Barcelona lands La Liga death blow with Clasico rout of Real Madrid

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<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/soccer/players/lionel-messi/" data-ylk="slk:Lionel Messi">Lionel Messi</a> celebrates his goal in El Clasico against <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/soccer/teams/real-madrid/" data-ylk="slk:Real Madrid">Real Madrid</a> at the Santiago Bernabeu. (Getty)
Lionel Messi celebrates his goal in El Clasico against Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu. (Getty)

The knockout blow had been coming. Not because Barcelona had been untouchable, nor simply better. Rather, because Madrid had, but hadn’t converted superiority into goals.

It has been the story of the 2017-18 La Liga season, and specifically the title race: Real Madrid intense and energetic, but wasteful; Barcelona delightful and opportunistic. The first Clasico of the league campaign was simply another chapter of the story. An intense, high-quality, momentous one. And, incredibly, maybe the final one.

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Barcelona went to the Santiago Bernabeu, and went 14 points clear of its rival with a 3-0 victory. With Lionel Messi the focus of Madrid attention, three of his teammates – Ivan Rakitic, Sergi Roberto and Luis Suarez – combined to punctuate a dazzling, clinical counterattack and break a second-half deadlock:

Less than 10 minutes later, another quick-hitting Barcelona move put Madrid under. Messi twice presented Suarez with more glorious chances. The Uruguayan squandered both, but the ensuing goalmouth scramble resulted in a blatant Dani Carvajal handball, and a red card.

Messi dispatched the penalty, and a Catalan party was underway in the Spanish capital. The diminutive Argentine spread his arms and looked toward the imposing stadium’s upper deck, reveling in the moment as stunned silenced turned to fury and jeers.

With a man advantage, Barcelona kept the ball for minutes on end, delaying Madrid substitutions, and almost taunting the helpless hosts. Aleix Vidal added true insult to injury with a stoppage-time goal to complete the 3-0 rout.

Real manager Zinedine Zidane’s big tactical call had been to hand a first league start of the season to Mateo Kovacic. The Croatian midfielder was tasked with beefing up the Real Madrid press, which was lively and at times suffocating. Madrid matched Barcelona shape for shape, in a 4-1-3-2, with one of Kovacic and Casemiro pressing up on Sergio Busquets, and the other dropping to man-mark Messi.

The man-marking strategy shifted attacking onus onto Paulinho, who got on the end of Barcelona’s best chance of the first half. Messi dropped deep to pick up the ball, the Brazilian pushed beyond him, and stung Keylor Navas’ fingertips with a half-volley on the turn.

Zidane’s scheme largely worked in the first half. Messi was mostly silenced, and Madrid had the better of the chances. Karim Benzema, who was on the receiving end of occasional boos and whistles from the home crowd, skimmed a header off the far post. Marc-Andre Ter Stegen denied Cristiano Ronaldo with a tremendous kick-save.

But the decision to start Kovacic backfired in two senses. It kept Isco out of the team, and blunted Madrid’s creativity in the final third. Los Blancos won the midfield battle, but, as they so often have this season, didn’t make their dominance count in a meaningful way.

Kovacic’s fixation with Messi then came back to bite Barcelona. Rakitic sprung beyond Luka Modric after a change in possession. Kovacic, rather than stepping to the ball, was sucked back toward Messi. He almost invited Rakitic to gallop toward goal, and Barcelona executed the 3-v-2 to perfection:

It wasn’t an inexplicable decision from Kovacic, because the clear explanation was Messi. But it was an astoundingly poor one. The mental error turned Zidane’s bravery into fault, and turned Kovacic himself into a scapegoat.

It also put crippling pressure on Madrid – pressure with which the reigning La Liga champions haven’t coped this season. Their failures in front of goal have left them exasperated. Exasperation has heightened attacking urgency, but compromised positional intelligence. Madrid didn’t fade away with the concession of the first goal, but its defensive runs slowed; its sharpness after losing possession subsided.

The second goal felt like a culmination of Madrid’s desperation, not just on the day, but ever since a poor start had left it peering up the table. Afterward, it looked woozy. It recovered to fashion a few chances for 2-1, but was stymied, either by Ter Stegen or its own shortcomings.

As hope dwindled, everybody in the ground was acutely aware of the consequences. As the 14-point gap between the two sides solidified, Madrid’s game in hand offered little consolation. Deflation was ubiquitous. Frustration was overwhelming. And the fallout may only have just begun.

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer, and occasionally other ball games, for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.

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