El Clásico – Iniesta boosts Barca, but Real stay in charge

by Paul Little

Maybe not one of the great El Clásicos, but a compelling one nevertheless in what was, just 14 games into the La Liga season, a critical fixture.

For the second time in a matter of weeks, Real Madrid visited the home of one of their great rivals knowing they could inflict serious damage on their opponents with a win.

They managed to do just that in the Madrid derby two weeks ago, but this time they had to settle for a point, which nevertheless will have left them the happier of the two sides.

 

Sergio Ramos’s late headed leveller earned Los Merengues a deserved point and maintained their six point gap over Barcelona.

The manner in which they comfortably controlled the first half – albeit without seriously testing ter Stegen – and in which they fought back to claim parity despite a much improved second half display from Barcelona will surely have satisfied Zinedine Zidane and Real’s supporters.

Ronaldo and co are now unbeaten in their 14 league games this season, and in any of their 20 games across all competitions. In fact, under Zidane, Los Blancos have lost only one of 34 La Liga games – and that was back in February.

They came close to a second reverse on Saturday, but showed that when tested, they have a grit and resolve to match their skill and organisation.

If the French man were to have one regret, however, it’d surely be that his side failed to create more opportunities and punish the Blaugrana during a first half they controlled comfortably.

Even without Toni Kroos and Gareth Bale, and with Casemiro only fit for the bench, Modric and Kovacic easily bested Busquets and Rakitic, while the movement and rotation of Isco, Lucas Vazquez and Ronaldo were a constant headache for Barca’s rearguard.

Defensively, Ramos and Varane were largely untroubled as Enrique’s side were restricted to just the one shot on target and four in total.

 

But goals change games, and it was Barca, having started the second half with a little more intent, who struck first.

Luis Suarez was too cute and strong for the otherwise flawless Raphael Varane, heading home Neymar’s free kick on 56 minutes. And from there, it looked as if the game would be wrested away from the league leaders, particularly when Andres Iniesta replaced Rakitic on the hour and began to run the show.

In that half hour cameo, the little man reminded us of just what the Catalans have been missing since he was injured against Valencia in late October.

His seven game absence coincided with Barca’s recent lacklustre form that had seen them beaten by Manchester City in the Champions League and concede critical La Liga points in draws against with Malaga and Real Sociedad.

If Suarez’s goal put a spring in Barca’s step, it was Iniesta’s introduction that saw them take full control. We all know about his creative talents, but his awareness of space and time without the ball is often overlooked.

The Spanish international is brilliant at closing down opposition distribution channels, and his presence was key in cutting Real’s supply lines.

Crucially, Barca’s midfield took on a much more compact look, as Iniesta tucked in closer to Sergio Busquets, whose performance visibly improved in that 30 minute period.

In an attacking sense, he was equally influential. The Catalans rediscovered their rhythm and flow, helped by Iniesta’s 96.3% pass completion rate.

Two of those passes deserved better than the profligate finishing of the out of sorts Neymar and the uncharacteristically quiet Messi, as both spurned gilt-edge opportunities to kill the game.

And those misses were to prove costly. Zidane reacted to Barca’s midfield stranglehold by replacing Isco with Casemiro, and Real’s increased solidity in the middle of the park gave them a platform from which to mount their late challenge.

 

And it was another lapse in concentration from a set piece that saw the visitors grab a point. Modric’s fine delivery on 89 minutes was met by the head of Sergio Ramos who rose unchallenged as Mascherano stumbled.

The Argentine was a little unfortunate, but in truth, any one of three Real players could have finished it such was the poor marking of the hosts.

So, it was honours even at the Camp Nou, but it remains very much advantage Real Madrid.

Lessons learned? That Iniesta’s fitness and form may be critical to Barca’s hopes of retaining their title.

And that while they may not be the prettiest Real Madrid ever, they will take some shifting on this evidence.

Author Info

Paul Little

Freelance football columnist. European Football with the Irish Daily Star. Hold the Back Page podcast regular. Family and Renaissance Man. Dublin born, Wicklow resident.

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