Most of the spotlight goes, obviously, to Cristiano Ronaldo, for another incredible display of what a counter attacking finisher should be. But the foundation for the goals and everything Real Madrid did in a magical night for them was the defense, led by Xabi Alonso and Raphael Varane, in a nearly flawless performance against the most difficult of opposition.
Barcelona were left without ideas most of the time, with all passing lanes closed down to Iniesta and Xavi. After chasing players for so many years, Xabi Alonso simply positioned himself perfectly to close down passing lanes. Xavi, Busquets, Pique and Iniesta could dribble and hold possession for as much as they’d like up to a certain line, but couldn’t find the killer through ball they’re so accustomed to find most of the time, while the movement of Iniesta was severely limited by both Alvaro Arbeloa (as the “chopper” for Real) and Sami Khedira.
Sometimes it’s not just about tactical changes during the match Barcelona couldn’t make. It’s about execution, and players doing the right thing. There’s only so much a manager can do – the rest is up to the players. And playing your tactical role perfectly for nearly 90 minutes in this kind of match is incredibly difficult. Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane never supported the attack until the game was in the bag – the same goes to Alvaro Arbeloa, closing down the option of seeing a counter attack from Barcelona.
Offensively? Real Madrid have met with Barcelona so many times in recent season, they know what they’re going into. A team that attacks with most of their players, leaving holes in the defense. For that kind of mission, you don’t need too many players to try and score. Cristiano Ronaldo alone, especially on the counter attack, is like three players. Him, Angel di Maria and occasionally Gonzalo Higuain was more than enough while the rest of the team simply stayed as close as possible to their original positions, never breaking formation.
Discipline and execution. Cristiano Ronaldo showed what being the best player in the world is all about. The edge and media perception is slightly changing if these performances stay intact. He simply didn’t make mistakes, and was a one man strike force most of the time, not needing anyone next to him to create chance after chance every time Barcelona turned the ball over, with Dani Alves struggling to keep up with him on the wing, and no one really coming to help.
The rise of Raphael Varane is an exceptional one. Still a teenager, the young Frenchman scored a header on his second consecutive clasico. He brings a blend of physicality, athleticism and yet looking mature and calm every time he’s faced with a difficult situation, aided by the fact that he’s playing next to Sergio Ramos in the back. With him, it looks like Real have themselves a centre back to trust for 10-15 years.
A revolution in Spanish football? Not yet. Real Madrid failed, up until now, in the league, and there’s no way getting around that with success in the Spanish Cup, a minor competition, no matter how you look at it. But knocking Barcelona out of the way probably feels better than anything else has all season long.