Barca's expectations grow higher after El Clasico setback vs. Real
Just over three minutes into the first 'gran clasico' of the 2014-15 season, Barcelona seemed to hold all the aces. Barca led Real Madrid in the Santiago Bernabeu, thanks to a goal in which each of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar, the scorer, were directly involved.
The best attacking trident in the world? Here was the proof. Suarez had not played a competitive match for four months when he received from Messi and launched the pass to set up Neymar's ninth goal in as many league games. If the Uruguayan can find that wavelength with the young Brazilian and the masterly Argentinian as easily as he did at three minutes past six Saturday, Spanish time, theirs will truly be a productive alliance.
But it will take some time, and the climate under which Barcelona's head coach, Luis Enrique, must now cultivate the Messi-Neymar-Suarez combination altered abruptly over the first 70 minutes the trio shared a pitch in a competitive match. There had been an element of risk in Barca coach Luis Enrique's giving Suarez his debut at the earliest opportunity since his ban for biting Italy's Giorgio Chiellini at the World Cup expired, of inviting Suarez to take his first steps as a Spanish Primera Division player in the most pressured La Liga match of Barcelona's season. For sure, Suarez will give Barcelona an X-factor at several stages of the coming months, but, apart from his part in the goal, and another cross from him that gave Messi a stab at a 2-0 lead -- Iker Casillas reacted well to that -- he had a disciplined, eager, but headline-free debut.
And, bottom line, Suarez appeared on the losing side of a Barcelona who had not been defeated domestically at all this season, and who had not conceded a single La Liga goal before Ronaldo's penalty equalizer
Luis Enrique talked afterwards of "specific errors" that led to Madrid's win, three points which move them to within one point of their rivals at the top of the table. He meant Gerard Pique's handball, cause of the Madrid penalty. And a headed goal from a corner, the one which Pepe nodded in for 2-1 to Madrid. That is the sort of set-piece error that has caused sleepless nights for many Barcelona coaches in the past. Barca conceded aerial authority against Madrid. Sergio Ramos won all his headed duels, while Pepe celebrated his tenth Real Madrid goal with all the pent-up joy of man who over seven years has suffered more than most in an era of Barcelona superiority.
It would be premature to imagine Madrid's win as landmark date in a long-term swing of supremacy, or to forget La Liga has a defending champion, Atletico Madrid, from outside the so-called "Big Two," but Carlo Ancelotti, Madrid's head coach, hinted at a belief in sustaining his team's current run, and pointed to one satisfying element of the victory. Madrid's physical readiness and stamina, less than 72 hours after a demanding away fixture against Liverpool, a 3-0 win, in the UEFA Champions League. Momentum is a fabulous commodity, and Ancelotti sought it by naming the same front six, the attacking sextet of Toni Kroos, Luka Modric, Isco, James Rodriguez, Karim Benzema and Ronaldo, who had overwhelmed Liverpool.
"The physical aspect of our play pleased me," said Ancelotti. "We played with a high rhythm at Liverpool and it is hard to recover from that with only two and half days between games. But this is a very serious group of players, with a great sense of self-sacrifice, and they are committed to a certain way of playing, and have some very good habits."
Ancelotti pointed out, as an example, Isco, the midfielder who might very well have missed out on a place in the starting XI against Barcelona had Gareth Bale been fit. Isco, whose dogmatic chasing of opponents when Madrid was not in possession led directly to the third goal, scored by Karim Benzema, was given an embrace and a kiss by Ancelotti when he was substituted, with the outcome more or less secure, and an ovation by the Madrid supporters.
Kroos and Rodriguez could look back on their debut clasicos with pride, too, although Rodriguez will regret planting a header off target. Their positional discipline, in a team they only joined in August, and their associative instincts with colleagues who have defined their roles in Madrid over several seasons, are two reasons why Madrid are now winning arguments about whether it, or Barcelona, hired most wisely in the summer.
Suarez, free to play again after a long ban, can now make his case in those arguments. He talked, while exiting the Bernabeu stadium, of "the strong locker-room," that had welcomed him to Barcelona, of "the desire to move on" after the defeat.
He will be under the spotlight over the next week. Suarez was always, with his $101 million transfer fee from Liverpool, going to carry a weight of expectation among Barcelona supporters. After losing the autumn clasico, that expectation on Suarez just grew bigger.