the time it worked because Vinicius often struggles to make good decisions under pressure and if you run with him then he’s constantly under pressure. He only has the run trick and if you take that away he can struggle.

This is a lesson that Liverpool can learn ahead of their second-leg against Los Blancos. Don’t try and catch Vinicius out, just go body to body with him. Race him. Trent Alexander-Arnold has the speed and the strength to do just that, and it’s Liverpool’s best bet of stopping the speedy Brazilian from hurting them like he did in the first-leg.

5. It’s a Real race now!

La Liga’s title race has been wild in that it’s only really existed for a few weeks. For most of the season Atlético Madrid have been runaway league leaders but their poor results combined with the form of Barcelona and Real Madrid has seen it come to life. But it was only really between Barcelona and Real Madrid as Los Blancos at six points back were kind of in the race, but not really. They needed too much to swing their way. Well, swing their way things have!

Los Blancos are top of La Liga on the head-to-head ruling (having beaten Atleti 2-0 at the Santiago Bernabeu and drawn 1-1 at the Wanda Metropolitano). They are one point ahead of Barcelona and if Atleti win their game in-hand on Sunday they will be just three points back, just one single game back. And even though Barcelona will be four points or two games back they still have Atleti to play, so they are in the race as well.

With eight games left to play we have got one hell of a title race to unfold before us!