Has Barcelona already wrapped up La Liga's title before Christmas? The Blaugrana handled Real Madrid with a dominant second half in El Clasico to pull away even more and pile up the pressure on their bitter rival.
Real Madrid supporters unfurled a "Blanco Navidad" tifo prior to Saturday's Clasico vs. Barcelona, but they've wound up with a Blaugrana Navidad on their hands instead.
Barcelona won in the Spanish capital again, riding goals from Luis Suarez, Lionel Messi and Aleix Vidal to a 3-0 triumph over Real Madrid that extends its already sizable lead in La Liga's title race and all but puts its bitter rival to the sword. The win was Barcelona's third straight in league play at the Bernabeu, a feat never before achieved by the storied club.
Real Madrid came out with expected urgency and controlled the early proceedings, but Barcelona didn't wilt and went ahead in the 54th minute on a beautiful sequence capped by Suarez. The lead was doubled 10 minutes later from the penalty spot, with Messi doing the honors after a wild sequence that wound up with Dani Carvajal being sent off for purposefully handling the ball to prevent a goal from being scored. Messi set up the substitute Vidal at the death for the final exclamation point on a dominant second half, capping the scoring and the statement performance.
Here are three thoughts on the match, which could prove decisive, already, in Spain:
No Hay Liga
Congratulations to Barcelona for wrapping up La Liga's title ... with five months to go in the season.
Of course, anything can happen, as any team is susceptible to a down-tick in form, or a rash of injuries or even an unforeseen crisis, but it's pretty hard to envision Barcelona letting this slip away. Barcelona was done a favor by city rival Espanyol on Friday when it dealt second-place Atletico Madrid its first loss of the season. Depending on Valencia's result this weekend, Barcelona's lead heading into Christmas will be either eight or nine points. Its lead over Real Madrid, which maintains a game in hand, is at a staggering 14 points.
There are still plenty of matches left to be played, but Barcelona is riding a wave of confidence and momentum that didn't seem possible after Real Madrid thrashed Messi & Co. in the Spanish Super Cup in August. Barcelona had just lost Neymar, was laughed at for purchasing Paulinho (who's laughing now?) and spent a mint on Ousmane Dembele, who has hardly played as he battles injury.
Nevertheless, here we are. Barcelona's win at the Bernabeu last April tightened the league race and forced Real Madrid to be perfect down the stretch. Its win there this time around may have effectively zapped the league of any true suspense at the top with ample time to go.
"Madrid in their history has always proven the doubters that they are capable to pull off the impossible," a classy and sportsmanlike Andres Iniesta said on beIN Sports following the game, through a translator.
That's pretty generous, though, and this would perhaps be the most impossible tasks of them all.
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Real Madrid rues early missed opportunities
Real Madrid is left licking its wounds, but it didn't have to be this way. The Blancos came out on fire, with Cristiano Ronaldo looking especially dangerous. His second-minute header was rightfully disallowed for offside, but it was a warning shot.
Nine minutes later, Ronaldo should have at least tested goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen, with Toni Kroos's cutback pass finding him, completely unmarked, some 12 yards from goal. Perhaps the ball was a little behind Ronaldo when he loaded up to shoot, but he completely whiffed on the opportunity. That it came from almost the exact spot where Messi won last April's Clasico at the death is a piece of poetic symmetry.
The frustration followed from there, as 10 minutes after, Ronaldo perhaps tried to overcompensate. He had his defender on skates on the left channel, but he still didn't have a clear shooting lane on a Real Madrid foray forward. Meanwhile, Luka Modric was running unmarked into the box, eagerly calling for a pass. Ronaldo elected to shoot, it was easily blocked and Modric visibly showed his frustration.
Good chances can't be missed in a game featuring two sides like this, and Real Madrid didn't convert on any of its opportunities when the game seemed firmly in its grasp.
The Kovacic experiment ultimately failed
Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane offered the first talking point of the day by starting Mateo Kovacic over Isco in the midfield with the sole purpose of shadowing Messi. It largely worked, as Messi was mostly held in check in the first half (he did set up Paulinho for two great scoring chances, both saved wonderfully by Keylor Navas), but it was debilitating on the goal-scoring sequence that delivered the breakthrough.
Kovacic refused to leave Messi's side as Sergio Busquets found Ivan Rakitic in the center of the park. With Kovacic only feigning to move to stop Rakitic before backing off, the Croatian had the space to operate while carving through the center and finding Sergi Roberto on the right wing. His first-time cross to Suarez was expertly finished off, and with that, so too was Real Madrid.