Advantage, Real Madrid. El Clásico was a disjointed affair, but Madrid came out on top, and the 2-0 win took it top of La Liga by a point ahead of Barcelona. Given the fallibility of both sides, nobody would suggest this settles the title race–although it might have had Barcelona won to go five points clear. But beyond the specifics of the result and what it might mean in the title race was a more general sense that this is a fixture whose status is in serious decline.
There was little here to dispel the notion that the big two in Spain are as weak as they’ve been in years. Both have strangely mismatched sides, full of relics of their ages of greatness, supplemented by a mixture of young promise and signings who have done well elsewhere but have yet to convince at their new clubs.
It was one of those promising youngsters, Vinicius Junior, who made the breakthrough after 71 minutes. The 19-year-old Brazilian pulled wide to create the space for Toni Kroos to slip a pass inside the fullback. That allowed him to accelerate unchallenged into the box, and as Gerard Pique came across to cover, Vinicius’s tab across goal glanced off the defender’s shin and past a wrong-footed Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
Barcelona, slightly surprisingly, had opted for a 4-4-2 with a diamond in midfield rather than the more familiar 4-3-3–with Arturo Vidal to the right and Frenkie De Jong to the left. The result, though, was that Antoine Griezmann, with Lionel Messi floating behind him, were left isolated with Arthur, at the tip of the diamond, having too much ground to cover. With Madrid only fleetingly passing with any sort of pace, there were long spells of the first half that involved one side then the other possessing the ball without ever really threatening.
Even more revealing was the way Madrid allowed ter Stegen, again and again, to wander from his goal, not pressing him, content to block the passing lanes and secure in the knowledge that if he went long there was little chance of Griezmann holding it up as Luis Suarez might have done had he been available.
The reverse fixture at the Camp Nou in December had been a dismal game that finished goalless. Here at least there were chances. Karim Benzema fired an early chance just over, but, after Madrid had the better of the opening quarter hour, it was Barcelona who produced the better chances. Griezmann, who is still yet to find his feet in a Barcelona shirt, lashed a cut-back over, and then Arthur, able for once to link up with the counter, was denied by Thibaut Courtois after some unconvincing defending from Kroos. Messi then was denied in similar circumstances by the Belgian keeper, who has settled after an uncertain start at the Bernabeu.
But this was a gritty, scratchy game. Where once the intensity only amplified the quality on display, here it was the only thing. This was shapeless, lacking in fluency, and generally just not very good. The time when El Clásico was at the apex of football feels like a long time ago, the struggles of Madrid and Barcelona in the Champions League reflective of their issues as they seek to rebuild.
Only around the hour mark did the game begin to take on any real pattern as Madrid began to take control. Ter Stegen was forced into a superb save with his flailing arm after a quick free kick led to Isco arcing a shot towards the top corner, and when the forward did beat ter Stegen with a downward header soon after, Pique was there to clear off the line. Once the momentum was against it, Barcelona’s response was limited and Vinicius’s involvement increased. His final ball may still be unreliable, but there is no doubting his dribbling ability, his pace or his enthusiasm. It wasn’t just his goal but the way he scored it, as Barcelona was forced to take the initiative after he kept running at an exposed back line.
Mariano, less than a minute after coming off the bench sealed the game with the second. On its second-half performance, Madrid was a deserved winner and it may go on now to claim the league title. Barcelona’s problems of transition become more apparent by the week. But for all it merited the victory, nobody should think all is well at Madrid, either.