Barcelona – Real Madrid: Catalan Capitulation; Madrilenian Massacre (0-4)

A victory for Barcelona would mark a humiliating end to the resistance of their rivals in the battle for Spanish supremacy. Their first half display paved the way to more success, but Real Madrid seized on the unease of their hosts to rewrite the script and book a spot in the cup final.

Tactical analysis and match report by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.

Barcelona’s board would have demanded plunder from Xavi to repay their risky outlay in the summer. The Catalans have frustrated in Europe, but the new year has brought significant success in an age old rivalry. Three El Clásico games in the Supercopa de España, Copa del Rey, and La Liga have all gone their way. Now, the league is nearly secure, and another trophy already adorns their cabinet. A fourth win in a row, in the second leg of a semi-final cup clash, would take them closer to a domestic treble.

These three losses have been emblematic of Real Madrid’s shaky streak of form in 2023. The reigning champions were going blow for blow with Barcelona at the turn of the year, falling by the wayside in the last few months. The Champions League is the crown this club craves the most, and Europe is the stage where its players continue to shine. Yet, a goal deficit has not ruled them out of the competition. Could the players call on the same spirit that has spearheaded them toward glory on the continent?

Xavi trusted in his rotation policy to secure the three points from the trip to Elche. He brought back Sergio Busquets to sit at the base of the midfield in place of Eric García. Frenkie de Jong and Pedri were injured, so the matchwinner in the previous derby, Franck Kessié, stepped into midfield. Gavi moved forward to act as a left winger, and Raphinha featured to the right of Robert Lewandowski.

The visitors came into this fixture off the back of a 6-0 rout of Real Valladolid. Carlo Ancelotti sent out Eduardo Camavinga as a left back and Rodrygo in the offense. Both players took to the field from kickoff. The industry of Federico Valverde added more energy to the starting eleven. But the manager wished to mix youth and experience, placing Luka Modrić in the middle of the park with Toni Kroos.

Barcelona implement their primary plan

The arrangement of Valverde, Rodrygo, and Modric on the right of Madrid’s structure could have formed a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 shape. Ancelotti picked the former. Valverde joined Kroos on the right of the double pivot, Modrić stood in the number ten role, and Rodrygo operated as the right winger. However, the action that came the other way on that same flank dominated affairs before the break.

32nd minute: offensive sequence from Barcelona. Marcos Alonso receives the ball, luring out Dani Carvajal to Balde. Lewandowski moves to the left, creating a dilemma for Éder Militão. The central defender chooses to fall back and protect the space inside the right back, allowing Gavi to receive between the lines. He lays off a pass to Balde, then rotates wide and the left back dribbles inside.

The home team kept most of the ball, rotating from their 4-3-3 system. Ronald Araújo functioned on the right of the back four instead of Jules Koundé, marshaling Vinícius Júnior. He stayed deeper than Álex Balde, who marauded from the left flank into the space Gavi vacated. Gavi filled the halfspace, loading the center with Kessié, Sergi Roberto, and Busquets, while Raphinha occupied the right wing.

Deeper on the field, Vinícius left Araújo free to provide a wide outlet in the buildup phase, where his teammates worked to release Balde with a switch of play. In the middle third of the pitch, left sided combinations, where Lewandowski moved wider while Kessié tied up Kroos more centrally, were common. Such sequences set up Raphinha on the right against Camavinga. In many cases, Xavi put faith in the quality of these width holders to be a decisive factor and break through in the final third.

Camavinga coolly contained Raphinha’s dribbling, frustrating the winger to prevail in their duel. On the other hand, Balde was far more impressive on the night due to his ball carrying and drive to attack the goal. Indeed, his confidence and intensity were a marker of his side’s approach to defensive work.

Rodrygo relieves the burden

Barcelona pushed forward with a 4-3-3 pressing structure. The guests tried to maneuver their way out of danger with their intuitive solution finding in possession. Kroos dropped deep and to the left of the central defenders while Camavinga roamed in and out of the halfspace from the flank. The route to Vinícius was an obvious threat, but Ancelotti’s selection indicated other weapons were on the cards.

Rodrygo moved off the flank in possession, interacting centrally with Benzema to boost the threat from the inside right channel. Madrid were not in their rhythm in the first half, passing up on cues to feed the clever movement of the striker. But the addition of the dynamism of Rodrygo to the offense had given it a different edge than usual. His part would be integral to the opening goal of the match.

Barcelona nearly broke the deadlock on the stroke of half time. They worked the ball from right to left, where Balde was free on the flank. The fullback’s cross met Lewandowski, whose strike forced Thibaut Courtois to parry. Rodrygo picked up a loose ball in transition and took a countercharge to the hosts. Vinícius and Benzema then connected, pitting the winger against Marc-André ter Stegen. Koundé’s block on the goal line turned out to be in vain, and Benzema made sure of the equalizer.


Within five minutes of the restart, Madrid had turned around the deficit completely to silence Camp Nou. The Catalans squeezed Militão and his options near the sideline, but Modrić was available to receive the ball behind Gavi. Fleet of foot, the veteran slipped away from Roberto to open the field. Rodrygo’s central movement pinned Koundé in the penalty area, and Benzema stood in room on the edge of the box. The striker picked his spot, placing a strike past ter Stegen in the corner of the net.

Barcelona suffered a severe psychological blow due to these goals. The failure to kill off the tie had come back to bite them, and they never looked like forging a response. Bad decision making revealed disconnections across the field, losing their rhythm and threat on the ball from before the break. Their collapse starkly contrasted with the calculated approach of Madrid, who enforced their superiority.

Just before the hour mark, Valverde enforced a turnover from Balde, pushing the ball to Rodrygo. He threaded a pass between Alonso’s legs to set away Modrić in the inside right channel, and Benzema lurked to finish the contest. The pair did not find each other, but Vinícius smelt blood. He squared up Araújo, chopped back from the byline, and lured Kessié into committing a foul. Benzema stepped forward from twelve yards, secured his brace, and put the visitors three goals ahead on the evening.

Madrid confirmed their place in the final in the 81st minute. Camavinga received the ball on the edge of his box before splitting the lines to access Vinícius. Marco Asensio roamed to his left, Benzema motioned to his right, and the winger ran at the heart of a ragged defense. Vinícius manipulated the ball around Eric García into the path of Benzema to dink an effort around the goalkeeper to wrap up his second hat-trick in as many fixtures. The classic counterpunch had delivered the goods once more.


A four goal drubbing in any El Clásico is a rough result. That outcome shall sting even more for Barcelona because of the state of affairs before the break. Another cup exit has taken the excitement out of the conclusion of their campaign since they now only have the league title to confirm over the next few weeks. Notwithstanding a miserly record at the back, it is also a stern reminder of where Xavi’s men can improve. His outfit must learn to better stabilize itself when control is on the ropes.

That lesson embodies the success of Real Madrid under their current manager. It was yet another battle where the proceedings were not in his favor at the start. Yet, his players remained in the contest and struck when they realized their opponents’ fragility. The reward for this win is an opportunity to claim a trophy the club has not won since 2014 in a clash with Osasuna at the beginning of May. The LaLiga crown might be out of reach, but Ancelotti can still ensure a prosperous end to this season.

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"Possession as a philosophy is overrated. Possession of the ball as a tool is underestimated." João Cancelo stan (19) [ View all posts ]


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