Real Madrid outfought and out-thought as Barcelona take giant stride toward Primera Liga title
A 14-point gap represents a near insurmountable challenge, particularly given Barca's remarkable form this season, writes Andy Mitten.
It was the clasico Real Madrid had to win if they were to have any realistic hope of retaining the Primera Liga title; a clasico against a Barcelona side whose own fans had written them off at the start of the season after losing Neymar and who have not been able to field their injured club record signing.
Having arrived home from Abu Dhabi as world champions after winning a club record fifth trophy in a calendar year, in-form Madrid had reasons to be hopeful.
Yet, once again Zinedine Zidane’s side were outfought and outthought at home by a far superior Barcelona who now enjoy a 14 point advantage over their great rivals with less than half the season played - though Madrid do have a game in hand.
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It’s not going to be enough. This Barcelona are unbeaten, they have scored more than any other team and have kept an astonishing 18 clean sheets from their 27 games so far, conceding only seven goals in 17 league games.
While club politics and real life Catalan politics kicked off around him, no nonsense manager Ernesto Valverde quickly fashioned a winning team with an admirable spirit.
Lionel Messi, who scored Barca’s second in their emphatic 3-0 win in the early kick-off at the Bernabeu, has scored 50 goals for his club in 2017, the sixth time in eight years he’s scored 50 or more goals.
Including goals for his country, Messi has 54 in 2017. His nemesis, Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo, 53. Messi has 15 league goals so far this season, Ronaldo four.
Starting with two holding midfielders, Madrid tried to stop Barcelona. They had more possession and chances in the first half, yet it was the Catalans who looked more comfortable as the sun cast big shadows over the pitch.
Ronaldo had a goal disallowed for offside within two minutes; he also missed a free shot inside the penalty area after 10, before Andres Iniesta rescued Barca by nicking the ball – and injuring himself.
Paulinho, the Brazilian who was ridiculed when he moved to Barca from China in August, found more space at the Bernabeu than most and saw a 29th minute shot tipped over by Keylor Navas.
Goalkeeper Andre Ter Stegen, a major reason why Barca have conceded so few, stretched to save from the foot of Ronaldo two minutes later. In between, the superb Gerard Pique rightly appealed for a penalty.
Paulinho and Karim Benzema had first half chances, but the goals started in the second half. The vastly underrated, but consistently effective Sergio Busquets controlled the ball from a Madrid attack and pushed it forward to Ivan Rakitic, who passed wide to Sergi Roberto. He crossed instantly for Luis Suarez to side foot past Navas.
Barca were two up after 63 minutes following a goalmouth scramble when Dani Carvajal handled the ball, for which the defender was sent off. Messi scored the penalty, his 25th goal in the clasico, and celebrated with his arms outstretched.
Not even Madrid greats Alfredo di Stefano and Raul have scored as many clasico goals as Messi’s 15, from 19 visits.
As a tiny 300 strong group of away fans celebrated high on the top tier in the 80,264 crowd, it was all over for Madrid - the game and the league.
Barca substitute Aleix Vidal, another player who has had his fair share of abuse having struggled since joining the club, scored the third.
But it was made by Messi, stretching to keep the ball in play despite losing his boot, who pulled it back for the Catalan. It was Barcelona’s third consecutive win in the Bernabeu, a feat no other team has achieved.
The huge banner raised by Madrid fans before the game read ‘white Christmas’, yet they’ll be deeply troubled that the year which has delivered so much for Madrid has ended so badly. Barca, meanwhile, look brilliant.
Updated: December 23, 2017 07:29 PM