Real Madrid took the points in the first El Clasico of the season in Spain, with Sergio Ramos scoring the crucial goal from the penalty spot. If all that sounds rather familiar and years in the repeating, it only tells part of the current chapter of the story of LaLiga’s finest.
Because it was enormously apparent as the game went on that, regardless of the actual outcome, this fixture showed that there is a changing of the guard taking place among Spain’s top two.
For years this was a game where the starting XIs were almost as predictable as their eventual standing as first- and second-place in the league table. Many of those shirts remain involved: Ramos, Toni Kroos, Karim Benzema; Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets, Lionel Messi. They remain enormous names, their standing in the dressing room is no doubt irreplaceable and they can all contribute at any given moment…but several were also helpless bystanders at times.
Barcelona and Real Madrid are not at, or near, their peak of previous seasons right now. Spanish football has been seen as being on the wane as a result. It’s more accurate to suggest that the top end has been on the wane, for there are several other sides enjoying an upwardly mobile trajectory. But these two giants have work to do to regain their former auras of invincibility.
This 90 minutes showed it just as much as recent results have done so – between them they’ve lost to Getafe, Cadiz and Shakhtar Donetsk in the past week. It’s a time of transition, partly forced by worldwide finance circumstances, but also because of terrible planning and progressions, transfers and successions.
This meeting was a new-look one by force more than by design.
A classic Clasico, so to speak, might conjure up memories of non-stop passing circles from the Catalan outfit, lightning counter-attacks from Los Blancos, individuality in the penalty area to win matches.
The opening stages were enough to tell us there would be nothing of the sort this time around, as neither team had any kind of control, very little defensive structure and members of the new guard on the scoresheet.
Federico Valverde’s brilliant run and powerful finish opened the scoring with just four minutes into the game, before Ansu Fati became the youngest goalscorer in El Clasico history by tapping home a low cross to equalise.
It wasn’t necessarily those names putting the final touches on the moves which pointed to a change, though, as much as the players who couldn’t keep pace. Busquets simply stopped tracking the run of Valverde, giving up early as his own physicality would never have kept the Uruguayan out, while Pique was dragged out of position too by the initial ball played through.
At the other end it was Ramos who couldn’t keep up; Fati’s sudden burst of acceleration and greater anticipation saw him get ahead of the veteran centre-back to side-foot home with ease. Ramos was caught out several times more during the match, while Busquets might feel he hasn’t had many games, let alone Clasicos, where he has been less-effective.
Meanwhile Ronald Koeman will point to his future central figures as impressing: Frenkie de Jong grew in influence as the game went on and Serginio Dest, a Clasico debutant, was probably the best Barcelona player on the day. Elsewhere Neto and Pedri played in the fixture for the first time – and as if to underline the ‘new era’ feel, even the referee, Juan Martinez Munuera, took charge of his first Barca vs Real encounter.
But still, managers look to experience – and the ultimate outcome of the game perhaps shows why.
For all Barcelona’s marginally better build-up play, their counter-attacking options and their exciting young players, it was two of the oldest heads who settled matters: Ramos from the penalty spot, who has played more times in El Clasico than anybody else in history, and sub Luka Modric, now 35 years of age and finally no longer a guaranteed starter.
Zinedine Zidane came into the game under pressure, being questioned and perhaps not even knowing what his best side is right now, as the changing of the guard begins to really take hold.
Three points won against Barcelona has a wonderful way of acting as a pressure release-valve though, and for all the concerns about how long some of the elder statesmen can go on for, it remains apparent that, if managed correctly and not run into the ground relentlessly, they can still tilt the balance at key moments.
The change will take time, and it is most assuredly underway. Another year or two down the line and Fati, Vinicius Jr, Valverde and Dest might be the biggest protagonists in the biggest of games – but right now they are instead the shining lights in stuttering teams who are trying to eke every last ounce of effectiveness out of their dominant stars of yesteryear.
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