• If Real Madrid are aggressive against Barca in back-to-back Clasicos, they can ruin their rivals' season

  • If Santi Solari has any sense, this should be the message he'll

    give his players just before they stride out to try to beat

    Barcelona in a Bernabeu Liga, Copa del Rey or Champions

    League Clasico for just the third time in a decade: "Go for the

    throat right from the start!"

    Across those 10 seasons, Barcelona have gone to the heart of

    their historic enemies' citadel and won nine times, drawing

    twice. It's the most remarkable decade in the 90 years of their

    rivalry. But for Madrid to buck that trend, reach the Copa final

    and turn the fledgling hope of their first-leg 1-1 draw in the

    Camp Nou into victory, there are clues for Solari, Ramos,

    Vinicius, Benzema & Co.

    Barcelona's preparation for this tie, preceding another Clasico

    in the league on Saturday, one that should determine Madrid's

    future in the title chase, was nothing short of spectacular.

    You'll wait many years, travel many miles and spend

    thousands on match tickets before you'll see a better, more

    thrilling, more theatrical or more spectacular second half than

    Sevilla losing to Leo Messi's 50th career hat trick last

    weekend. But Madrid's interim coach and all of his video

    analysis team will have spotted a flaw in Barcelona's armour.

    Over their past six matches in all three competitions, Barca

    have tended to start their performances like an old man with a

    bad back on a wet Wednesday in January.

    Against Valencia, they were 2-0 down at home after half an

    hour. Against Madrid in the cup, they were 1-0 down after six

    minutes thanks to pretty horrible defending by both full-backs.

    Against Athletic Club, Lyon and Sevilla, they were either

    trailing to an early goal (Saturday) or conceding a flood of

    chances, and if body language is anything to go by, Ernesto

    Valverde's players were collectively saying, "Hold on... HOLD

    ON! Won't you slow down a bit, please? "

    Think of Marc-Andre ter Stegen's top-corner save to deny

    Markel Susaeta, an even better one to stop Martin Terrier's in

    Lyon that went on to hit the bar, how Raul Garcia nearly scored

    with an overhead kick in San Mames or Quincy Promes'

    missing the target right in front of goal in the opening

    moments at the Nervion.

    Across those matches, Barcelona didn't lose once; they either

    clawed back to draw, kept a clean sheet or turned a losing

    position into victory. The message to Madrid is crystal clear:

    put them on the rack, don't let up the pressure, bury your

    chances and kill the game in the first 20 minutes. Or you'll pay.

    But can Madrid pull it off?

    In principal, this is the key game that should matter least to

    Barca, if they had to choose. Winning the Liga Clasico on

    Saturday will conclusively erase Madrid from that contest. It

    would be a massive boon if Barcelona can achieve it. Even

    given the points gap, a Barca defeat at the Bernabeu just

    keeps the terrifying thought of Solari's team hunting them

    down alive long enough to prey on the subconscious of some

    around Camp Nou.

    That game is more important than this one -- at least you'd

    think so, right?

    Also, they have to consider the return leg against Lyon. Let

    nobody kid you: Messi set the tone in August when,

    speechifying as captain, he said his top objective was to bring

    back the "beautiful trophy from that historic competition" to

    the Barcelona fans. They don't desire the Champions League --

    they crave it. They need it. They hate that they've been mere

    spectators while Madrid have totted up a historic four wins in

    the past five competitions. That hurts the Blaugrana psyche

    more than words can capture.

    A 0-0 draw away to Lyon was commendable in the

    circumstances: an extended streak since 2016 of not winning

    and mainly losing Champions League knockout ties away from

    home, moderate domestic form and against a Ligue 1 side

    that has been capable, this season, of beating both

    Manchester City and PSG. But listen closely to Valverde. He

    immediately called that a "dangerous scoreline" to take to the

    home leg. And it is.

    Barcelona vs. Lyon from a standing start? Barca are

    favourites, yes, but the threat of an away goal is significant.

    Will Barca be nervous? For sure. The need for Messi to stay

    fully fit and on form is also of primeval importance.

    That match, in a couple of weeks, is significantly more

    important to Barcelona than this midweek cup game. But that

    said, now is the time to consider the braking distance of an

    articulated truck.

    All of you who drive know what your safe stopping distance is.

    You must leave time to think, then to brake, then for the

    brakes to be effective. For big vehicles -- in football terms,

    teams such as Barcelona -- the distance is much greater. In

    other words, the time needed between a behemoth's realising

    it's time to stomp on the brakes, slowing down and actually

    stopping is huge: It can be significant if you're used to traveling

    at high speed.

    What my comparison means is that while the Blaugrana have

    been qualifying for eight of the past 10 Copa del Rey finals,

    winning the past four, they've become a big rig going about 90

    mph. Recently, the vast outlay of energy and intensity, plus the

    lack of time for recuperation in January and February, has

    begun to cost them heavily when it comes to the "it's you or

    me" moments in the Champions League against Europe's

    better, more aggressive and athletically sharper teams.

    I wrote in this space about three seasons ago about how

    Barcelona's obsession with the cup was costing them in

    Europe. The club, and Carles Puyol, caught up with my thinking

    a few months back, and the former captain, finding analysis to

    be less emotional and more clear-cut from the sideline,

    pointed out that it was time to sacrifice the hell-for-leather

    approach to a domestic knockout bauble in favour of

    conquering Europe again.

    Yet Barca's braking distance has still been substantial. Twice

    they've been on the canvas in the Copa del Rey -- away to

    Levante and Sevilla in the first legs -- and then thrown the

    kitchen sink at their rivals to claw back 2-1 and 2-0 deficits in

    the Camp Nou leg. They are in the process of re-evaluating

    and reprioritizing, but over this past decade, which plays such

    a role in Wednesday's contest, fighting tigerishly in the

    domestic cup has become such an ingrained part of the

    majority of these players' minds that it's hard to discard.

    Each and every one of Valverde's men, whether in the starting

    XI or on the bench, whether it's the smart option or not, will

    treat this as if it were a fight to the death, as if the loser will

    be branded a rube and a chump. Although I imagine Valverde

    will calibrate his starting lineup a little, he'll also be craving a

    shot at Valencia or Betis in the final. His players will also

    believe, in their hearts, that this can be their first step to a

    potential treble.

    Whether from the start or once they get going, we'll see

    attitudes from Barcelona's players that are revealing: While

    they've tapped their brakes, the distance between that decision

    and this collision with Madrid has been too great to prevent

    the match being all-in. For the neutral, there's an argument

    that if Solari gets his prematch conclusions correct, if he picks

    an absolutely full-strength XI and pinches a line from

    Shakespeare to tell his troops "Cry havoc and let slip the dogs

    of war," then this might be the better, more explosive and

    more memorable of the two Bernabeu Clasicos that will

    entertain us over the next few days.

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  • 26 Feb '19 - 12:16pm
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  • Comments (1)
  • adedokun on 26 Feb '19 - 12:17pm
    Thanks for the update
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