There were no goals and surprisingly little quality in tonight’s La Liga Clasico at the Camp Nou, with the game showing just how far both Barcelona and Real Madrid currently are from their peaks over the last decade.
Neither team really deserved to win, with Madrid on top in the first half but unable to make it count, as the second half proved very ragged with little in the way of clear chances, Gareth Bale’s goal disallowed for offside by VAR the closest anyone came.
It was the first goalless Clasico since November 2002, with 49 meetings since in all competitions without a 0-0. And confirmed that Ernesto Valverde’s Barca are a long way from the tiki-taka genius of Pep Guardiola’s era. While Madrid have still not filled the gap up front left by Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure in summer 2018.
Zidane’s side have refound the intensity and motivation that was lacking last season, and pushed their opponents right back during the opening stages. Barca were badly missing holding midfielder Sergio Busquets, who was initially named in the XI but then dropped out due to a “fever” pre-game.
Busquets is the only Barca midfielder remaining from Guardiola’s glory days, and has the experience and know-how to drop between centre-backs and use his passing to arrange his teammates on the pitch and outmanoeuvre opposition presses.
But here Madrid’s four-man midfield swarmed all over their opponents, with 21-year- old Fede Valverde particularly impressive in shutting down Barca’s attempts to move the ball around.
This provided Zidane’s team with a steady stream of half-chances through the first half — at one point they were 10-1 up on shots taken, 4-0 on corners, and had two very plausible penalty calls turned down by referee Alejandro Jose Hernandez Hernanez. But they did not really force Barca goalkeeper Marc Andre Ter Stegen into a difficult save.
Ronaldo might be gone, but Barca still have Messi, and the Clasico’s all-time top scorer was his team’s best hope of something happening.
He was coming deep on occasion to get moves started, had a shot cleared off the line by Sergio Ramos, and a peach of a pass set up the clearest opportunity of the first 45 minutes for the overlapping Jordi Alba. Otherwise Barca were relying on long-balls from keeper Ter Stegen up to centre-forward Luis Suarez, who was seriously off his game.
Valverde’s Barca have often stuck in big games during his three seasons as boss, ensuring they do not give much away, and then hoping Messi can do something special.
That worked just a few weeks ago in a 1-0 victory at Atletico Madrid, and it maybe should have here but the blaugrana talisman surprisingly mis-kicked in front of goal when good work by Frenkie De Jong and Antoine Griezmann early in the second half set up maybe the game’s best chance.
Madrid’s lack of proven goalscorers in the team, besides Karim Benzema, is why Zidane swallowed his pride and brought Gareth Bale back from the cold. And starting Bale tonight almost worked a treat as Bale got behind the Barca defence and slammed a Ferland Mendy cross to the net, only for an offside flag confirmed by VAR to ruin the story.
The Welshman’s Rory Delap style long-throws into the box were one of Madrid’s most dangerous weapons as both teams ran out of ideas during frantic closing stages.
“We played a good game, serious, against a good team,” Zidane said afterwards. “It was a good game of football, just lacked goals. We lacked that extra bit more, and to score. But we must be happy. We can’t be happy as we wanted to win, but this is football. That’s it.”
With eight minutes remaining Valverde took off €120 summer signing million Griezmann and sent on 17- year-old Ansu Fati, the second youngest Barca player ever to feature in a Clasico. It looked quite a desperate move, and the often criticised Blaugrana coach more or less admitted afterwards that his team had not played to their potential.
“It was a very closely fought game,” Valverde said. “Both teams had their moments, they pressed us a lot at the start, put a lot of balls into the box, and we suffered at times. When the rival is strong and matches you man for man, sometimes it is hard to move the ball up the pitch. There was a lot of tension, it was a Clasico.”
The two sides now remain locked together on 36 points from the first 17 Primera Division games, with no serious challenger emerging from the chasing pack. Neither are close to the level when Spain’s big two dominated Europe though.
This Clasico will likely have been enjoyed mostly by Premier League teams —especially’s Guardiola’s Manchester City — preparing to face them in the Champions League in the new year.
Ter Stegen; Semedo, Pique, Lenglet, Alba; De Jong, Rakitic, Sergi Roberto; Messi, Suarez, Griezmann. Subs Vidal for Semedo 56, Fati for Griezmann 83.
Courtois; Carvajal, Varane, Ramos, Mendy; Casemiro, Valverde, Kroos, Isco; Bale, Benzema. Subs Modric for Isco 80, Rodrygo for Valverde 80.