Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 6 April 2020

Real Madrid and Barcelona suffer Champions League headaches ahead of clasico clash

With the Bernabeu battle set for Sunday, Ramos and Vidal both both see red as Los Blancos lose at home to Manchester City and Barca are held away to Napoli

They are both old and worldly enough to know better. Arturo Vidal, 32, has over 100 caps for his country, Chile, and he collects league titles wherever he roams. Sergio Ramos, 33, has gold medals for absolutely everything there is to win, from the World Cup to four European Cups.

Neither was on the field as their respective clubs, Barcelona and Real Madrid, toiled and strained through the later minutes of their Champions League last-16 first legs.

Vidal received his red card with Barcelona anxious to hold onto a draw in Naples. Ramos saw red after he chased down and fouled Manchester City’s Gabriel Jesus, fearful that a brilliant City comeback from a goal down was reaching a full, devastating crescendo.

Vidal can look like a sending-off waiting to happen. That’s partly because he ostentatiously cultivates his warrior image. In Naples, he acted it, compounding an excessively heavy tackle by planting his forehead into the brow of Napoli’s Mario Rui in plain sight of the referee.

Sergio Ramos’s red-card habit is notorious, although in mitigation, the 26th dismissal of his career, in the 2-1 home defeat to City, came to him more than a year after the 25th.

The practical repercussions are Vidal’s suspension from the return leg against Napoli, tied at 1-1, and Ramos’s ban from the towering task of trying to reverse a deficit at City.

The short-term signal from both incidents is of two clubs on edge, jittery and combustible. And they are about to meet, with Sunday’s clasico at the Bernabeu a decisive battle for the only major prize that looks accessible for either Madrid or Barcelona club this season – the Spanish league title.

Both Barca and Madrid crashed out of the Copa del Rey in its quarter-finals, and although Barcelona, top of La Liga, are till very much in their Champions League tie with Napoli thanks to Antoine Griezmann’s equaliser, they do not have the air of potential European Cup winners.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have a very big squad,” said midfielder Sergio Busquets in Naples, adding, in an undisguised snipe at the club’s directors, that the squad felt too small “because it was planned that way.”

With that Busquets added his criticism about the running of Barcelona to barbs from other senior players during a month of toxic relations between boardroom and dressing-room.

There was Lionel Messi, the captain, usually so discreet, who reacted to dismissive remarks by sporting director Eric Abidal about some players’ attitudes in training by saying “those in charge of the club must take responsibility for decisions they make”.

There was Gerard Pique, who declared: “This club has for a long time been sustained by the results the players have achieved.”

It might also be suggested Barcelona’s last two Liga titles – 2018 and 2019 – were partly sustained by Madrid’s shortcomings.

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Barcelona struggle

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At their best, these clubs share a rivalry that thrillingly raises standards, as it did in the peak period of Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo duelling out Ballon D’Ors and Barcelona and Madrid winning seven out of ten European Cups between them.

Right now, the clasico looks like a form of hide and seek, both teams acutely aware of their flaws and thinking of ways to hide them as best they can.

Since Ronaldo left Madrid for Juventus, 20 months ago, the Bernabeu has lost some of its aura.

As their manager Zinedine Zidane admitted, the scoreline against City flattered Madrid. They had taken the lead against the run of play and by the time Ramos tugged at Jesus, it was one more symptom of collective panic. “To lose that way leaves a bad taste,” said Zidane.

The Frenchman must pick up the pieces. Less than a week ago, his team were top of the table, had Eden Hazard returning from injury and were on a 15-match unbeaten run in the league. Hazard then fractured an ankle, Madrid lost at Levante, and Barcelona slipped two points ahead of them.

Still, Zidane can be thankful for small mercies. He may miss Ronaldo's match-winning genius, he may be frustrated that for most of the season he has been without Hazard and the injured winger Marco Asensio, but he should at least be able to rustle up more than 15 senior players for Sunday's matchday squad.

Barcelona may not. The injury list includes strikers Luis Suarez and Ousmane Dembele, plus the full-backs Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto. The club with probably the highest overall wage bill anywhere in Europe might need to call up three or four players from the youth ranks to fully man the substitutes’ bench. In those circumstances, it would be wise not to have anybody sent off.

Updated: February 28, 2020 08:54 AM

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