The first El Clásico of the 2011-2012 La Liga season was played this Saturday, with Barcelona getting a convincing 3-1 win at the turf of their eternal rivals. Now that a few days have passed and emotions aren't running so high, it's time to draw some conclusions from the Clásico's events.
The press has mainly been focused on hailing Barcelona and bashing Cristiano Ronaldo, but there are more substantial conclusions from this match that can easily be taken.
A week ago, many believed that this edition of El Clásico would mark the beginning of the end of Barcelona's seemingly never-ending domination of European football. Barcelona had been struggling a lot more this season than in any other reason under Pep and Madrid were in ominous form, winning 15 matches in a row and destroying everyone in their path.
The stage seemed set for José Mourinho's side to get a statement win over their eternal rivals and start a shift in power, and that seemed even more likely after Karim Benzema opened the score in the first minute of the game.
But it was Barcelona who ended up making a big statement. With their performance and win, the Catalans let the world and Madrid know that they won't relinquish their throne easily. If Real Madrid or any other side wish to put an end to the Catalan hegemony they'll have to come up with something pretty special, as Pep Guardiola's side simply won't let up.
Despite a somewhat shaky start, Barcelona remain incredibly strong and ready to compete for every major trophy at stake once again, starting with the Club World Cup in a few days.
Saturday's game underlined the brilliance and importance of Andrés Iniesta and Carles Puyol, arguably the two best players on the pitch in this match.
Andrés Iniesta had an absolutely outstanding performance as per usual in the biggest games, leading Barcelona to victory and humiliating a few Madrid defenders in the process. Even some sections of the Bernabeu applauded him when he left the pitch for Pedro in the end in a gesture of extreme fair play.
As has been the case in the past few seasons, Iniesta's fitness has been the difference between a brilliant Barcelona and a more vulnerable one this season. Keeping the greatest midfielder of this generation healthy is absolutely vital if Barcelona are to compete for the major trophies again. Barcelona have only lost one of the last 100 games that Iniesta started (against Arsenal at the Emirates)!
As for Carles Puyol, the Barcelona captain showed once again that he remains one of the world's finest defenders despite being only a few months away from turning 34. Cristiano Ronaldo is one of the world's best attacking players, but he was no match for the Barcelona captain yet again.
As soon as Barcelona conceded the opening goal, Puyol was the one to comfort Victor Valdés and rally the troops. Not only is he a fantastic defender, he's also the captain and leader of this team. Barcelona haven't lost a single game with Puyol playing since April 2010, which pretty much sums up how important he is to the team. Keeping him fit for the biggest matches is at least as important as keeping Iniesta fit, if not more important.
The two La Masia products have been known to be injury-prone in the past few years and Barcelona fans will be hoping that they manage to remain fit this season. Their fitness might very well decide Barcelona's season, for better or for worse.
While Barcelona have not been performing at the same level as last season, they certainly have a lot more depth, more than any other team in Europe. Last season, players like Villa and Pedro had to play every single game, even if they were about to collapse from exhaustion. That's no longer the case, though.
Pep Guardiola has used 25 different lineups in 25 matches this season and he'll surely use a different one this Thursday in the Club World Cup.
It has become almost impossible to guess Pep Guardiola's lineup. Even on Saturday, he surprised by leaving David Villa out and playing Cesc Fabregas as a forward, which turned out to be a great decision. Other than Villa, world-class players/talents like Pedro Rodriguez, Javier Mascherano and Thiago Alcantara were left on the bench. It's easy to understand why Pep has felt the need to rotate so much.
No matter who he selects, he'll always have to leave top-class players on the bench. On the other hand, having so many quality options allows him to keep everyone fresh and select his team based on form and the characteristics of the opponent.
So far this season, Xavi Hernandez has started 20 games, Sergio Busquets 16, Thiago 14, Keita 13 and Iniesta 12 (mostly because of his long-term injury). All of Barcelona's five main midfielders started at least 50 percent of the matches, a stark contrast with last season where Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets all started around 80 percent of the games.
Up front, Messi aside, the players have also been rotating. David Villa has 16 starts, Pedro 13, Cesc Fabregas 11, Alexis Sanchez seven, Cuenca five and the same is true, to a slightly lesser extent in defense.
All this rotation might have led to some unexpected draws in the league, but it will also make sure that everyone will be fresh in the late part of the season, where the trophies will be decided. Barcelona's spectacular strength in depth might make the difference for them this season. Other than Barca's Holy Trinity of Messi, Xavi and Iniesta, every other player can easily be replaced by a player of similar quality if he can't contribute for some reason.
It has become almost impossible for rival managers to guess which formation Pep will employ and which players he will start; the positive results of that tactical and personnel unpredictability were there for all to see on Saturday.
While Barcelona still remain the better side, it was obvious that Real Madrid are now closer than they used to be. Barcelona were superior during the 90 minutes, but Real Madrid had periods where they really put Barcelona under pressure and had the chances to get a different result. Had Cristiano Ronaldo not squandered two excellent chances he'd usually scored blindfolded, things could have been very different.
Despite the defeat, José Mourinho and the Real Madrid fans have some reasons to be optimistic. They're not "there" yet, but the gap used to be much bigger. If Barcelona falter even just a little, Real Madrid will be there to take advantage of it. Considering that most of the club's key players are still very young, the logical conclusion is that they can only improve even more and mount a serious challenge to the Catalan dominance.
That said, they will need the superstar Cristiano Ronaldo to seriously step up if they wish to dethrone Barcelona.
Despite Barcelona's win in El Clásico, Real Madrid remain ahead in the La Liga title race. Both teams have the same number of points, but Real Madrid have a game in hand. Even if Barcelona beat Madrid at Camp Nou in April, that will not be enough to win the league unless they can be a lot more consistent against the other 18 teams.
Last season, Barcelona had lost 11 points after the second Clásico; this season they've already lost those 11 points. They also won their first seven (and went on to win their first 10) away games with a goal difference of 29-4, while this season they drew three, lost one and have a goal difference of 11-8. If Barcelona can't replicate their rampant winning form from last season, or at least close to it, even winning the second Clásico might not be enough to win the league.
Real Madrid, on the other hand, have been playing at an incredible level and had won 10 league matches in a row prior to El Clásico. They are looking a lot more ominous against the "bottom 18" than Barcelona. José Mourinho knows that Real Madrid's chances of winning at Camp Nou are slim, but he also knows that his team doesn't need to beat Barcelona (or even draw) to win the league. La Liga isn't El Clásico league, but a league with 20 teams.
With that in mind, Real Madrid remain in the pole position and only an unexpected fall from the capital club or a significant improvement from Barcelona can change that.
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