Barcelona moved four points clear of rivals Real Madrid with a narrow victory at the Camp Nou.
Luis Enrique named his expected XI with Javier Mascherano stepping into midfield for Sergio Busquets, who was unable to start the match, to join Ivan Rakitic and Andres Iniesta.
Similar to Enrique’s team selection, Ancelotti’s XI offered no element of surprise. The Italian recalled Toni Kroos into midfield alongside Luka Modric, Isco and Gareth Bale, while Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema started upfront.
This match followed a similar pattern to previous clasico’s with Real enjoying the better first half, and Barca improving throughout, but more importantly it showcased the stylistic alterations that have taken place at both clubs.
Barcelona were far from their best in the opening half, but their inability to impose authority on the match was unsurprising. The home side’s transformation into a devastating counter-attacking outfit has been showcased on several occasions this season, but with limited space to exploit in Madrid’s third, Enrique’s men failed to consistently pose a threat in attacking zones.
Madrid’s two banks of four maintained a high-line when Barca attempted to play out the back, and their pressing forced the home side to occasionally concede possession cheaply. On the other hand, Madrid limited space between the lines when they dropped deeper into their half, further thwarting a star studded attack.
More so, Modric moved to the right to ensure Madrid held a numerical advantage against Neymar and Jordi Alba. The Croatian equally monitored Iniesta’s movement, whereas Kroos was handed the task of pushing forward to pester Javier Mascherano.
Although Suarez endured a quiet opening half, the Uruguayan was the most effective Barca player by dropping deep in attempt to link play – this movement forced Pepe to commit the foul that led to Jeremy Mathieu’s opener.
The home side should have doubled their lead shortly afterwards when Suarez’s mishit shot fell to an unmarked Neymar in the box, but the Brazilian fired a tame effort directly at Iker Casillas.
Real fly down the left
Real produced arguably their best display in recent weeks in the latter stages of the first half. Kroos and Modric were tidy in central areas, igniting sleek attacks from deep areas, but majority of Real’s moves stemmed down the left flank.
With Barca dropping into a 4-5-1, and considerably keen on retreating into their base shape, Ancelotti’s men exploited space behind the advanced Messi. Marcelo freely surged down the left to steer Real into key areas, and he equally completed the most attacking third passes for the away side.
Ronaldo drifted to the left towards the end of the half with hopes of offering a greater impact, but Rakitic quickly shuttled over to his right flank to aid Dani Alves. Real’s minimal penetration in the final third has thwarted their threat in recent weeks, and while the right side was fairly anonymous throughout, Marcelo’s adventurous positioning was significant.
However, the game’s most threatening attacking player was undoubtedly Benzema, as the Frenchman was often on the end of Marcelo’s surging runs. While Benzema has often been the scapegoat at the Bernabeu, mainly for some questionable finishing, and the pressure of playing alongside two of the most expensive players on the planet, the Frenchman was Madrid’s key man at the Camp Nou.
Here, Benzema’s off-the-ball movement was simple, yet efficient: he often made diagonal runs across centre-backs Gerard Pique and Mathieu, or cleverly drifted into half-space to receive forward passes. Real’s first legitimate chance saw Benzema move into half-space to receive a pass from the rampaging Marcelo, before receiving space from Alves to clip a ball into the far post but Ronaldo directed his shot off the crossbar.
Prior to the aforementioned chance, Benzema made a simple diagonal run into right half-space, but he lashed his shot inches wide of the far post. Coincidentally, the Frenchman made an identical run in the buildup to Ronaldo’s equalizer, this time opting to back heel the ball into the path of the Portuguese striker who failed to test Claudio Bravo.
Likewise, Benzema’s general linkup up play was equally impressive. He dropped deep to receive the ball, and clip a pass into the right channel for Bale, and his ability to hold off Mathieu and spin Mascherano was pivotal in the buildup to Ronaldo’s long distance effort towards the end of the half .
Overall Benzema’s movement was excellent, he combined well with teammates – creating Ronaldo’s equalizer – and was unlucky not to convert Real’s sole legitimate chance in the second half, following an excellent passing move on the break that was initiated by the Frenchman.
Frankly, a few vital last-ditch tackles from MOTM candidate, Gerard Pique prevented Benzema from punishing the hosts in the first half.
In a monumental (potential) title decider against the club’s biggest rivals, it was Benzema that posed several issues for Barca’s back-line opposed to Ronaldo or Bale.
Suarez left the clasico a hero Sunday night, with his second half goal further displaying modifications made under Enrique. The goal itself wasn’t memorable, but it solidifies a shift in the club’s philosophy. In the past, Barca may have continued to try and break Real down with intricate passes in the final third, but here, and as they have on several occasions this season, they adopted a direct approach to bypass the away side’s pressing.
Following several passes between the Barca defenders, it was Alves’ long ball into right half-space that saw Suarez run across Pepe to expertly control the pass on his chest and slide his shot past the keeper. Suarez had varied his movement throughout – running off the defenders shoulder or dropping deep to link with an advancing teammate – and fittingly both methods resulted in goals.
Rakitic also played a key role in the build up as his vertical run in the right channel pulled Ramos out of position, and created a laneway for Suarez to run into.
This move would be classified as an atypical method of attack in the past, but Enrique’s shift deems Suarez’s winner as the ideal goal.
Final 35 minutes
With that being said, Suarez’s goal altered the pattern of the match, and specifically flustered what was turning into a classic Madrid performance. Mascherano attempted a simple long ball over the defence for Neymar 10 minutes after Suarez’s goal, but Carvajal did well to nudge the Brazilian aside.
But Real were desperate for a winner, and in return sacrificed their solid shape to push more men forward. Neymar’s influence increased with his individual slaloms from the left, while Messi found more space between the lines to drive at Real’s defence to place his teammates in goal scoring positions.
Now there was plenty of space for Barca’s prolific front three to exploit on the counter, but their finishing and final ball was consistently underwhelming.
Madrid’s attempt to rescue a point failed, with Benzema’s deflected effort serving as the sole chance that tested Bravo. Where Enrique turned to three ball playing midfielders in Xavi, Busquets and Rafinha ensure his side retained possession in the final minutes, only Jese Rodriguez’s introduction looked capable of impacting the match.
Still, Madrid transitioned into a lopsided 4-2-4 that equally played into Barca’s hands when they won possession. Ancelotti lacked options on the bench to alter the match, and an attempt to rescue a late point left Madrid vulnerable on the counter.
In the past, Barca was renowned for dominating possession, whereas Real relied on quick transitions to bypass their energetic pressing and score goals. But where Ancelotti’s side has shifted into a possession-based outfit, Enrique has maximized the strengths of his attacking three with an enhanced direct approach.
Both sides stuck faithful to their systems throughout, with both centre forwards playing key roles in the end result. Benzema’s terrific movement and linkup play resulted in several slick passing moves that terrorized Barca’s back-line. But Suarez served as a diligent reference point upfront that offered the home side an additional element of attack that they have missed in recent years.
“He (Suarez) is not just an old-style striker; he can also combine with his team-mates, he reads the game well, he knows what the team needs at key moments,” Enrique said.
“You have to have [different] resources; that’s very important. Our aim is to have the ball, to create chances and to defend a long way from our goal but your opponent plays too and we have to interpret what we need in the game. We scored from a set play as well [as a long pass], and that’s gratifying for all of us.”
Real’s initial approach was logical considering the threat Barca have posed in transition this year, but wasteful finishing in the first half proved crucial. Barca, in fairness, weren’t dominant until Suarez’s winner, which could represent Madrid’s tired legs in midfield, and their determination to find an equalizer.
The tactical elements were scarce throughout, but both goals epitomized the current ethos at both club – Madrid didn’t possess an alternative attacking method in the latter stages, but worryingly (with a two legged clash against Atletico on the horizon) Madrid still encounters issues breaking down organized back-lines.