The first Clasico of the season was something of a weird one, especially when looking at the key players and heroes. Lionel Messi had a weak performance, hardly felt under heavy guard. Meanwhile, both Neymar and later Alexis Sanchez enjoyed enough freedom to score the goals put Barcelona all smiling when they got past the finish line.
We have seen Clasico matches with Messi not scoring, but it’s rare to see him hardly having any sort of influence. Real Madrid went about their business with one approach on their mind, especially early on: Lionel Messi won’t be the one to beat us. Unfortunately for Real, Barcelona might have gotten over their Messi issues by adding Neymar and by cleverly not sticking him in the middle.
Messi played on the right side of the attack for most of the match, which relieved some of the usual congestion in the middle Real Madrid tried to create by using Sergio Ramos in the midfield as well. Neymar and Cesc Fabregas were both somewhat of strikers, as Neymar played in a more central role than usually. His goal, however, came as he broke through from the left wing, and had a little bit of help from the Real Madrid defense both in poor coverage and again with a slight touch to deny Diego Lopez the chance of stopping his shot, which probably would have gone in anyway.
Gerard Martino hasn’t changed the formation of Barcelona too much compared to the past. It’s still something of a 4-3-3, but the roles are different, and the whole approach has changed. There’s more caution from the wing backs, with Adriano naturally a better defender than the injured Jordi Alba is. Dani Alves finds it hard not to join the attack, but he did it responsibly, making it quite difficult for Cristiano Ronaldo through the first 60-70 minutes.
Not too much possession involved. Barcelona did control the ball, but always with a purpose. The whole approach of holding onto the ball so the opponent can’t attack us isn’t gone, but it’s much less evident, as Barcelona use long balls more than before, scoring both of their goals thanks to the “new” approach. Alexis Sanchez has bothered Real Madrid in the past, especially when playing in a central role, using his speed to overcome a defense that’s a little bit too much over-reactive. His chip had nothing to do with positioning and tactics. It was simply skill and quick thinking.
A breath of fresh air swirled through the Camp Nou in the final minutes. Real Madrid weren’t too far from scoring before Jese made it 1-2, a bit too late. Javier Mascherano was responsible for some defensive gaffes and a foul on Cristiano Ronaldo which wasn’t called, although Barcelona also deserved a penalty kick in the first half after Cesc Fabregas was fouled. But Martino pulled his team backwards as the tactics unraveled, almost paying a dear price for using Alex Song for the final minutes.
Barcelona are the better team right now and were the better team for most of the first Clasico this season. However, the best news to come out of this match might be the realization that they don’t need Lionel Messi at his finest in order to come out victorious, even against the toughest of rivals.