Barcelona's back problems will hurt them
REAL MADRID 3
(Cristiano Ronaldo 35-pen, Pepe 50, Karim Benzema 61)
Barcelona are like a gaggle of superficial supermodels going under the plastic surgeon's knife. They are fixated with facelifts, but neglected their behinds.
Luis Enrique finds himself blessed with a constellation of twinkly toes up front, but cursed with a clumsy defence.
The Catalan side are convinced they can rule the world with their front three when, in reality, they cannot command their own penalty box.
The first El Clasico of the season yesterday morning (Singapore time) was a surreal affair in the sense that both Barca and Real Madrid adopted the school-playground principle of "we'll wait for you to finish in our penalty box, then we'll charge into your penalty box".
The Bernebau hosted a ping-pong exhibition with the game closer in reckless spirit to Real Madrid's legendary 7-3 victory over Eintracht Frankfurt in 1960 than Barcelona's more recent tiki-taka template.
The haphazard encounter was easy on the eye, but hard on Barcelona's defence.
Carlo Ancelotti's side, fast resembling a world's best 11, can get away with the pinball wizardry. Barcelona cannot.
Their defence threatens to undo their season.
Before the Clasico, much was made of Barcelona's unbeaten record that had stretched across eight games without conceding a goal.
Such La Liga stats are among the most pointless in world sport, rather like highlighting a scrawny kid's fine record in tennis' satellite tournaments before being drawn to face Roger Federer on grass.
In most instances, only the Clasicos count. They determine the league's complexion. The rest of the La Liga season feels like window dressing.
And Barcelona, in their current guise, will not cope with a pack of hounds that chase ceaselessly. Their front three will continue to be trumpeted, but the rest are out of tune.
In the opening minutes, Neymar, Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi combined with balletic precision to score the opener and carve out a handful of half-chances, but the trio faded away, denied service and support.
As the game progressed, Barcelona's imbalance between architects and artisans became more apparent.
The artistic trio were left standing over drawing boards, twiddling their thumbs and waiting for someone to sharpen their pencils.
Perhaps Enrique erred in picking the ageing Xavi Hernandez over the more industrious Ivan Rakitic, but there are other deep-seated problems.
Barcelona have no one like Toni Kroos. The German's meticulous reliability, once again overlooked by the flamboyant forwards in both sides, allowed Real to take control of all that midfield ping pong.
In his position, Andres Iniesta has been an ingenious creator, but he no longer covers the same ground and was culpable for Real's third goal.
On the opposite flank, Xavi's inability to track back left Dani Alves exposed. Real's most incisive attacks came down their left side.
Marcelo caused mayhem in possession, revelling in the space that Barcelona needlessly gave away.
In truth, there were gaps everywhere, allowing Real's relentless front-men to bore through Barca's backline like deep-sea drillers.
Enrique's decision to slot in Javier Mascherano at centre back has been interpreted as a chance to accommodate Xavi in midfield. But the dependable enforcer was required to compensate for the erratic Gerard Pique.
The centre back admitted that he gave away a ludicrous penalty by sliding in the box and grabbing the ball, but his poor positioning had left him exposed in the first place.
He was sliding back in desperation.
At times, Mascherano's role assumed biblical proportions, holding back the endless tide of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzama, James Rodriguez and Luka Modric, whose immaculate distribution drove them forward.
The Argentinian was needed in defence. He was equally needed in midfield, where an isolated Sergio Busquets was rolled over.
Neymar, Messi and Suarez are going to rack up goals like snooker points. They will conjure ridiculous goals, silly goals, PlayStation goals; goals beyond the most vivid imagination of kindergarten kids messing around on a void deck.
La Liga opponents will fall like the most obedient of dominoes as the trio shoot one highlights reel after another. It's going to be a privilege to behold.
But the wizards are surrounded by minor weaknesses.
Their defensive deficiencies, which begin in midfield and seep through a shaky spine, are not enough to be exposed in bread-and-butter contests.
And then Real Madrid will come calling again. They probe and punish spinal weaknesses like a belligerent chiropractor.
With their fabulous front three, Barcelona can run riot in most games. But they can't hide from their bad back.
- Malaga 4 Rayo Vallecano 0
- Cordoba 1 Real Sociedad 1
- Eibar 1 Granada 1
- Almeria 0 Athletic Bilbao 1
- Valencia 3 Elche 1
- Celta Vigo 3 Levante 0
Real coach Carlo Ancelotti on what went right:
We wanted to attack and use the wings and we won in the second half because we wanted to win. We’re in very good form, I don’t know if I’ve found the perfect formula. We’re also in good mental shape. We still have the same idea as last year. We’re trying to improve our play and everything is coming off well.
Barca coach Luis Enrique on what went wrong:
We stopped creating chances and that cost us because of the opponents. The second goal came from a set-piece and 3-1 from a clear mistake. They did us a lot of damage. This shows that there are other teams equal to or better than us.
Five Lessons From El Clasico
1. REAL DIDN'T MISS GARETH BALE
A muscle injury robbed Bale of taking part in the biggest match of Real Madrid's season to date, but they haven't missed him while firing six goals past Barcelona and Liverpool.
Bale's absence allowed coach Carlo Ancelotti to use the 4-4-2 system that guided Los Blancos to victory over Barca in the Copa del Rey final in April, with Isco's work-rate and guile in midfield more than compensating for the lack of Bale's pace on the counter-attack.
2. A BIG NIGHT FOR IKER CASILLAS
Casillas has come under fire to justify his place in the team from the Real fans. However, he rewarded Ancelotti's faith in him with two fine stops at crucial points in the match.
He spread himself to deny Lionel Messi before flying to his right to prevent Jeremy Mathieu a stunning equaliser just after Real had gone in front.
3. MORE TO COME FROM LUIS SUAREZ
The Uruguayan started his first competitive match in four months since biting Giorgio Chiellini at the World Cup and made an instant impact, as he teed up Neymar for the opening goal.
There were a few more flashes of brilliance, as Messi should have tucked away another fine cross to make it 2-0, while Suarez turned the Real defence on numerous occasions after the break without finding the final finish or pass.
4. NEYMAR'S LETHAL, MESSI WASN'T
Neymar registered his 11th goal this season in as many games with his only clear chance in the match, as he ghosted inside Dani Carvajal and Pepe to slot into the far corner.
And the result might have been very different had Messi been more precise with his big opportunity, as Casillas spread himself well to prevent the Argentinian doubling Barca's lead and becoming the joint top La Liga scorer of all time.
5. SAME OLD DEFENSIVE WOES FOR BARCA
The game was decided by two goals in the second half which came from corners, as Barca continued to suffer from the defensive problems that dogged their trophyless campaign last season.
Pepe powered Real in front as, just as in their only previous defeat this season away to Paris Saint-Germain, the Catalan side were caught napping at a set-piece.
Then, in their haste to equalise, Barca were caught on the counter-attack from a corner of their own as a mix-up between Andres Iniesta and Javier Mascherano prompted a lightning-quick move finished off by Karim Benzema. - AFP.