EL Clasico – The Race for La Liga

“File:KarimBenzema.jpg” by Майоров Владимир is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

El Clasico is a fixture of epic proportion. Not just for its football, but also for its cultural aspect. Pride is always at stake between two of the biggest clubs in the world, but this was definitely not a game to lose with both teams embroiled in the first real three-horse race deep into the season for the title with Atletico Madrid since the 2015/16 campaign. Before the start of play only 3 points separated the top 3 with Atleti’s lead shrinking as they have only won two out of their last eight games after having a sizeable lead. 

Madrid welcomed back Federico Valverde into their starting XI as Marco Asensio dropped to the bench from the side that beat Liverpool 3-1 in the Champions League. Whereas Antoine Griezmann was only named on the Barca bench as Frenkie de Jong moved back into midfield, and Ronald Araujo started in defence from the team who won on Monday at home to Real Valladolid.

Barcelona had more of the ball to begin and Thibaut Courtois had to be alert to push away a Jordi Alba cross in the 9th minute. Despite the Catalans’ possession it was the home side who took the lead in the 14th minute. Real broke down the right and Valverde found Lucas Vazquezwhose cross was met by a deft back-heel at the near post by Karim Benzema, a really smart finish by the Frenchman.

In the 28th minute it was to be 2. The lively Vinicius Junior was brought down on the edge of the box by Araujo, and from the resulting free-kick Toni Kroos found the net via two deflections from Sergino Dest in the wall and then Jordi Alba on the line. Madrid’s game plan to hit Barca on the break was working perfectly and it could well have been 3 after 36 minutes as Valverde’sshot deflected off of Clement Lenglet and hit the post, then from the rebound Marc-Andre Ter Stegen denied Vazquez. 

A nasty clash in the middle of the park in the 38th minute between Vazquez and Sergio Busquets saw Vazquez have to be replaced five minutes later by Alvaro Odriozola. Barcelona closed the half well and almost pulled a goal back. First from an audacious attempt to score from a corner, Lionel Messi rocked the woodwork. Then in the final minute of injury time Courtois denied Messi down low from Ousmane Dembele’s corner. Barcelona had it all to do despite having 68% of the possession in the half, Real were easily the more dangerous.

Barca took off Dest and brought on Antoine Griezmann to start the second half. The rain came bucketing down and the game lost its way a bit for the first ten minutes. In the 55th minute, Griezmann put the ball wide from close range after meeting de Jong’s ball, but to spare his embarrassment the flag went up. Ronald Koeman’s men continued to probe and on the hour they were level. Centre half Oscar Mingueza timed his run to perfection to meet Alba’s cross after Griezmann smartly stepped over the ball. This sparked Los Blancos back into action,and the game went from end-to-end in a thrilling ten-minute spell. Firstly in the 63rd minute Real went close as Vinicius’ ball in was deflected onto the post, then a minute later Courtois kept out Messi’s cross at his near post. Vinicius was to again break free again but he could not find Benzema when Barcelona were completed stretched as once again their high line was exposed. Benzema then in the 68th minute made poor contact on a header that would have surely sealed the game. In the 71stminute it was the away sides chance to break and substitute Sergi Roberto drove a vicious ball right across the face of goal.

Barcelona were outraged not to be given a penalty in the 83rd minute when as Alba’s effort went well wide Ferland Mendy held Martin Braithwaite but no penalty was given. The contact was minimal to say the least but we have seen them given before. As Barcelona searched for a vital goal Casemiro was sent off in the 90th minute as he fouled Griezmann just outside the box for his second booking. Messi took the free-kick but Courtois made a routine save. There was almost the spectacular ending that the game deserved as another Barca substitute Moriba Illaix’ effort cannoned off the bar with the last kick of the game. 

So a thrilling El Clasico ended with a massive win for Zinedine Zidane’s men. They are now level on 66 points with their city rivals Atletico, but top the table on their head-to-head record having played a game more. Diego Simeone’s men play away at Manuel Pellegrini’s Real Betis on Sunday in what will be a tricky encounter.

By Daniel Dwamena

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