A Most Meaningless Clásico Was A Meaningful Ass-Whooping
9:35 AM EDT on March 21, 2022
To say that Sunday's edition of the glitziest rivalry match in European soccer meant more to the Catalonians than the team from the Spanish capital is to state the obvious. There wasn't anything concrete at stake for Real Madrid, who regardless of the outcome would still be cruising to the league title and still have its upcoming chance at Champions League glory. Meanwhile Barcelona, slowly but surely putting the pieces back together under Xavi Hernández's leadership, had an opportunity to collect three key points in its attempt to consolidate a top-four spot, and also to validate its new project with a good result in a big match. But matches aren't played on paper, and no Clásico is just another game. Which is why the sheer magnitude of Barcelona's victory on Sunday rendered the relative meaninglessness of the contest irrelevant, and turned it into a win for the ages for a team in between eras.
Barcelona absolutely crushed Real Madrid by a score of 4–0. And if anything, Madrid fans probably came away relieved that it wasn't even worse. But for some outstanding goalkeeping from Thibaut Courtois, and some characteristic lapses in finishing from Barcelona, the scoreline could've easily been even more dramatic. Though Real opened the game looking dangerous, coming up with a couple chances that the injured Karim Benzema probably wished he could've been out there to finish himself, the tide quickly and profoundly shifted in favor of the visitors. It started with one-time outcast Ousmane Dembélé, who had what was perhaps his best half in Barcelona colors (does yellow count?) in the first 45 on Sunday.
Barcelona's first two goals came from pinpoint Dembélé crosses. The first saw the Frenchman leave Real's beleaguered, makeshift left back Nacho Fernández in the dust before whipping a beautiful lob to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who rocketed the resulting header home past Courtois:
The second goal came from a corner. Dembélé spanked another perfect ball into the box from the flag, finding the silver-haired Ronald Araújo for yet another header, and a commanding 2–0 lead in the first 38 minutes:
Barcelona took its 2–0 lead into halftime with confidence. If there were any concerns that the team might revert to its shaky form from earlier in the season after the break, those doubts were assuaged almost immediately, thanks to the combined efforts of Aubameyang and Ferran Torres picking up where Dembélé left off.
Aubameyang got his second goal in the 51st minute, and the only disappointment to be found in the former Arsenal man's game is that he was subbed out before he could notch a hat trick. Torres, on the other hand, had a very Torres game, in that he was everywhere, creating and getting on the end of chances, only to miss his shots. On the very first play of the second half, the Spaniard broke past the Madrid back line and found himself on a one-on-one with Courtois, but flubbed the simple chance. Undeterred, just a minute later he was set up with yet another one-on-one opportunity, and that time he buried to give Barcelona the kind of lead its supreme dominance deserved:
It's hard to overstate how little Real Madrid seemed to care about Sunday's outcome during the match. Most likely a combination of its recent Champions League triumph over PSG, its enormous double-digit lead atop La Liga's table, and the absence of Benzema for the Clásico, all meant the team was never going to enter the match with full conviction and effort. This proved to be a mistake. While Sunday's demolition almost certainly won't put Real's season aspirations in any serious jeopardy, there is no way to rationalize away the sting of getting a 4-spot dropped on your face by your most hated rival. Plus, some of Madrid's biggest weaknesses were at the forefront on Sunday, and those problems aren't going away.
Namely, when Benzema isn't there to score and create, the team must rely strictly on Vinícius, who is excellent but can't do it all himself. The defense is also flawed. Dani Carvajal and Nacho got absolutely worked by Barcelona's fast and direct wingers, and David Alaba had maybe his worst defensive game since joining from Bayern Munich. These are flaws that Chelsea will try to exploit in their Champions League quarterfinal matchup. The formation Carlo Ancelotti threw out there—a form of a 4-1-2-1-2 that also moved to a three-defender set after halftime—did not work on either end of the field, and it's safe to say that the manager who has won almost everything got out-coached by his rookie counterpart.
Still, though, Real has time to figure this out, and Benzema should be back sooner than later. If things hold as they have been throughout the season, Sunday's loss will be a blip, albeit a humiliating one, amongst what should be many moments of joy. For Barcelona, it's possible that it will be the reverse, though by virtue of its sterling play in recent outings, the club no longer looks to be in danger of missing out on automatic Champions League qualification. There's nothing but good news to take out of handing Real such a beating, and given the season Barcelona has had to date, that's the best possible outcome from a game that will likely not mean much at all to the balance of power in La Liga this season.