LaLiga: Five things we learned from El Clasico

Even if two people mark him, Messi still makes the difference

It feels like ever since Lionel Messi made his debut, rival teams have tried to find a way of nullifying his offence. Some have ordered their players to kick lumps out of him, others pack the defence with five or even six back there to form a wall. Real Madrid opted for a two-man shielding job on little Leo and, like everyone else, it didn’t work.

Maybe the problem is thinking you can stop him completely. Instead the idea should be to try and limit his moments on the ball. The problem with having one man stay shirt-tight on Messi is the Argentine doesn’t have to score to hurt you. While I don’t buy into the belief that Leo doesn’t care about the ‘best in the world’ tag, he can hold that title without goals.

After an effective job in the first half, it still saw Messi create the best chance of the half for his team. A delicate chip in behind Sergio Ramos found Paulinho but his effort was palmed over the bar by Keylor Navas.

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In the second half when the game opened up a lot more, Messi continued to be the man Barcelona looked for. With Kovacic close by, and Casemiro pushing forward, it left a huge gap for Ivan Rakitic to exploit. After that, Madrid needed to open up and that meant more space for Messi. Against 10 men, it was too easy.  Is it possible to stop Messi? The magic 8-ball says: “All signs point to no.”

Sergio Ramos didn’t lead by example

When the chips are down, you look for leadership and inspiration. Sergio Ramos represents, for many, the blueprint of someone who loves Real Madrid. He’s never afraid to put his body on the line to save his side and is a club icon. In crucial matches he has popped up with goals that reshaped the history of the club.

But one thing he doesn’t possess is self-control.

When Real Madrid went 1-0 down, Ramos seemed to lose his head completely. Sloppy in possession he gave away the ball and invited more pressure on his teammates. This was topped off by Ramos smashing Suarez across the face for no reason at all. He pleaded his innocence and walked away with a yellow card. The only valid argument to be had was asking how it wasn’t a red instead.

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At the age of 31, it’s hard to see Ramos turn over a new leaf. That passion, that need to live on the edge is part of the reason he’s won so much. However it’s a double-edged sword and while he can be the game winner, he can also cost his side crucial points. Today he was lucky to stay on the pitch. But  even if he saw out the 90 minutes, his influence on proceedings didn’t come out for the second half.

Paulinho brings something different to this Barcelona side

It still feels strange to say that Paulinho is at Barcelona. It’s ironic that his most famous moment in a Spurs shirt came against Burnley, his old side’s opponents today. Running towards goal he decided to shoot and it went 10 yards wide. He walked away with a nervous grimace across his face. The commentator even quipped: “Well, if there was ever an audition to be subbed off that was it.”

Fast forward two years and the very same Paulinho is lining up for Barcelona in El Clasico. The Brazilian is no longer a running joke and with each passing week, further proves his doubters wrong. Once again he was the key man to offer something different in attack and took advantage of the space left by Messi having two markers to deal with.

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Those trademark late runs into the box are hard for defenders to pick up on. Paulinho isn’t particularly fast but it’s the timing and execution of them which make him a threat. He tested Navas on numerous times but the hands of the Madrid stopper kept his name off the scoresheet. And then, when he did beat Navas, it was the hand of Carvajal who denied him a certain goal. €40m is starting to look great value for money.

Zidane punished for not making a change sooner

What went wrong at half-time? The Real Madrid side from the opening 45 minutes didn’t appear after the break and were thoroughly outplayed by Barcelona. When these lapses result in a match getting away from you, it’s normal that focus turns to the coach. When things are good, there’s praise. But when things go inexplicably wrong, people ask questions.

Individual errors occur in football. But Zidane was sleeping on making a change early in the second half and his delay might be the reason things got even worse. 1-0 down, chasing shadows, the team needed a fresh face to stabilise proceedings. While Zidane was second-guessing himself, Barcelona scored a penalty and Madrid found themselves 2-0 down with a mountain to climb.

If Isco or Bale had come on at half-time for Benzema no one would’ve complained. The forward line, without pace or creativity, falls flat. Bale and Asensio did get onto the pitch eventually but the team was all over the shop by that stage. Isco didn’t feature at all due to Carvajal’s red card. It doesn’t make sense to reserve so much firepower on the bench – and it cost Zidane a chance of turning it around.

Busquets is back to his best

Last season, in Luis Enrique’s three at the back formation, we saw Sergio Busqets struggle to influence matters in the middle. The man who formed the dream trio with Xavi and Iniesta, looked slow and out of ideas. It was a crying shame to see someone so important for both club and county appear to be on the decline.

Under Ernesto Valverde, however, it appears those funerals for Busquets’ career as an elite defensive midfielder were premature. We’re now seeing the old enforcer reclaim his throne. Teams are unable to stop him from shrugging off his marker and setting up counterattacks. In his defensive role, he continues to predict the move of his opponent before even they do. He’s a mind-reader.

There are very few midfielders who could elegantly twist and turn to get a yard of space from Kroos. But whereas others might turn backwards and play a simple five-yard pass, Busquets is on another level. Noticing Casemiro further forward he threaded a pass through to Rakitic in yards of space. A classic Barcelona move resulted in Suarez tapping home the opening goal.

Busquets is back.

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