Real Madrid was on the cusp of a crisis heading into Saturday’s showdown with Barcelona at the Camp Nou. Perhaps that sounds like an exaggeration given the season is only a few weeks old and Madrid would – at least until Sunday – go top of La Liga with victory in the Clasico, but defeat by their biggest rivals would make it three losses in a row. For a club of Madrid’s stature, such a sequence automatically amounts to a crisis.
That is especially the case when you consider the identity of their two prior victors. Last weekend, Madrid were stunned by newly-promoted Cadiz, who ran out 1-0 winners at the Santiago Bernabeu. On the same ground a few days later, Zinedine Zidane’s side was beaten 3-2 by Shakhtar Donetsk in their first Champions League fixture of the season. If that was not surprising enough, consider that Shakhtar was without 10 first-team players due to an outbreak of Covid-19 and held a 3-0 lead at half-time.
Zidane, therefore, found himself under pressure ahead of the trip to Barcelona. He enjoys a strong relationship with club president Florentino Perez and there is no suggestion that he would have been sacked had Madrid lost their third game on the bounce.
However, questions would certainly have been asked of the Frenchman, who is not immune from scrutiny at the Bernabeu despite having won three Champions Leagues and two La Liga titles as the club’s manager. With Mauricio Pochettino still unemployed, there were whispers in the media that the former Tottenham Hotspur boss could be in line to replace Zidane if the situation worsened.
There is nothing like a victory over your chief adversaries to ease the pressure on an under-fire manager. Barcelona headed into Saturday’s clash in a better frame of mind, having bounced back from last weekend’s loss to Getafe by thrashing Ferencvaros 5-1 in the Champions League. After the chaos of the summer, Ronald Koeman knew that a win in the Clasico would help to win over some of his doubters in Catalonia and beyond.
Barcelona fell behind early on. Madrid’s positive start was rewarded in the fifth minute, as Fede Valverde’s third-man run from midfield saw him break in behind the Barcelona backline and finish neatly after collecting Karim Benzema’s pass.
The hosts responded well, though, and were level within three minutes. Jordi Alba did what Jordi Alba does, making a well-timed run in behind the opposition full-back. Lionel Messi picked him out with a fine pass, allowing Alba to square for Ansu Fati to wipe out Madrid’s lead.
Barcelona were the better team for the remainder of the first half, with Messi a constant thorn in the opposition’s side. He drew a terrific save from Thibaut Courtois after taking the ball past Sergio Ramos in the penalty area, but it was not entirely one-way traffic, with Neto sufficiently alert to deny Benzema from 12 yards at the other end.
Both teams had opportunities in the first 15 minutes of the second half, but the decisive moment of the match came at the hour mark. Toni Kroos delivered a free-kick into the box and Ramos, feeling a tug on his shirt from Clement Lenglet, threw himself to the floor. The referee initially gave nothing, but a VAR review concluded that Madrid deserved a penalty.
It was a soft foul, but defenders always run a risk by grabbing players’ shirts and Lenglet could have no complaints. Ramos made no mistake from the spot, finding the bottom corner to give the visitors the lead for the second time.
At that point, Barcelona fans would have expected Koeman to make a change. Pedri and Philippe Coutinho had been ineffectual for much of the match, and Antoine Griezmann, Trincao and Ousmane Dembele were all on the bench. Yet Koeman resisted, opting to persevere with the XI that began the game. That turned out to be a mistake.
Barcelona huffed and puffed in search of an equalizer, but clear-cut chances were at a premium. Madrid showed excellent know-how and intelligence to form a compact shape out of possession, before breaking forward when the ball was turned over. Koeman eventually summoned Trincao, Dembele, and Griezmann from the bench in the 82nd minute, but it was ultimately a case of too little, too late.
The fourth goal of the game belonged to Madrid, who was firmly in control in the closing stages. Kroos forced a double stop from Neto and Lucas Vazquez also drew a save from Barcelona’s stand-in goalkeeper, before Luka Modric put the game beyond the Blaugrana in the 90th minute.
Some managers would not have been able to resist firing back at their critics after such a victory. But Zidane is mild-mannered by the standards of his profession and dealt with the post-match questions accordingly.
That’s not what we’re here for, to shut them up. We do our job, believing in what we do, being together when we have to be and that’s what we did. We did it as a team, I’m very proud of them. When it comes to defending we had a compact block. Then with a rival open like Barca, we’ve found gaps two or three times and in the end, it’s about trying to play a good game as a team and that’s what we did.
Madrid remain favorites to lift the La Liga title at the end of this season, although it would be premature to rule out Barcelona or Atletico at this early stage. DraftKings Sportsbook offers –118 on Madrid making it two championships in a row, with Barca and Atletico available at +190 and +500 respectively.
Having been employed by the club as both a player and a manager, Zidane knows the unique pressures that come with life at Real Madrid. He also knows there is no better way to ease that pressure than by beating Barcelona.
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Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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