Barcelona can plunge Real Madrid into crisis on Saturday but Ronald Koeman’s first Clasico as coach is more about vindication as it is about a fightback for counterpart Zinedine Zidane.
Inflicting a third consecutive defeat in a week on Madrid at Camp Nou would create the sort of turbulence for their opponents that Barca have grown only too used to in recent months.
Real Madrid won La Liga only three months ago because of their defensive steel and a relentless will to win but ahead of Saturday’s Clasico, they appear to be a team unravelling.
After losing 1-0 at home to Cadiz for the first time in their history last weekend, Madrid fell 3-2 in the Champions League on Wednesday to Shakhtar Donetsk, who had 10 first team players and nine staff missing due to coronavirus infections.
Just as Cadiz had waltzed almost at will through the same Madrid defence that conceded only 25 league goals last season, Shakhtar wreaked havoc on the back-line and on another night would have scored more.
The three goals they did chalk up in 13 wild first-half minutes was the same number Madrid shipped in their first nine games following La Liga’s resumption last season.
But as much as gaining an early boost in La Liga’s title race would be welcome, Koeman might claim the biggest rewards from a victory.
Koeman’s faith in youth poses Griezmann question
Barcelona’s new coach, appointed in August, has overseen a middling start to the season, with three wins, a draw and a defeat meaning the trajectory of his project is not yet clear.
Most encouraging has been Koeman’s faith in youth, which has been repaid handsomely as Ansu Fati, Francisco Trincao and Pedri have all delivered more than expected in attack. Ansu is the most established of the three, the 17-year-old who set more records by scoring again in the Champions League on Tuesday and has been arguably Barcelona’s stand-out performer so far.
So impressive has he been that it would be a surprise if Ansu was not in the starting line-up this weekend. But Trincao and Pedri would be braver calls, especially considering those they would replace.
The most pressing issue of Koeman’s tenure is currently Antoine Griezmann, who is now on his third coach at Barcelona but still yet to find anything close to top form.
Griezmann’s problems have not all been of his own making. He was played out of position for much of last season while his controversial arrival prompted speculation about his relationship with teammates and Lionel Messi in particular.
But it is becoming more difficult to justify the Frenchman’s underwhelming performances and it was telling on Tuesday when Koeman left him on the bench for the duration of Barca’s 5-1 win over Ferencvaros, that it was not clear if he was rested or dropped.
“It means nothing for the Clasico,” said Koeman.
Perhaps he believes Griezmann needs some tough love, a spell out of the team to make him want to prove himself again. Perhaps the likes of Trincaco are now viable alternatives for his spot.
“Antoine knows his situation. The only thing he can do is work hard to change it,” Koeman said.
The merits of the decision will be defined by the result and in that regard, there will be scrutiny on Messi too, whose contribution is so often decisive.
Koeman’s approach with Messi, at least in public, has so far been straightforward. He has praised the Argentinian, but as much for his dedication and workrate as his creativity. The strategy appears to be to appreciate Messi when it is warranted but to frame his performances more in the context of the team than his genius as an individual.
“His performances can be better,” said Koeman on Monday. “But seeing the player every day, he is happy, training well, focused and wants to play and be the captain of the team. In that sense I have no complaints.”
There have certainly been times when Messi has looked frustrated, not least in the 1-0 loss against Getafe last weekend when Barcelona managed only two shots on target.
A long, aimless ball chipped into the box in injury-time could not have been further from the DNA Barca claim to identify with. But ponderous possession had also become a problem long before Koeman’s arrival and a more direct approach can create more space, in which the likes of Messi and Griezmann can thrive.
A positive performance against Madrid will give Barcelona momentum ahead of their trip to Juventus in the Champions League on Tuesday. And for Koeman, the benefits would last even longer.
Zidane seeks to avert unexpected early crisis
For Real Madrid, it appears that their players have lost their edge.
Lethargic performances, where the pressing was slack and the passing imprecise, suggest this team is not as tuned in as they were in June and July.
“We lacked a bit of everything but above all our confidence, which is the most important thing,” said Zidane.
In some ways, perhaps, this is not a regression but a return to form for Zidane’s Madrid, who have often excelled with a trophy in sight but floundered during the day-to-day grind.
Before lockdown in Spain compressed the run-in and sharpened their focus, Madrid were already a team suffering from inconsistency.
In February and March, they won only three times in eight games, slipping up against opponents such as Real Sociedad, Celta Vigo, Levante and Real Betis. This time last year, Madrid had just lost away at Real Mallorca to make it five wins from 11 games and leave Zidane on the brink of the sack.
It is to Zidane’s credit they turned their form around, doing just enough to keep pace with Barcelona and then pull away from them when it mattered.
Zidane extracted the maximum from an ageing squad that he was promised would be refreshed but, two years on, still feels all too familiar.
Like Barcelona, Madrid have found the financial implications of the pandemic made swift or serious change impossible.
The transfer window was largely a cost-reducing exercise for Spain’s leading clubs and their quality has certainly stagnated, as Atletico Madrid demonstrated on Wednesday in their 4-0 humbling at the hands of Bayern Munich.
It means it might not be a vintage Clasico this weekend but for Madrid it has become more important now, and for Zidane too. Two defeats in a week is one thing but three, the last of them against Barcelona, would the alter the dynamic.
“I’m the coach, I have to find the solution, I didn’t find it today and it was difficult for my players,” said Zidane on Wednesday night.
Zidane has credit in the bank but he will also know this run cannot continue, especially with Champions League games coming thick and fast over the next few weeks.