In an end-to-end afternoon of football, Barcelona drew 2-2 with Real Sociedad at the Anoeta.
Barcelona have a “thing” with the Anoeta. Ernesto Valverde has come away with two wins from two years there but both of those wins involved big slices of luck. Prior to Valverde’s time in charge the Blaugrana had won just once in the previous 10 years. It’s not a ground they’re fond of going to.
So with El Clásico just three days away, Ernesto Valverde starting the XI that he will likely start against Real Madrid always seemed like a strange move. And sure enough Barcelona’s performance seemed to be one of a team that was constantly waiting for something to happen, rather than a team who was looking to make something happen.
From the start, Real Sociedad were on the front foot and looking to punish the Blaugrana. Perhaps the differing approaches can best be summed up by the two playmakers on the field. Leo Messi looked sluggish and unfocused, never really finding his rhythm with or without the ball. He stilled bagged an assist with a lovely run and selfless pass, but he had an off-day.
Martin Odegaard, meanwhile, was utterly sensational. Almost half a decade removed from his baffling move to Real Madrid looked like it might “Freddy Adu” is young career, the Norwegian was sensational in this match-up with Barcelona. With the eyes of the Madrid media watching, the player who is on loan from Los Blancos really shone.
Odegaard had more shots than anyone else on the pitch (more on that in a bit) and created the most chances (3) of anyone else too. Beyond the stats, just watching Odegaard was a gift. The youngster was so liquid, drifting between and behind the Barcelona lines, making Ivan Rakitic and Sergio Busquets look like training cones.
Of course, he is still just 20 and very much learning. There were moments in the second-half where he decided to shoot from range rather than make the smart, selfless passes to team-mates (none of his shots hit the target). This contrasts nicely with Messi whose lone moment of genuine quality came because of a selfless run and pass.
Still though, one cannot deny the influence Odegaard on this game and La Real as a whole. He’s not the next Leo Messi, but no one is or could be. What Odegaard is, is a phenomenal young talent who has shown considerable mental strength to overcome failure at Real Madrid and immense skill to return to La Liga in such incredible fashion. The youngster is growing into a real talisman and with him leading the way, La Real dominated their visitors.
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In fact if it weren’t for an absolutely monumental display from Gerard Piqué at the heart of the Barcelona defence (14 clearances and 3 blocks, both game-highs) this could have been an absolute thrashing – the Catalan even should have won a last second penalty after being felled in the box. All in all though, the Catalan centre-back was back in perfect rhythm after a rocky start to the season, and just in time to with El Clásico around the corner.
That Clásico is now something Barcelona could go into as underdogs. Their draw here affords Real Madrid a chance to go two points clear should they beat Valencia at Mestalla on Sunday evening, and it’s a chance they will probably take. Barcelona have all the pieces to be far more dominant than they are currently, both in Europe and La Liga, but Ernesto Valverde plays every game with a sense of ridiculous caution.
Starting his Clásico XI three days before the big game made no sense. He brought on the right subs but took off the wrong ones, and moreover he waited to long and didn’t give them a chance to influence the game. The last five minutes was Barcelona’s best in the match as the changes finally started having an effect; had Valverde acted sooner then he could have come away a victor.
But as always, Valverde was much like his side in the first-half, sat around waiting. Begging to be rescued by a moment of individual inspiration. But for once Leo Messi wasn’t going to bail them out. And that, in essence, is Barcelona’s big problem. When Messi isn’t producing magic, Ernesto Valverde’s pragmatism can leave them looking very ordinary indeed.
A rampant Real Madrid will be licking their lips.