MADRID-based journalist Brendan Boyle (@BrendyBoyle) points us towards his favourite fancies from Matchday 18 from La Liga.
After all the wait it wasn’t the classic Clásico that many expected – not us at WLB, mind!
What the game lacked in goals it made up for with several takeaways which should serve us well for the second half of the season.
Here are five things we learned from the first El Clásico of the season
- The tide is turning in La Liga: Barca ended the game like a champion fighter who was holding onto his opponent for dear life, counting down the seconds in the final rounds. Ernesto Valverde will be relieved they escaped with a draw but there doesn’t appear to be a quick fix to what’s ailing Barca and that’s the most worrying thing for the Camp Nou outfit. Messi had his moments, as he always does, but Madrid were the far superior team in nearly every facet of the game. The “sensations” around both teams could hardly be more different despite the points being shared.
- This Madrid is a different beast: Almost 14 months ago, Julen Lopetgui’s Madrid were flattened 5-1 in this very fixture. Two managers (technically) later and, as highlighted in our preview, this Madrid is unrecognisable to that which crumbled to a Messi-less Barca last season. Zinedine Zidane deserves huge credit for the turnaround which has seen Madrid transform from a weary, bloated from success team to the aggressive, hungry and unified outfit we have today. Bookmakers have the probability of Man City overcoming los blancos at over 70% but those who overlook Real Madrid as possible Champions League contenders do so at their peril.
- Identity Crisis: For the best part of 15 years, the foundation of Barcelona’s success has been its midfield and the transition from arguably the greatest central unit in the history of football was never good to be easy and so it has proved. Despite the arrival of talented footballers like Arthur and Frenkie de Jong, the azulgrana midfield still appears porous and fragile, non-existent. Increased pressure on the engine room is inevitable when a team carries two luxury players in attack but that is the cross that Barca have to bear. The stats from El Clásico say it all: Madrid were around the 90% pass completion mark while Barca committed a mere five fouls to Madrid’s 17. Zidane’s men had it all too easy in the middle. Luckily for Barca, the visitors were unable to capitalise on the periods when the Catalans were on the ropes. As they would say here in Spain, this Barca midfield lacks personalidad and cuerpo (a physical presence). Success on the field will always be the most important measure but at a club like Barca, so too is heritage. Valverde is in the final stretch as manager at Camp Nou and, despite what for most clubs would be significant success, he will be remembered as a coach under which Barca lost the last vestiges of their identity. Whether it’s completely his fault or not is a different story.
- Madrid still “lack goal”: As was the case three days earlier, Real Madrid’s shortcomings were evident for all to see at Camp Nou and the glaring lack of a killer instinct in the final third meant Zidane’s men returned to the Spanish capital with two points instead of a possible six. Eden Hazard is an obvious loss but as Marca mentioned in the wake of the Clásico stalemate, “Madrid were missing what they lost with the exit of Cristiano Ronaldo: his tremendous finishing.” Eden Hazard can’t return quick enough but Zidane’s lack of trust or willingness to use Luka Jovic is puzzling indeed. Benzema is a fantastic player but he can’t do it all on his own. Sergio Ramos is Madrid’s second top scorer with three goals and therein lies the problem.
- World-class Casemiro: Fede Valverde has rightly received the lion’s share of plaudits in recent weeks for his dynamism and contribution to all aspects of Madrid’s play. However, in world football’s biggest game, Casemiro showed once again why he, along with Karim Benzema, is Real Madrid’s most important player. Largely overlooked in recent years as a mere destroyer who allowed Luka Modric and Toni Kroos to do the pretty stuff, the Brazilian once again illustrated his ability to be everywhere and do everything, and was a Gerard Piqué goal line clearance away from giving his team the lead. Casemiro genuinely feels like a great player to have in the dressing room and he continues to grow into one of Madrid’s most important leaders on the pitch.
Villarreal v Getafe | Saturday 21st December 2019, 17:30 | Premier Sports
After the highs of last season, the fact that Getafe are in a Champions League place as we enter the final matchday before Christmas while balancing Europa League commitments is a truly outstanding achievement. Having recently received Marca’s manager of the year award, Jose Bordalas is now tasked with a difficult trip to Villarreal.
The Yellow Submarine will be buoyed after a huge win at Sevilla last weekend where they had to rely on their usually unreliable defence but they were helped in no small part by Sevilla’s blunt, predictable attack. Javi Calleja’s men will be looking to avenge the defeat in this fixture almost 12 months ago which saw Getafe take the lead in the 89th minute, only for Samu Chukwueze to miss a penalty moments later.
Getafe arrive on the back of six consecutive wins, conceding two, and are proving doubters wrong once again. Despite last season’s success, it almost feels that los azulones have had to prove themselves all over again, and that is exactly what they are doing. Moreover, this Getafe are arguably a better all-round team this year with the likes of Cucurella and Kenedy injecting energy and pace, while Ángel continues to shine.
This is a game neither team will be relishing and, as the odds suggest, calling a winner here is not easy. Despite last week’s success, the pressure is all on the home side here and they will be looking to find their shooting boots again after scoring once in their last three games in the Ceramic Stadium.
They say styles make fights and this one should be an intriguing watch. The draw is a player here but I suspect Villarreal might just have enough to give their fans the gift of three points before the Christmas break.
Osasuna v Real Sociedad | Sunday 22nd December 2019, 13:00 | Premier Sports
On Sunday, Real Sociedad make the short trip down the road to a place where nobody really wants to go on the final weekend before Christmas, El Sadar. Having said that, Osasuna’s fortress has become increasingly less impenetrable in recent weeks and Imanol Aguacil will be confident of returning to San Sebastian with a positive result.
Traditionally this fixture has generally quite cagey, with the last four meetings in Navarra seeing Under 2.5 goals and one of these clicking for BTTS backers. However, looking at the recent tendencies of both sides, this game might buck the trend. Each of Osasuna’s last five home games has seen BTTS click, while La Real have scored in five of their last six games on the road.
This should be a fast and frantic game with a derby feel to it and we may just be rewarded with a Christmas cracker. Go for goals here.
Real Betis v Atletico Madrid | Sunday 22nd December 2019, 15:00 | Premier Sports
These games are rarely enthralling but maybe, just maybe, things might change this weekend in the Benito Villamarin.
The last six meetings between Atletico Madrid and Real Betis – whose fans who generally get along very well – have produced a total of six goals, five of which have seen Under 1.5 Goals click.
We can fault many things about Real Betis this season but we cannot say that they haven’t been entertaining. Rubi has turned things around drastically since the derby defeat, his side collecting 13 of a possible 15 points in the last four league games, scoring nine goals in the process.
A similar optimism seems to be breaking through the cloud of doom and gloom which has hung over the Wanda Metropolitano in recent times after consecutive 2-0 wins over Lokomotiv Moscow and Osasuna and it feels like Atletico Madrid are gradually finding the sharpness in attack which has evaded them so often this season.
Koke misses out through injury, but if you ask some Atleti fans they would tell you that’s not exactly a negative thing. Hector Herrera will step in and will inject a little more mobility and verticality.
Betis’ style should be conducive to a pretty open game, by this fixture’s recent standards at least. The draw looks the most likely outcome and, although I’m never comfortable backing an Atleti game to be action-packed, the value looks to be in the goals market here.
Villarreal v Getafe – Villarreal Draw No Bet (3/5 Marathon)
Osasuna v Real Sociedad – Both Teams To Score (17/20 William Hill)
Real Betis v Atletico Madrid – Both Teams To Score (20/21 Sportingbet)
Week 18 Predictions:
Eibar v Granada 1
Mallorca v Sevilla X
Barcelona v Alaves 1
Villarreal v Getafe 1
Valladolid v Valencia 2
Leganes v Espanyol X
Osasuna v Real Sociedad X
Real Betis v Atletico Madrid X
Levante v Celta Vigo X
Real Madrid v Athletic Club 1
1 = home win, 2 = away win, x = draw
Brendan Boyle (@BrendyBoyle) is an Irish journalist living and working in Madrid. A season ticket holder at Atletico Madrid and Rayo Majadahonda, he covers all things football in the Spanish capital, from Estadio Butarque to the Wanda Metropolitano.