Monday, 15 August 2011

Six things we learned from the first El Clásico of the season

Real must stick with this approach

After a variety of approaches that didn’t meet with much success last season, the talking point pre-game was how José Mourinho would set-up. Thankfully the athletic, combative midfield three was dropped for Real’s abundance of creative talents to get a chance and got them on the front foot for much of the game.

The most interesting aspect of Real’s intention to attack Barca was that rather than the “bloque bajo” approach Mourinho took towards the end of last season, Real went after the champions, hunting in packs in a Barcelona-esque pressing game. This was particularly effective because with no Gerard Pique at centre-back Barca didn’t have the same quality of distribution from defence when put under pressure. Moreover, with Xavi Hernandez also starting on the bench there wasn’t the easy pass into midfield that Barca most often use when teams press them high up the field.

Although the scoreline doesn’t do them justice, this was Mourinho’s Real Madrid’s best showing against Barcelona in six attempts. With a bit more luck and poise in front of goal they would have won comfortably. The hope for all watching is that the Portuguese coach stands by this evening’s approach and doesn’t return to type as he did following the 5-0 defeat to Barca last November.

Real Madrid are a fantastic attacking side, ask any of the other 18 teams in La Liga for proof of that. Despite Mourinho’s pathetic lamentations surrounding refereeing decisions, last season showed they aren’t able to kick and scrap their way past Barca. By playing and pressuring they might be able to.

Sanchez could be special

Many (myself chief among them) had questioned whether Alexis Sanchez would suit Barca’s playing style, but he certainly didn’t look out of place on his first outing.

Once again Marcelo looked vulnerable against Barcelona but this time it was the Chilean’s pace, strength and skill that caused the Brazilian problems rather than Pedro’s movement cutting in from the wing.

Despite the fact that Barcelona led at half-time Sanchez like many of their forward players hadn’t been heavily involved, but in the second period, particularly as Messi started to have a greater influence on the game, Sanchez dovetailed wonderfully on occasions with the Argentine and showed a glimpse of what could be a very special understanding.

One point of note regarding his compatibility with the tiki-taka style was that a number of Barcelona players were often looking to Sanchez for the quick release and played the ball too directly at times, conceding possession cheaply in a very un-Barcelona like fashion, but also giving an insight into perhaps what Pep sees as Sanchez’s role in the side as a player that can stretch the field when sides press Barcelona.

Real may regret not laying a marker

As hinted at in point one, this seemed like a sitting duck for Real. If ever there was a chance to beat this Barca side and exorcise a few demons from last season this was it.

Real’s has been a much quieter and more settled summer. Six of Barca’s starting line-up have played in competitive tournaments this summer compared to only one is the home side’s starting XI. Moreover, Real have bought and bought early, allowing their new recruits time to settle in and they’ve had an incredible pre-season – albeit against a variety of weak opposition across three continents.

The way they started seemed to illustrate that fact even more strongly. Valdes had saved Barca on a number of occasions even before Mesut Ozil put Real in front. However, after a moment of magic from David Villa and a mistake from Pepe allowed Messi to score the wind went out of the hosts sails slightly in the second-half. Ironically Xabi Alonso’s equaliser came at a stage in the game where Barca looked most in control and despite a push in the final 20 minutes Real didn’t have the same intensity about their play in the second period which, although understandable given the nature of their pressing in the first-half, is probably necessary for the full 90minutes to beat this Barcelona side.

Without Xavi Barca really are a completely different side

I know it seems obvious and by now it should come as no surprise but even with the touch of Messi, the ball movement of Andres Iniesta and the justified hype around Thiago, Barca lacked that poise to keep the ball shuttling from side to side, forward and back in their traditional style.

Although Xavi didn’t have quite the impact expected when he came on in the second-half he was still the security blanket for many around him. The Cesc saga might now be over but Fabregas has a helluva lot to live up to if he is to be Xavi’s long-term successor.

Benzema could be the no.9 Mourinho has wanted all along

“The cat”, who Jose routinely criticised, ignored and eventually found replacements for last season has been on fire on pre-season with eight goals in seven matches. He continued that form here, not on the scoresheet but in his all-round play, setting Ozil up brilliantly for the opener and being denied by Valdes on a couple of occasions.

Benzema’s movement also allowed Real to play in a Barca-esque fashion without a designated centre-forward. That obviously helps Ronaldo wander in from the left, but also allowed Ozil to go beyond the ball and Angel Di Maria and Jose Callejon when he came on to get into dangerous positions. Indeed the period in the game when Real looked least threatening was when Gonzalo Higuian replaced the Frenchman with 10minutes remaining.

This really is the make or break season for Benzema in Madrid but so far all signs are positive that he can fulfil his undoubted potential and maybe even prove Florentino Perez right for once.

Valdes remains underrated

Even this week on the popular British radio show Fighting Talk (don’t worry this is going somewhere) the question was posed who is the most vulnerable No.1 in sport. The final panellist’s answer was Valdes, who it was claimed gets paid millions of euros to stand and watch Barcelona every week.

Even though the show is famed for its irreverence and humour more than punditry the answer did reflect the impression that still prevails that Valdes is in some way incapable or unworthy of playing for Barcelona.

The truth is he is as important as a number of the other pieces in the Barcelona puzzle, not only for his fantastic distribution but because he tends to come through in the big moments. When weeks after Barca’s triumph in the 2009 Champions League Valdes demanded the same money as Iker Casillas in his new contract he was laughed at. Yet, if anything it has been the former who has been the most consistent performer over the past two seasons.

Tonight was just the latest example that on the few occasions on which Barca are under the cosh, they certainly have someone they can rely on between the sticks.

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