El Clásico: How Real Madrid Beat Barcelona
In front of a hostile crowd at the Camp Nou, Real Madrid beat Barcelona by a scoreline of 2-1 on Saturday night. Los Blancos bounced back from their disappointing loss against Bayern Munich in midweek, pulling off one of the club's greatest wins in recent history.
José Mourinho's men delivered a five-star team performance on Saturday night in what was most likely the decisive match of this La Liga campaign. With the victory, Real Madrid increased their lead atop La Liga to an almost insurmountable seven points.
Sami Khedira's opening goal was cancelled out by Alexis Sanchez's goal in the 70th minute. However, Madrid talisman Cristiano Ronaldo delivered the killer blow only three minutes later, sending Madridistas into pure ecstasy.
I was at the Camp Nou on Saturday night to witness this impressive triumph. Here's how Mourinho's men beat Barcelona in El Clásico.
Win the Set-Piece Battle
One of Barcelona's weaknesses has always been their lack of height, making them vulnerable from set-pieces. With the likes of Sami Khedira, Sergio Ramos, Pepe, Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo, Real Madrid came into the Camp Nou with a significant height advantage over the Catalan club.
Although they have not been deadly from set-pieces in recent Clásicos, Los Blancos opened the scoring off a corner. Ángel di María whipped in an exceptional corner, and Pepe won the header at the back post.
The Portuguese defender forced a tough save from Barca keeper Victor Valdes, but Khedira was not to be denied as he forced in the opening goal.
While both clubs are known for producing great goals from open play, Madrid's ability to capitalize on set-pieces was key.
Communication at the Back
One of the keys to Madrid's victory in El Clásico was the back-four's communication. Fábio Coentrão, Ramos, Pepe and Álvaro Arbeloa were constantly talking to one another and making sure that every Barcelona player was accounted for in the final third.
With Barcelona's darting outside-to-inside diagonal runs and overlapping movements, communication is essential to staying organized as a defensive unit. The emphasis on communication made the back-four more alert to possible runs in behind and open passing lanes.
It may have been difficult to see on TV, but it was absolutely incredible to see in person.
Sergio Ramos and Pepe's World-Class Partnership
Sergio Ramos and Pepe showed why they are the best central defensive partnership in the world. Both players were exceptional at the back, quickly closing down opponents and dominating the aerial battle.
The two Madrid stars put on an absolute master class of central defending. When one defender quickly stepped up to press a Barcelona player, the other immediately dashed back to provide cover.
Although it may seem like simple defending, the speed at which both defenders provided pressure and cover was nothing short of unbelievable. Barcelona were unable to find their trademark splitting passes because Madrid's outstanding pressure gave them no time on the ball, and the quick cover shut down all the dangerous passing lanes.
Together, they were able to contain Lionel Messi and minimize his impact on the match. Although there is much more to Barcelona than the Argentine maestro, keeping him relatively quiet was important for the away side.
Ramos and Pepe's chemistry and understanding was at the heart of Madrid's impressive defensive display.
Karim Benzema's Ability to Hold Up Play and Link Up with Teammates
Real Madrid's Karim Benzema has evolved into a special striker. After enduring a tough start to his Real Madrid career, the former Lyon star has enjoyed a breakout 2011-12 season.
Once referred to as a cat by Mourinho, Benzema has developed into one of the best, and most complete, strikers in all of European football. The Frenchman all the physical tools: pace, power, precision, skill, touch.
In Saturday night's highly-anticipated Clásico, Benzema was exceptional up front for Los Blancos.
The Madrid striker was able to hold up play and link up with teammates as well. Under pressure from the likes of Carles Puyol and Javier Mascherano, the Frenchman did well to keep possession and combine with Madrid's attacking players in transition.
His soft touch and intelligent movement helped Los Blancos move out of their own defensive third and transition further up the pitch.
Benzema did not find his way onto the scoresheet, but he was undoubtedly one of Madrid's star players at the Camp Nou.
Quick Response Courtesy of Mesut Ozil and Cristiano Ronaldo
As a manager, player or supporter, what do you want from your team after losing a well-deserved 1-0 lead? A response. And quick one.
That is exactly what happened in El Clásico, as Ronaldo scored the winner for Los Blancos only three minutes after Alexis Sanchez netted the equalizer in the 70th minute.
The Madrid superstar's decisive strike was his 42nd league goal this season and his 21st away goal, both La Liga records. In the business end of this season, Ronaldo has emerged as an undeniably clutch player. The goal against Barcelona was his third match-winning goal in Madrid's last four matches.
Although Ronaldo will grab the headlines, Özil deserves just as much praise for the assist. The German playmaker saw Ronaldo's streaking run and picked out the inch-perfect pass.
Özil's pass exemplifies what the Madrid No. 10 is all about. The pass could have easily been overhit, but the German was considerate and precise with his perfectly-weighted through-ball.
After the Sanchez equalizer, Barcelona could have been dangerous with the momentum on their side. However, through the deadly duo of Özil and Ronaldo, Los Blancos quickly responded with the killer blow.
Team Commitment to Defending
After uncharacteristically leaking goals over the past few weeks, Los Blancos' defense has come under heavy criticism as of late. In the Camp Nou on Saturday night, Real Madrid delivered a five-star defensive performance.
Los Blancos' team commitment to defending was instrumental to their success in El Clásico. The back-four was exceptional throughout the match, but it was the defensive shifts put in by Özil, Di María and Benzema that made the difference for Mourinho's men.
The playmaker's defensive work-rate was absolutely incredible. Özil frequently tracked back defensively, sweeping in to dispossess Barcelona's midfielders and win back possession for Los Blancos. Although the German has been criticized for his poor work-rate, Özil was one of Madrid's hardest working players in El Clásico.
Di María and Benzema put in solid defensive shifts as well, tracking back in transition and pressuring opponents on the ball.
Madrid's commitment and collective effort on defense were key to their well-deserved victory at the Camp Nou.
High Line and Compact Team Shape
Mourinho got his tactics spot on Saturday night. Real Madrid were the better team, and it was largely due to The Special One's tactical setup.
Los Blancos played their standard 4-2-3-1 (or 4-3-3 depending on how you categorize it) formation, but Mourinho slightly tinkered with the system in order to stop Barcelona.
In past Clásicos, the Portuguese tactician opted to sit deep and absorb pressure, with the back-four dropping to the edge of their own penalty box. However, on Saturday night, Mourinho set out his team with a high defensive line of pressure.
This higher defensive line condensed the midfield, making it more difficult for Barcelona to penetrate into the final third and easily keep possession around the penalty box. In addition to the high line, The Special One organized the team in a significantly more compact shape. The defensive line, midfield line and forward line were all close to one another. At times, it seemed as though Benzema and Pepe were only 30 meters apart.
From a tactical perspective, it seems that Mourinho wanted the team to stay compact for two reasons. First, by keeping all three lines close together, the number of players in such a concentrated area congested the midfield and shut down passing lanes. This tactic forced Barcelona to play square and negative passes.
Secondly, the compact team shape also helped Madrid on the counterattack. By keeping the likes of Benzema and Ronaldo close to the midfield and defensive line, Madrid's attackers were less isolated on the counter. The Frenchman was able to link up with teammates and transition into the attack with more numbers than in previous Clásicos.
While Los Blancos were able to initiate counterattacks by quickly combining with teammates and releasing players into space, the compact shape opened up more space in behind Barca's defenders as well.
Possession statistics would suggest that Barcelona dominated the match. However, Real Madrid were the team in control, as the home side struggled to cope with the high line and compact shape.
Tactical Understanding and Discipline
Although all of the above were key factors throughout the match, it was Real Madrid's tactical understanding and discipline that earned them the 2-1 victory.
Real Madrid were organized, committed and focused throughout the match. While it can be difficult to stay tactically sound for such long periods without the ball, the team's levels of concentration and awareness never wavered.
In such an intense, decisive match, it only takes one mistake to change the entire outcome of the match and the season. Madrid were mentally superior, and it translated into a superior performance on the pitch.
From Casillas all the way to Benzema, it took a complete team effort to defeat Barcelona in their home fortress. The 2-1 victory is a testament to Mourinho's tactics and the team's outstanding discipline.
Real Madrid are now seven points clear of Barcelona in La Liga, and it is almost certain that this record-setting team will be lifting the trophy in a few weeks.