Santiago Bernabeu, Madrid – There was a jig taking place close to the centre circle when Gerard Pique emerged and rose his arms. He directed them up to the gods, where the travelling Barcelona fans were positioned. Having become the first side to not only travel to the Santiago Bernabeu twice in 72 hours and beat Real Madrid but also eliminate them from two competitions – the cup and the league – they had every right to feel like they were up in the heavens.
This was not an extraordinary Barcelona performance, like so many this season. But still, they were able to show the gap that has developed between Spain’s biggest sides. A single goal was enough, with the lovely pass from Sergi Roberto presenting Ivan Rakitic with a dinked finish which he executed wonderfully being perhaps the one true moment of quality in a game that was determined by character rather than class.
It was why Pique was taking much of the adulation post-match. He was monumental in central defence; intercepting, inventing and, as a consequence, hugely impressive. Time and again he managed to get his long legs to stop Real in their tracks, he was the driving force from the back and seemed to relish the rather hectic nature of the affair. However, the very fact that Pique was involved suggests that he was tested, and that was the case. Real did get forward and threaten, but were dealt with effectively by Pique and Clement Lenglet.
— LaLiga (@LaLiga) March 2, 2019
There was an energy and intensity to Barcelona’s display that has rarely been seen in recent years, one supposes that had Ernesto Valverde’s side gone into last season’s Champions League quarter-final second leg away in Rome with the same spirit and aggression then they would have gone through. Often attitude is overlooked and yet it really completes a team. Here Barcelona’s fighting spirit was evident; having knocked Real out of the Copa del Rey at the semi-final stage in midweek, it was clear that they believed they could do the same in the league three days later.
The tenacity suited Pique who was booed with his every touch in the early stages but is used to such umbrage. It was apparent that this was an encounter that brought the best out of Barcelona’s centre back and he relished being the driving force propelling his side towards another win over their rivals. The front cover of Diario AS on Saturday morning highlighted that prior to the evening match, both teams were tied with 95 clásico wins each. It’s now 96-95 in Barcelona’s favour, the first time the Catalans have led in 87 years and is a testament to the fine decade that they have had.
Though it was only 18 months ago when Pique himself admitted that Barcelona felt inferior to Real for the first time. Since then la Blaugrana have won four of the six clásicos, drawing the other two. It has felt that in recent seasons, Barcelona have been ‘a league side’ whilst Real ‘a cup side’; under Carlo Ancelotti and subsequently Zinedine Zidane Real were considered practically unbeatable in European competition such was their nous of how to win whereas they only managed one La Liga triumph in six seasons. Barcelona, on the other hand, have won four La Liga titles in that time.
Was, therefore, Pique’s assessment slightly misjudged? It certainly appears so, and one would say that the gulf between the two hasn’t seemed as stark for some time. Although there are positive shoots emerging from Santi Solari’s Real; Vinicius Jr has sparkled and shined since being given a run in the first team, albeit he was effectively dealt with by Roberto here and in an attacking sense was overshadowed by the dynamism of Ousmane Dembele who is further ahead in his career, there is plenty of potential that Real can tap into. Likewise, the performance of Sergio Reguilon followed suit of his other recent displays in which his combination play with Toni Kroos and Vinicius has been notable.
Dos muros en una misma foto🔒 pic.twitter.com/l4lwx7puyO
— FC Barcelona (desde 🏠) (@FCBarcelona_es) March 2, 2019
Though headlines such as ‘Madrid surrenders’ does hint at a Real side that are very much off the pace and lacking conviction at the moment. For all the promise that Solari, and many of the Castilla players whom he has placed trust in, have shown, at Real there is a requirement of performances now, not later. The 12 point gap that now exists between them and Barcelona is too large to bridge over the final 12 matchdays of the season and, although Atletico Madrid beat Real Sociedad on Sunday to maintain their seven-point gap to the leaders, there is a sense that Barcelona are more or less home and dry.
On the pitch on Saturday evening, there was too much confusion between Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane resulting in Rakitic being gifted a lot of space to score the game’s only goal. Karim Benzema was ineffective; not poor, just ineffective. Gareth Bale also struggled to get into the game and departed on the hour to boos from the home crowd. Diario AS editor Alfredo Relano labelled Bale’s performance as “another display of lazy uselessness”. Such sentiments are clearly felt amongst Madridistas and seriously question whether Bale does have a future at the club.
For all of the claims of Leo Messi dependence at Barcelona, this showing was more of the muted nature from the Argentine and yet la Blaugrana still managed to claim what was probably their most significant victory of the campaign. It was played like a final with every loose ball being a battle and defenders attacking and attackers defending. It was scrappy at times but enthralling nevertheless. It is a game that very rarely fails to deliver although this was not the highest quality clásico, it was one that you couldn’t take your eyes off.
It was fast-paced from start to finish and Messi almost chipped the visitors ahead early on. Pique and Lenglet were imposing and the former had to make a vital sliding block to prevent Luka Modric from scoring for the hosts. But it was when Sergio Busquets dispossessed an ambling Kroos halfway through the first half that set Barcelona on a killer counter. Busquets was efficient in midfield and in this instance he neatly played to Messi who received deep and passed to Rakitic who in turn set Roberto off on a run down the right. He returned the ball close to the area with a perfectly weighted ball and Rakitic approached Thibaut Courtois before chipping over the goalkeeper and into the net.
Barcelona had eased into the lead, in stark contrast to the rather frenetic start that the match had seen. Courtois then denied Luis Suarez and Modric spurned an equaliser when he headed over the crossbar. Messi and Ramos squared up as the half came to an end; the Real captain caught him with a flailing arm which angered the usually calm Argentine. The confrontation typified the character of this clásico. The second half saw a drop in both pace and quality, the result of back-to-back clásicos, with Real struggling to muster too much in attack.
When they did though, Pique was there. And if it wasn’t Pique snuffing out danger then it was Marc-Andre ter Stegen standing firm and saving an attempt from Vinicius. Barcelona could have doubled their lead; Dembele should have finished better when he had the ball at his feet in the area and Messi also went close. Valverde – dressed on the touchline like he’d come straight from the nearest bar having performed a set as a Dean Martin tribute act – was content with what his side had given him. This was a characterful display from the visitors, the league is there’s now surely.
The Real players got a pat on the back from Solari at full time rather than an applause; it was that kind of performance from them, that type of season – not good enough, by their high standards, to deserve adulation or praise, only some gratitude for effort. They were second best here, and that is concerning considering this Barcelona is far from outstanding and won this through fight and spirit which Real could not match either. “Let’s Dance!” read the front cover of Mundo Deportivo and that’s what Barcelona did. As the stadium emptied, they danced the night away. They had deserved such celebrations; winning two clásicos in three days and knocking Real out of cup and league.
Los Otros Puntos
If there’s one thing from this weekend’s action that will please La Liga president Javier Tebas, it is that Wu Lei became the first Chinese footballer to score in La Liga. Such is the emphasis that Tebas is placing on building marketing and business relationships with China and Asia, that Wu’s goal – the final strike in a 3-1 victory for Espanyol over Valladolid – will only aid Tebas’ ambitions of tapping into that market. Espanyol are owned by Chinese company Restar Group and bought Wu from Shanghai SIPG FC in January where he was the league’s top scorer. Tebas will hope that this is the first of many both in terms of Wu’s goals and also Chinese players coming to La Liga.
— LaLiga (@LaLiga) March 2, 2019
Quite possibly they are still celebrating in El Alcoraz now. Huesca’s winner against Sevilla came so late that it felt like the supporters had little time to celebrate so they had to make the most of it. So much had gone before; it was a crazy game ending with Huesca celebrating their third home win of the season.
It will not be enough to keep them up but this will be an evening long remembered in Aragon. Juanpi put the hosts in front in the seventh minute before Wissam Ben Yedder equalised from the penalty spot six minutes from time. Sevilla thought they had won it late on but the goal was ruled out for offside. However, VAR was not going to prevent Chimmy Avila from clinching the winner for Huesca in the eighth minute of stoppage time to send the stadium wild.
| GOAL! |
VAR stops Sevilla from winning the game, but it won't stop Huesca!
— ELEVEN SPORTS UK (@ElevenSports_UK) March 2, 2019
Cristhian Stuani must be considered as one of the most effective players in La Liga. Few teams rely so much on a player as Girona do on him. His brace against lowly Rayo Vallecano took him to 15 La Liga goals this season, a tally only bettered by Messi and Suarez.
Alaves win! Getafe win! If Sevilla keep dropping points then it’s not implausible that Alaves and Getafe will be fighting toe-to-toe for the last Champions League place. Who’d have thought?
Another defeat for Celta Vigo – this time against Eibar – and with that Fran Escriba is brought in to try and keep them up. It’s a tough job that he’s got on his hands.
Rayo Vallecano 0-2 Girona
Espanyol 3-1 Valladolid
Villarreal 1-2 Alaves
Huesca 2-1 Sevilla
Real Madrid 0-1 Barcelona
Eibar 1-0 Celta Vigo
Real Betis 1-2 Getafe
Real Sociedad 0-2 Atletico Madrid
Valencia 2-0 Athletic Bilbao
Leganes – Levante to be played on Monday