Real Madrid's failure to develop a new look doomed it in El Clasico embarrassment
BARCELONA — After days of consistent rain, the heavens parted and the sun shone through ahead of Sunday’s kickoff on a crisp Sunday in Barcelona. The regal white shirts of Real Madrid arrived in hostile Catalan territory to face the iconic blue and red stripes of FC Barcelona in yet another “El Clasico.”
This match, per usual, carried with it the weight of Spain’s tumultuous political history, but the damp stadium dripping leftover rainwater into the aisles of the lower levels for 90 minutes offered the opportunity to embrace change.
The change in weather appeared to be a signal from the heavens to welcome a fresh look, after both Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo would not feature in the rivalry match for the first time since Ronaldo arrived in the Spanish capital in 2009.
The Messi era on the Iberian Peninsula predates Ronaldo’s arrival and appears like it will continue well into the future if the start of the season offers any suggestions. The injury holding Messi out of Sunday’s global showcase was of the short-term variety, but the unofficial end to the Messi and Ronaldo era in Spain seemed to offer the perfect opportunity to showcase the future for both clubs.
Only, Real Madrid didn’t seem to get the memo, and the parting skies didn’t seem to have any impact on Julen Lopetegui’s starting 11.
Barcelona started Philippe Coutinho, Rafinha, Arthur and Clement Lenglet — none of whom were with the club in last season’s first edition of the rivalry. Also, the substitutes brought on by Barca manager Ernesto Valverde were Ousmane Dembele, Nelson Semedo and Arturo Vidal — all of whom were in their first or second campaigns at the Catalan club. Barcelona has embraced change, and Messi’s unexpected absence highlighted the club’s strength as a derivative of that attitude.
Meanwhile, Real Madrid’s lineup featured 10 outfield players that have all played key roles for Madrid’s Champions League three-peat. With the exception of Thibaut Courtois in goal, Real Madrid’s starting 11 could have been the same team selection that would have been picked two, three or four years earlier if Ronaldo had been unavailable.
With a new manager and the departed superstar, Real Madrid seemingly still failed to mark the end of the Messi and Ronaldo era by focusing on the fresh young talent and new blood begging to run out in the biggest league match on the planet.
After being played off the park in the first half and trailing 2-0, Lopetegui made a switch to Lucas Vazquez on the right side to help contain Jordi Alba, who was having a standout performance and set up the first goal. Vazquez, though, has been a second-tier first-team player since 2015, so the switch still did not signal any meaningful divorce from Real Madrid of recent years. In this case, the change was tactical and had an impact for a period of 20 minutes, with Madrid scoring within five minutes of the restart and nearly equalizing on multiple occasions soon after.
However, Barcelona countered by introducing Semedo and Dembele, two players in their sophomore campaigns at the Camp Nou, and Barcelona reestablished a two-goal cushion with Luis Suarez on his way to an eventual hat-trick.
Marco Asensio, who has been considered a future star for Real Madrid for a couple seasons and expected to be a more central figure after Ronaldo’s departure, did not enter the fray until there was less than a quarter hour remaining in the contest. Finding a starting spot for Asensio on Sunday would have signaled a meaningful change in Real Madrid going forward. But that didn’t happen, and Asensio’s late introduction provided little to no impact on the match.
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In the same vein, Mariano assumed Ronaldo’s No. 7 shirt but barely got eight minutes plus stoppage time to make an impression.
With the new blood running through the veins of the Camp Nou for Barcelona, the Blaugrana scored five goals in an El Clasico for the first time since the memorable 5-0 embarrassment Messi and company put on Jose Mourinho in the Portuguese manager’s first El Clasico back in 2010. Is a 5-1 without Messi more impressive than a 5-0 with Messi?
For all the tactics and training changes Lopetegui may have brought to Real Madrid over the summer, he failed to change the look of Real Madrid in his biggest match to date, and the failure to incorporate a new look hurt him in the present and left his future at the club in doubt.
On Sunday, Lopetegui lost the plot of the occasion, and as a result, he may ultimately also lose his job.
Shahan Ahmed is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @shahanLA.