Real Madrid offer Barcelona painful reminder of what they still need to do

One side of this most famous of rivalries is steadily embracing transition as the other struggles to let go

Tom Kershaw
Monday 02 March 2020 13:15 GMT
Zidane proud of Real Madrid players after Clásico triumph

Sergio Ramos and Marcelo were the last to leave the field, still saluting the white wall and pumping their chests as they went. In the dressing room, the club’s president Florentino Perez congratulated Karim Benzema on his 500th appearance for the club, while Toni Kroos’ young son ate a slice of pizza in front of his father’s locker. Even outside the stadium that had rocked and crackled night long, the dust of the Bernabeu’s renovation turned thick in the rain.

It is the ageing face of Real Madrid: a side that has been vulnerable to bouts of wild inconsistency and senile stutters in recent weeks. But as Zinedine Zidane’s side stunned Barcelona 2-0 on Sunday evening and leapfrogged their bitter rivals in the title race, it was no coincidence that their two youngest players, Vinicius and Fede Valverde, stole the spotlight of Spain’s grandest stage. The pair were both still playing academy football in South America when Madrid last defeated Barca at home over five-and-a-half years ago but now embody a rivalry where one side is steadily embracing transition as another struggles to let go.

The bare fact remains that these two sides are, at least on this evidence, husks of their former selves. They entered this fixture under varying clouds of turmoil and, while victory for Madrid has smoothed the cracks of defeat to Manchester City, they can still only be masked for so long. Whereas the clásico once represented - at least on quality - the most breathtaking spectacle in football, here they were often exasperating and lethargic, overthinking and unimaginative, sewn by patterns of caution rather than any willingness to take risks.

For that reason alone, it was little surprise that it was Vinicius, a teenager more prone to reckless abandon, who arrived at Madrid at just 16 shouldering the immense weight of a £38m price tag, who made the decisive breakthrough. Throughout a featureless first half, dominated by Barca’s large spells of possession, the Brazilian was the only direct and dangerous presence, exploding forwards and exploiting Barca’s high back-line.

He also exhibited all the rawness of his youth, consistently lacking quality with his final ball after finding those spaces, but his energy was contagious and a constant elixir to a team otherwise short on ideas. His goal itself was fortunate, taking a heavy deflection off Gerard Pique, but the celebration - mimicking Cristiano Ronaldo - was deliberate. Not a 19-year-old seeking to fit in, but stand out. Not just inheriting an impossible mantle, but demanding it. Even in great teams, who have seen and won it all, it’s the flash of arrogance which lifts everyone.

Valverde, himself still only 21, is almost a polar opposite. A relentlessly composed and authoritative midfielder, he was the standout player on the pitch. The Uruguayan may have landed in Madrid to less fanfare when plucked from relative obscurity in 2016, but his impact has already been seismic, displacing Luka Modric and making himself the most indispensable member of Madrid’s midfield.

And yes, they may have ridden their luck at times as Barcelona spurned a hat-trick of clear chances in a lopsided first hour, but Madrid undoubtedly deserved their victory, even if on the merit of desire alone. When they finally awoke, triggered by Isco forcing Marc-Andre ter Stegen into a fingertip save, they thrived on sheer will while Barca did little more than wilt. “In the second half we improved our press and we were better up top,” Zidane said. “We really pushed them hard and almost overwhelmed them. We won the game as a team today."

For Barcelona, it was another juddering reminder of their rudderless transition under Quique Setien. The already troubled head coach arrived evangelising Johan Cruyff and pledged to recreate the bold and expansive football he displayed at Real Betis. Instead, Barcelona were cripplingly half-paced and ponderous, over-reliant on finding Lionel Messi and their talisman underwhelming on the stage he usually so loves to terrorise. “If football was a religion, Messi would be our God,” Martin Braithwaite said prior to the match. Yet, after weeks of discontent and division at the club, the Argentine looked like a saviour drained by the burden of propping up his disciples, and it was he who wasted the club’s best chance.

It is the first time in 75 years Barca have failed to score in either clasico in a season, and that methodical genius of old - hunting in packs, passing teams into a stupor before ruthlessly dismantling them - felt like a figment of the imagination. "We are upset," Pique said. "We thought we could get a good result here because Madrid came into the game in bad shape. It was one of the worst Madrid sides I've faced at the Bernabeu in the first half.”

Perhaps, it’s fitting that the 33-year-old chose to look to the past. Half of Barcelona’s outfield players on Sunday were aged 30 or over and have spent an astonishing 66 years at the club combined. In the last decade over £1.2bn has been invested in a squad who are on course for one of their lowest points totals in recent memory, and whose greatest threat on Sunday came in the form of controversial emergency striker Braithwaite. They may still boast a collection of the greatest players football has ever seen, but those facts are inescapable.

As the debris settled on the steps of the Bernabeu, and the drums banged long into the night, one club saw a vision into its future. For another, perhaps it was the starkest reminder of their need still to address it.

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