Madrid meltdown leaves title hopes in tatters


Dermot CorriganESPN FC

MADRID — Three quick points on Real Madrid 0-3 Barcelona in El Clasico on Saturday afternoon.

1. Barca extinguish Madrid’s title chances

Goals from Luis Suarez, Lionel Messi and Aleix Vidal brought Barcelona a 3-0 Clasico win over Real Madrid, more or less killing off La Liga’s title race with less than half the season played and opening up huge questions about Zinedine Zidane’s long-term future as Madrid coach.

A lunchtime kickoff meant a muted atmosphere, and this Clasico took a long time to get going. Madrid had the better of the first half but could not make their domination pay.

Barca, by contrast, showed ruthless efficiency when they got on top, with Suarez finishing emphatically when the home defence was opened up remarkably easily, and Messi then thumping in the penalty after Dani Carvajal was given a red card for handling Paulinho’s header on the line.

Vidal’s goal in added time led to a mass exodus from a shocked Bernabeu for a conclusion which seemed unlikely during the opening stages. Zidane’s surprise choice of Mateo Kovacic over Isco in midfield worked very well at first, with the extra midfielder helping his team to dominate both possession and territory.

The home side made chances too, as Cristiano Ronaldo had a goal correctly disallowed for offside on two minutes, before the Portugal captain was guilty of an embarrassing air-kick when teed up 15 yards out after Marcelo and Toni Kroos opened up the right of Barca’s defence.

The visitors were uncharacteristically sloppy and cautious in possession, although as the game progressed, Messi began to have an influence, setting up two chances for Paulinho, who drew two excellent saves from Madrid goalkeeper Keylor Navas.

Ronaldo came close at the other end, with Marc-Andre Ter Stegen saving with a boot, before Karim Benzema was unfortunate when his deft header from Marcelo’s cross bounced away off the post.

Barca began the second half better, and it was 1-0 on 54 minutes when Sergio Busquets’ clever pass released Ivan Rakitic, who was strangely allowed to carry the ball right at the heart of the Madrid defence, and Sergi Roberto’s perfect cross was delightedly placed home by Suarez.

The second goal nine minutes later was quite similar, with Messi breaking open Madrid with a ball to Suarez, who twice should have scored, before Carvajal was correctly shown a straight red for stopping Paulinho’s header on the line. The Argentine gleefully converted the penalty for a record 25th Clasico goal, and then especially enjoyed his slow walk back to his own half while punching the air in satisfaction.

Late substitute Gareth Bale missed the best chance for a Madrid consolation, before Vidal finished from Messi’s assist with time almost up.

Barca are now nine points ahead of second-placed Atletico Madrid (who lost 1-0 at Espanyol on Friday night) and a 14 clear of Real. Real will not be retaining their title.

2. Questions for Zidane as key men fail to deliver

Zidane sprung a surprise by choosing Kovacic over higher profile options Isco and Bale, but the choice of an extra midfielder looked clever through the opening half. Further forward Madrid had more issues, though, and not for the first time this season.

Ronaldo’s first 15 minutes included the disallowed goal, a swing and miss when presented with excellent chance and at least three angry stares at referee Sanchez Martinez when decisions did not go his way.

Benzema also looked off-form, the deft header aside, as moves regularly ended when the ball got to his feet close to goal. The Frenchman has now hit the post (six) more times than he’s hit the net (five) in all competitions this season, which cannot be helping his confidence, and is definitely not helping his team.

Madrid’s problems after the break came further back, as they were unable to cope when Barcelona upped the tempo. The home side’s composure disappeared completely after the opening goal, with captain Sergio Ramos lucky not to be sent off for catching Suarez full in the face, even before Carvajal got his marching orders.

Zidane cannot be spared all blame. His hands-off approach gets the praise when things go well, as they mostly did through his first 18 months in the job. But he was powerless to stop his side succumbing here, and his faith in some big-name players is costing his side.

3. Efficiency trumps style at Valverde’s Barcelona

Barca dominated possession and territory in the first half. They seemed to play the situation instead of the game, knowing a draw would be a good result, but their caution and slow passing allowed Madrid to take the initiative.

Captain and tiki-taka symbol Andres Iniesta could be seen gesturing anxiously at his teammates to get them to hold the ball longer and start to play. But this is a different Barca side, where efficiency trumps style, and when the game was there to be won, they were decisive.

Suarez has never been the most aesthetic of footballers, but he was key here with the opener, taking his first chance of the game after Benzema and Ronaldo had missed theirs. Amazingly, Sergi Roberto’s perfect assist — nine minutes after half time — was Barca’s first completed pass inside the Madrid area.

Valverde’s side did not sit back to admire their work either, instead pushing on to quickly confirm their superiority. The second goal was not the most beautiful, but Paulinho’s ability to be in the right place at the right time was key. The Brazilian’s switch last summer was much questioned, but he was hugely involved here. And then there is Messi, whose performance was minimalist in its perfection.

After August’s 5-1 Super Cup victory, it seemed last season’s double champions Madrid were all-powerful, while a Neymar-less Barca were set for a period of transition. Valverde has done a phenomenal job in a difficult situation, and his Barca are now 25 games unbeaten.

Talk of him following Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique by claiming the treble in his first season will begin in the wake of a statement victory.