It’s probably club footballs’ most talked about fixture. The El Clásico. Last night’s match had hundreds of millions (some 400,000,000) viewers glued to their TV-sets and millions of free bets placed on it. Catalunya’s FC Barcelona vs. Real Madrid, often times billed as Spain’s team. First things first, it didn’t disappoint.
Pre-match, the biggest concern for FC Barcelona was their central-defense. How to fix the issue of not having any experienced centre-backs available? The man tasked with fixing this, and every other issue, new manager Tito Vilanova, decided against buying a specialist defender. However, this decision of his has caught up with him. Instead of placing trust in his big-money signing slash defensive-midfielder-in-the-process-of-becoming-a-centre-back Alexandre Song, he elected Adriano, a full-back, to partner with Javier Mascherano. His reasoning: Adriano offered pace which the aforementioned Song is lacking. Tito Vilanova’s decisions are quite simply bizarre in their nature.
It raises the question: If Gerard Pique, not the paciest of defenders, was available for selection – is one led to believe that Vilanova would still prefer Adriano in central defense?
Tito Vilanova’s situation must be very desperate if he has to call upon the services of Adriano at centre-back. And that’s exactly what FC Barcelona’s defense looked like for the opening 30 minutes, a work in progress. Had it not been for wasteful finishing courtesy of Los Blancos, FC Barcelona could’ve found themselves two or even three girls behind before Cristiano Ronaldo opened scoring in the 23rd minute. Ronaldo’s opener had this déjà vu quality about it, Dani Alves once again played spectator just like he did in Sevilla not too long ago. And just like in Sevilla, Victor Valdes looked hapless. It makes for good, albeit unintentional, slapstick comedy. More worrisome, FC Barcelona have conceded in three of their last four matches, a perfect three for three against quality opposition (discounting their tie against Granada).
Clean sheets are hard to come by these days. Inevitable the Frank Rijkaard years come into mind. During the Dutchman’s reign FC Barcelona played pretty football but were almost always susceptible at back.
The unofficial tagline of the Rijkaard-era: You score, we score one more.
That a club as big as FC Barcelona can find itself in a precautious situation like this is quite simply incomprehensible. Every other department, midfield and attack, was fully stacked. How one could chose to neglect addressing central-defense is mind-boggling. Barcelona’s wobbly defensive record of late contributed to series of underwhelming performances. Realistically speaking, FC Barcelona should not have been in the tie, let alone leading at one point. If it weren’t for the genius and persistence of Lionel Messi it would’ve been the 600 hundred Real Madrid fans in the stands at the Camp Nou celebrating tonight.
Real Madrid on the other hand are guilty of wasting their chances, which, even robbed of their first-choice centre-backs, come at a premium in Barcelona. Especially, since the injury-forced exit of Dani Alves should’ve given Real Madrid’s left-sided duo of Marcelo and Cristiano Ronaldo the license to run at La Masia youngster, and Clásico newbie, Martin Montoya.
Nevertheless, the youngster did an impeccable job against Cristiano Ronaldo. One is even tempted to say he did better defensively than Dani Alves. One inspired performance is hardly the measure stick in which to judge an unproven youngster, but Tito Vilanova would be best advised to place some trust in Marc Bartra or Andreu Fontas in the future.
Andres Iniesta’s forced comeback also highlights another flaw Tito shares with Pep Guardiola, key players are rushed to return to action. Carles Puyol was out for weeks yet thrown into the game against Benfica Lisbon. Conversely, David Villa is forced to sit and warm the bench. El Guaje did not take any part in the El Clásico due to Andres Iniesta’s appearance.
Even Alexis Sanchez was afforded game time, though troubling the Madrid defense with his pace, he was also called offside more often than not. During his time in Italy Alexis Sanchez was considered one of the hottest properties in football. It’s too early to deem him a failure, but he’s not the revelation, say, Eden Hazard is in England.
Maybe it’s the system, which is Lionel Messi-centric, but whatever it is, Tito Vilanova has to figure it out. If Lionel Messi continuously has to work his magic to save FC Barcelona from embarrassment, then the Catalan club is just one Messi-injury removed from disaster.
FC Barcelona’s two goals were not so much team efforts but the result of Lionel Messi’s genius and persistence. On the other hand, Cristiano Ronaldo’s two goals had more than just one creator. One was assisted by Karim Benzema, who wasted his fair amount of chances; the other was served on a silver platter by Mesut Özil. Say what you will, but Real Madrid’s game plan would’ve been utterly effective had Lady Luck been on their side.
FC Barcelona still rely heavily on Lionel Messi to produce the goods, and unless another centre-back arrives in January the eight-point cushion could have eroded by then if La Pulga loses his form. Meanwhile, Real Madrid have found back to form after starting their campaign in terrible fashion.
Between now and the next El Clásico it’s business as usual. The status quo of Spanish football, the duopoly of FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, has been restored, even if the league table doesn’t show as much.
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