By the first weekend of September, David Alaba was already speechless. “It’s crazy,” Real Madrid’s centre-back exclaimed. “I’ve run out of words.”
Alaba was reacting to Jude Bellingham’s 95th-minute winner against Getafe on his debut at the Santiago Bernabeu. To mark his first Champions League match draped in white, Bellingham crushed Union Berlin’s dreams with the only goal of the game in the 94th minute. No wonder Bellingham’s teammates celebrated his 92nd-minute winner on his Clasico debut by screaming: “Again?! Again?!”
As has so often been the case this season, Bellingham’s brilliance eclipses everything before it. With a nod of appreciation to the man already hailed as Lord Bellingham by the Spanish press out of the way, here are the other key takeaways from Madrid’s 2-1 victory over Barcelona on Saturday.
The first Clasico of the season was given an afternoon kick-off – not very rock n’ roll with the Rolling Stones watching on from the stands – but Madrid’s players still seemed to be asleep in the opening exchanges.
When Aurelien Tchouameni blocked Ferran Torres’ pass in the sixth minute, the four players closest to the loose ball were all wearing white. Yet, none moved with the urgency of Ilkay Gundogan, winning the race and a 50-50 tackle with Alaba before opening his scoring account for the Catalans. The Austrian centre-back presumably had something to say after that pedestrian passage of play.
Gundogan’s early opener was not an anomaly. No team in La Liga has conceded more goals in the opening 15 minutes of matches than Madrid. The capital outfit have shipped five before the quarter-hour mark and just two across the remaining 75 minutes of league games this term.
Madrid didn’t emerge from their groggy stupour throughout the first half, failing to attempt a single shot on target before the interval. Jose Mourinho was the manager of the last Madrid team to go 45 minutes without testing Barcelona’s goalkeeper. “It was a half to forget,” Carlo Ancelotti, Madrid’s current boss, admitted.
Fermin Lopez almost doubled Barcelona’s lead in the 16th minute, narrowly outside Madrid’s window of pain – perhaps that’s why the ball struck the base of the post. Fellow Masia graduate Gavi mugged Toni Kroos on the edge of Madrid’s box to tee up Fermin.
Starting as Barcelona‘s deepest midfielder but tearing all over the pitch, Gavi was hailed as “the soul of the team” by his manager. “He did very well today, playing at the base, as a pivot,” Xavi gushed. “He was very good. Defensively, his role was to win balls back and be aggressive.”
Gavi duly made the most tackles of any player on the pitch (six) and wasn’t dribbled past once, dispossessing a weaving white shirt on four separate occasions, including Bellingham twice.
Half of Barcelona’s outfield starters were 23 or younger on Saturday, while 16-year-old Lamine Yamal also came off the bench. A Clasico defeat will always cast the team’s immediate future in an unflattering light but Barcelona’s glut of talented kids from the cantera offers optimism going forward – especially for a club mired in financial turmoil.
A few hours before the rugby World Cup final kicked off in Paris, Ferran Torres delivered a regulation tackle around Vinicius Junior’s waist which South Africa’s victorious skipper Siya Kolisi would have been proud of.
Somehow, Vinicius came out of that tangle apologising to Torres after accidentally catching him with a trailing boot.
Once again, Xavi deployed Ronald Araujo on the right-hand side of defence with the sole purpose of halting Vinicius. Not for the first time, the Uruguayan got the better of this tussle, ensuring that the Brazilian trickster didn’t complete a single dribble.
Vinicius was invariably involved in several flash points peppered throughout the contest, at one point defending his tumble face-to-face with Xavi on the touchline. Ancelotti began to wade in but removed himself from the encounter which quickly diffused.
The torrent of whistles and boos that rained down from the stands to greet Vinicius’ stoppage-time substitution was not so friendly. As Vinicius sarcastically applauded the crowd, Ancelotti this time grabbed his player by the wrist to lead him away.
The 23-year-old can be a divisive figure but those who criticise his actions often forget everything he is unfairly forced to absorb. The most frequently fouled player on Saturday afternoon is the constant subject of words aimed at cutting deeper than a late tackle. Barcelona ultras were spotted chanting: “Die Vinicius, die!” en route to the stadium. Just one week after a child was filmed abusing Vinicius at Sevilla, Barcelona’s crowd was accused of racist barbs.
He may have been subdued in El Clasico but it’s a miracle that Vinicius can ever perform under such deplorable conditions.
Diego Simeone was not boasting when he outlined Atletico Madrid’s success against Bellingham during last month’s derby win over Real Madrid. “I think Joselu’s absence gave him fewer chances to attack from the second line since he often takes advantage of Joselu’s aerial game,” Atletico’s manager matter-of-factly explained.
Joselu, Madrid’s only orthodox centre-forward, started El Clasico on the bench. Rodrygo’s wretched form dragged through a forgettable opening hour before the former Stoke City and Newcastle United frontman was subbed on, forcing Barcelona’s backline closer to their own box.
Both of Bellingham’s chances came from crosses aimed at a penalty box which contained Joselu. Prior to the arrival of the 6’4 striker, Madrid had played just four balls into the box – as many as they rained in across the first ten minutes of Joselu’s appearance.
With both Vinicius and Rodrygo misfiring, Joselu helped set the stage for Bellingham to shine.
Xavi has a habit of rushing players back from injury – Ansu Fati repeatedly suffered fitness setbacks as a result – and Robert Lewandowski offered little during his half-hour cameo following an ankle issue.
Without the prolific Pole, Barcelona failed to ram home their superiority when Real Madrid were on the ropes. “I think we dominated the first 60 minutes,” Xavi lamented, “but when you don’t make it 2-0, football has these things. We need five or six [chances] to score a goal and they need two or three to score two goals.”
Naturally questions were raised about the officiating – even from inside Barcelona’s dressing room – but Xavi was adamant. “Today we didn’t lose because of the referee but because we didn’t take our chances,” he sighed.