The first leg of the annual curtain-raiser of the new La Liga season saw the world’s two heavyweights come face-to-face on Sunday in Barcelona. Having trailed 3-1 on the first encounter, Barcelona not only have to turn the score line around but, also to avoid any goals, which would most likely guarantee Zidane’s men to their third trophy of the year.
Zidane was certainly the happiest of the two managers on Sunday, despite Cristiano Ronaldo’s double yellow card. Real Madrid’s Mateo Kovacic, Isco, Rafael Varane and Marco Asensio were the pick of the match as they toyed with Barcelona the whole game. After a lacklustre preseason, the squad has responded to the challenges of both Barcelona and Manchester United with controlled, composed, and assured victories. The midfield four, and in particular Isco’s influence in linking the attack and midfield, have been instrumental. As the players and Zidane say, the team “are all rowing in the same direction” — no matter who is called upon, the squad has the quality to respond.
The Blaugrana were quite solid in the first 45 minutes, but fell apart in the second half and were killed on the counter attack. Ernesto Valverde still needs to make many adjustments, and all the positive signs from preseason disappeared once Madrid found a way to break quickly and hurt Barça when they lost the ball in midfield.
Toni Kroos and Isco dominated Ivan Rakitic and Andrés Iniesta, which is a worrying sign given Barça will need their midfield to work more than ever without Neymar. Even with Lionel Messi playing effectively as a number 10, Barça had trouble finding spaces inside Madrid’s defense and couldn’t control the game in the center of the park, which led to lethal counter-attacki
For the second leg, the challenge is to attack constantly while remaining defensively sound. After all, Barça need a 4-2 win or any three-goal victory to win the trophy, and the need for so many goals will certainly open the door for even more attacking opportunities for Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Co.
The job is far from complete for Madrid. A full game of 90 minutes still remains and within those minutes more refereeing controversy, Messi magic, or injuries could turn the game on its head. Tonight’s match will bring a Barcelona squad hungry for revenge. Zidane and his men will need to remain unruffled in the opening 15 minutes as the Blaugrana will look to come out and score an early goal to pile on the pressure. Madrid have one hand on the trophy, but securing it will take another assured team performance.
After the big-money transfer of Neymar to Paris Saint Germain on €222m (£197m), Barcelona haven’t quite found a replacement to benefit the dead left hand side. Gerard Deulofeu had a poor performance in the first leg with no threat at all and the midfield with ageing Iniesta, not delivering as it needs to. Lionel Messi’s first leg penalty might give a consolation to Barcelona but the other three goals will be haunting them until the final whistle. If a 3-1 deficit wasn’t enough bad news, Valverde lost captain Andrés Iniesta to a muscle injury during training on Tuesday, and the midfielder is set to miss the next few weeks of action. Carles Aleñá will travel to Madrid in Iniesta’s place, but it’s unlikely the youngster will get a chance to face Madrid.
Many senior players within the Barcelona locker room have pleaded, even publicly, with the board to reinvest in the squad. Sergio Busquets spoke with the media after the game and said they need rejuvenation through signings. Is Bartomeu and this Barcelona board really trusted to invest that €222M wisely? Paulinho has been the first recruit since the loss of Neymar and since the defeat on Sunday. A €40M signing that has left most Barcelona fans disillusioned as the player is 29 years old and was unable to make the grade at a club like Spurs. Will Paulinho get a run out in the club, and will he make an impact? This Barcelona team will need further quality if they are to compete with Madrid on all fronts this season.
In terms of the starting lineup, the only probable change might be enforced: Sergi Roberto will replace Iniesta in midfield, because new signing Paulinho is not in the squad as he’ll be unveiled on Thursday and join training on Friday.
One necessary change that we are unlikely to see is Nélson Semedo in place of Aleix Vidal. Vidal was good in the first half, but once his usual defensive mistakes began to appear, Barça were completely picked apart on the right flank. Semedo is a much stronger defender than Vidal and is just as good if not better than him going forward, but Valverde will probably wait a few weeks to introduce Semedo into the team. He’s still a new signing and needs some time to fully integrate into the system, and even though Valverde is a new manager and he’ll look to use the more experienced players against Madrid. But, let’s see.