Real Madrid face tough choices over their priorities ahead of Saturday's clasico with Barcelona
Beaten in the Copa del Rey semi-finals, manager Solari must decide if trying to catch the La Liga leaders or concentrating on Europe is more important
The president of Barcelona, Josep Bartomeu, came down the stairs from the VIP section of Real Madrid’s Bernabeu stadium on Wednesday night with a spring in his step.
He paused to speak to reporters. “Beating Madrid at the Bernabeu can never become a bad habit,” he said.
The implication was that beating Real, in Madrid, has become almost routine.
The latest win, 3-0 in the fixture that matters most to both clubs, that bills itself as the greatest club rivalry in sport, had just put Barcelona into their sixth successive Copa del Rey final when Bartomeu spoke, and he could only regard the result as the best possible impetus towards Barca's seventh La Liga title in 10 years.
Barcelona, buoyant, are back at the Bernabeu on Saturday where victory would put them 12 points clear of Real Madrid in the table, and 10 ahead of second-placed Atletico Madrid.
The latest episode of Barcelona muscle-flexing in the heart of the Spanish capital certainly looks like part of a habit. Barca have now scored at least three goals at the Bernabeu on five of their last six visits in league or cup contests.
In the past decade, Barca have now come away from the enemy arena with wins 10 times out of 17 trips, and Madrid have won only four of those contests, two of them in the Super Cup, a seasonal curtain-raiser without the prestige of the major domestic competitions.
What was alarming for Madrid in this latest defeat was not only that Barca would be coming back again three evenings later, but that it felt so efficient.
Barcelona managed to win by a wide margin without their most habitual match-winner exerting huge influence. Lionel Messi, so often Madrid's nemesis over the last 10 years, had a quiet night, by his peerlessly high standards.
And they managed to win without their habitual monopoly on possession: Barca registered three shots on target, effectively, all night, Rafa Varane turning the ball past his own keeper Keylor Navas for the second of the night, under pressure from Luis Suarez, who had netted the first and would score the third with a penalty after Casemiro had fouled Luis Suarez.
How might Madrid, whose manager Santi Solari is playing for his long-term future having been initially appointed as a stop-gap in October, come back from that?
Well, part of the answer was signposted on Wednesday, where, despite the evidence of the scoreline, Madrid actually established some good habits of their own.
"We have to get back on our feet quickly and not lose perspective," said Solari. "We went down with honour, but we have to be more effective in taking our chances."
This was neither blind optimism nor an empty refuge in statistics. In the second leg of their semi-final - the first had been drawn 1-1 at Camp Nou - Madrid fired no fewer than 10 shots on target; Barca goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen had a busy night.
The most thrilling attacking player on the pitch was not Suarez nor Messi, but the teenager Vinicius Junior, whose confidence grows with every outing, it seems, and whose turn of pace and close control are a valid source of hope for Solari.
Vinicius is rapidly becoming the best thing to emerge from a fractured Madrid season, one that began badly over the summer as both manager Zinedine Zidane and then leading forward Cristiano Ronaldo departed. It then completely hit the rocks just two months into the campaign as Julen Lopetegui was fired.
What Vinicius is not yet is an accomplished finisher. "Goalscoring is something that is improved with time and practice and playing time," observed Solari, who once again selected the 18-year-old in his starting XI ahead of Gareth Bale, Marco Asensio and Isco.
The question for the manager now is whether he calls on any of that trio to start on Saturday, for a clasico from which supporters will demand an improved showing, but which Solari must privately acknowledge needs to be regarded as no more of a priority than Madrid's Uefa Champions League match with Ajax next Tuesday, in which Madrid hold a slender 2-1 lead from the first leg.
Yes, to beat Barcelona, break the routine, and move to within six points of La Liga's leaders, with 12 games left, would invigorate the domestic campaign.
But it is Europe, where Madrid have the best habit of victory, that is likeliest to salvage their season. They must only hope they do not have to meet Barcelona over two legs in the Champions League.
The Bernabeu might not bear another visit so soon.
Updated: March 1, 2019 09:34 AM