El Clasico: Real Madrid's title hopes take a hit with Barcelona loss as Zinedine Zidane's questionable tactics come under scanner
Last season, as Real Madrid won its first league title in five years, the French manager’s tactical switch to accommodate Isco shone brightly. On Saturday, he could find a place for the playmaker only on the bench.
This time, like last April, FC Barcelona did not require a dramatic last-minute intervention from Lionel Messi. The weird lunchtime kickoff for El Clasico had found its winner around the hour mark. Real Madrid’s challenge lay crumpled; its title hopes decimated.
Afterwards, both coaches were convinced that the Liga race is not over yet. “We’re pissed off but Madrid never surrender, no matter what. People can think the league is over but I don’t think so and I don’t think the opposition coach thinks so either,” said manager Zinedine Zidane. Perhaps so. But on a weekend where all of Barcelona’s closest challengers lost to leave Ernesto Valverde’s side nine points clear at the top, it does seem like it’s over.
How quickly things change. Back in August, after a resounding 5-1 hammering over two legs in the Spanish Supercopa, despair hung heavily over Barcelona. The departure of Neymar was a fresh wound still. Now it seems like a pain on the periphery, with a run of 25 unbeaten matches providing cosy comfort to the Catalans. Valverde’s tenure has turned out to be a sleeper hit; Zidane, on the other hand, will crease his forehead with even more worries now. The dark clouds of crisis are encircling Real Madrid.
There was one decision which instantly attracted attention, for the wrong reasons. Zidane’s move to hand Mateo Kovacic his first La Liga start of the season gave rise to pre-game murmurs, particularly because of the shift in mindset it represented. Last season, as Madrid won its first league title in five years, the French manager’s tactical switch to accommodate Isco shone brightly. On Saturday, he could find a place for the playmaker only on the bench.
There were some reports after the match which suggested that Isco refused to continue his warm-up when Zidane brought on defender Nacho Fernandez following Dani Carvajal’s sending-off. Discontent is a quick brew. “I know I'm going to get beaten up tomorrow (in the media) for the decision to start (Mateo) Kovacic ahead of Isco, but I'm never going to change. I'm here to make decisions, and if we'd scored in the first half, it would all have been different,” asserted Zidane, in the aftermath of Barcelona’s third straight win in the league at the Santiago Bernabeu. This has never happened before.
Zidane’s claim about the first half was not entirely incorrect. Madrid did begin the stronger of two sides and Cristiano Ronaldo will look back at his airy bludgeon which hit everything but the ball. But the host did not possess a tactical advantage as both teams set out in a 4-4-2 system which was liable to cancel each other out. Four central midfielders on either side meant that it was the likes of Isco who could have brought guile to Madrid’s intensity. Barcelona initially suffered but, as Valverde later put it, persevered.
The trouble was that Kovacic began the game by trying to shut Sergio Busquets but in the second half, his attentions were directed solely towards Lionel Messi. The opening goal summed up the issue at hand. As Busquets’ delicious turn cut Toni Kroos out in Barcelona’s half, Ivan Rakitic suddenly had space to run into. Luka Modric failed to mark his countryman and Rakitic sped forward.
Since Kovacic was the man with shielding duties, it would have been his job then to deal with the onrushing player. Instead, he decided to stay with Messi. It was a colossal mistake. The move did not require the intervention of the Argentinean and Luis Suarez was at hand to deliver the blow.
Now, Kovacic is a man of multiple talents but he is no defensive screen. While he did an admirable job in the first half, it was likely that he would make a mistake or two. What seems rather curious is that Zidane chose to counter Barcelona’s strengths, rather than throw them a difficult poser in the mould of Isco. For a side that was already miles behind the league leader and in desperate need of victory, Madrid’s reactive strategy was rather peculiar.
After Barcelona took the lead, spaces opened up and the afternoon carried an air of disaster. Madrid’s early initiative had dissipated. The introduction of Gareth Bale and Marco Asensio — the latter a hero for Los Blancos in the Supercopa tie this August — brought little joy. Zidane took Kovacic and Casemiro off; Benzema had already been ditched in favour of the defensive protection provided by Nacho. Isco, however, looked on from the bench, glum. His mood was shared by the Madrid faithful.
“It’s a defeat that hurts,” said Zidane. It was also a defeat that crushed any hopes of resurgence from Madrid this season. The defending champions now lie 14 points behind Barcelona with a game in hand. The ‘White Christmas’ banner at the Bernabeu was a promise unkept. The title is Barcelona’s to lose.
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