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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 18 November 2018

Barcelona's Luis Suarez scores hat-trick to deal Real Madrid's Primera Liga title tilt big blow

Madrid manager Julen Lopetegui's chances of survival at Bernabeu even less likely after 5-1 thrashing at Camp Nou

Lopetegui’s Last Stand offered little reprieve.

Real Madrid conceded five, battered and bruised by a buoyant Barcelona as their manager watched on in despair.

Two-nil down after 30 minutes, Madrid rallied briefly, but were eventually picked apart at the Nou Camp by their arch-rivals. 5-1 In el clasico. There for all to see.

A first clasico without Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo for more than a decade seemed set to prove both a first and last for Julen Lopetegui. Under fire and under siege, the former goalkeeper has looked anything but a safe pair of hands. By the end here, after a Luis Suarez hat-trick and a few more layers added to the anguish, he looked shell-shocked.

At the conclusion, Ernesto Valverde offered a sympathetic embrace, but the end felt nigh. With the win, Barcelona reclaimed their place at the top of the Primera Liga. Madrid languish in ninth.

Lopetegui's reign was unravelling with the world watching. Tuesday’s Uefa Champions League victory against Viktoria Plzen had brought a first victory in five matches, albeit a chorus of whistles too, but it apparently offered a stay of execution. Five days later, the manager’s future is again far from certain.

Defeat to Barcelona always stings that much more, but this appeared a deathly blow. Not just for Lopetegui, beleaguered and beaten by the better side, yet for Madrid’s league ambitions.

Real Madrid manager Julen Lopetegui is under pressure to keep his job. AFP
Real Madrid manager Julen Lopetegui is under pressure to keep his job. AFP

Admittedly, it remains early days, although with the loss Madrid slipped seven points behind their famous foes. They are 10 games in.

It took 11 minutes for Barcelona to twist the knife. Ivan Rakitic unleashed Jordi Alba into the vast space down the hosts’ left-hand side, the full-back motored towards the byline and pulled back the ball for Philippe Coutinho to roll into the net.

It was the Brazilian’s fifth goal of the season. Without Messi, the fixture’s all-time record scorer with 26 goals and sidelined with a broken arm, Coutinho was one teammate supposed to take the baton.

Suarez was another. He duly obliged. And more. Just before the half hour, the Uruguayan went down under a challenge from Rafael Varane and, after a consultation with the Video Assistant Referee, a penalty was awarded.

Suarez made no mistake from the spot. He rushed to the corner and lifted his shirt to reveal a message to his third child, born on Tuesday. It was his seventh goal in el clasico. He would later add his eighth and ninth.

Before that, though, Madrid fought back. Five minutes into the second half, Isco’s cross fell to Marcelo, who chested past Gerard Pique and finished beyond Marc-Andre ter Stegen. The full-back continued an uncharacteristic scoring streak: it was his third goal in as many matches.

Suddenly, Barcelona were rocking. Sergio Ramos headed over when he should have scored. Luka Modric struck the base of the post. Madrid sensed blood.

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At the other end, Suarez hit the woodwork as well, but momentum had swung in Madrid’s favour. Lopetegui sensed some amnesty. When Karim Benzema headed substitute Lucas Vazquez’s cross over when well placed to score, the Spaniard turned away, hands rooted in pockets, most probably wondering if that was it. If that was it for him.

Not long after, his fate seemed sealed. On 75 minutes, Sergi Roberto clipped a cross to Suarez, who somehow contorted his body in a split second to guide a beautiful header past Courtois. Suarez had been stationed behind the penalty spot.

Seven minutes later, he completed his hat-trick, expertly dinking home Roberto’s through ball. Soon, substitutes Ousmane Dembele and Arturo Vidal combined to sign off Barcelona's five-star show.

And that was that.

With a 5-1 win, the hosts climbed back to the summit. Madrid clambered deeper into the abyss. A sixth defeat in 14 matches implied that, for Lopetegui, there is no escape from the funk. On a night when he needed a result above all else, his team were humbled and hurt.

Just four months into his tenure, Lopetegui’s Madrid days appear numbered.