Saturday, November 28, 2020

El Clasico: Reliant on Ramos, Benzema off the boil – can Real Madrid really dominate Barca?

SoccerNews in La Liga 23 Oct 2020

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The pressure is firmly on Zinedine Zidane and Real Madrid heading into Saturday’s Clasico at Barcelona.

Madrid were crowned LaLiga champions just three months ago, but recent results have altered the narrative considerably prior to the clash at Camp Nou.

Los Blancos lost to Cadiz in the league last week and then on Wednesday suffered a remarkable Champions League reverse at the hands of Shakhtar Donetsk, who were missing 10 first-team players due to coronavirus.

These defeats followed the closing of a transfer window in which Madrid did not make a single signing, leaving Zidane short on options.

The prospect of this campaign quickly crumbling is especially painful for those in the Spanish capital after they appeared set to finally dominate rivals Barca once more…
 

MADRID’S BIG OPPORTUNITY

Madrid won the most recent Clasico in March, but they have not beaten Barca in consecutive LaLiga matches since May 2008.

On that occasion, the Blaugrana promptly appointed Pep Guardiola and became Spain’s premier domestic side. Madrid’s 2019-20 title was just their third since then, despite their Champions League supremacy.

But this season seemed to represent a chance for Madrid to secure a hold over Barca and stage a successful defence of their championship for the first time since that 2007-08 campaign.

Barca were embarrassed in the Champions League by Bayern Munich late last season, leading to the sacking of Quique Setien, the appointment of Ronald Koeman and subsequent departures of Luis Suarez, Ivan Rakitic and Arturo Vidal, and of course Lionel Messi’s transfer request.

While Messi stayed in the end, the current campaign is widely expected to be his last, meaning Madrid would need only to master the magnificent number 10 and his crisis club one final time.

There was modest investment at Barca, at least topping Madrid’s outlay of zero, but the arrivals of Miralem Pjanic and Sergino Dest looked unlikely to turn the tide after the champions ended last season in stunning style.
 

WHERE HAS IT GONE WRONG?

Madrid won 10 straight matches after the 2019-20 season – paused amid COVID-19 – resumed in June, dropping points only in a draw against Leganes on the final day when the title was wrapped up.

A goalless stalemate at Real Sociedad then represented an opening-day setback this term, yet Madrid’s form was still relatively steady until the Cadiz match, a 1-0 loss.

Reassessing their start after that defeat, however, shows a clear regression from the end of the previous campaign in one key area: their finishing.

In the final 11 matches of last season, Madrid’s shooting accuracy (excluding blocks) only once dipped below 50 per cent – in a 1-0 win against Athletic Bilbao – but is yet to reach that mark at all in five games this term.

Against Cadiz, Zidane’s side had 74.8 per cent of the ball – more than in any other fixture since June – yet hit the target just twice from 14 attempts.

Crucially, Karim Benzema has gone off the boil. Only he and Federico Valverde have played in all 16 league games since June, the Frenchman scoring seven times from 28 shots at the end of last season, as well as creating six big chances.

In 2020-21, Benzema has netted only once in the league at a conversion rate of 5.3 per cent, while his shot accuracy is down from 72 per cent to 50 per cent and he has already missed as many big chances (three) in five games as he did in 11.
 

IS THERE A SIMPLE FIX?

Given their lack of transfer activity, leaving the squad a little stale, Madrid have no choice but to wait for Benzema to rediscover the form that saw him net 21 times in consecutive seasons following Cristiano Ronaldo’s exit.

There remains no obvious alternative, with Luka Jovic handed another opportunity but so far failing to score and missing his only big chance across three matches. Vinicius Junior has also passed up a trio of clear openings.

The defensive concerns evident against Shakhtar should at least be eased by the return of Sergio Ramos, the captain substituted at half-time at home to Cadiz and then rested in Europe.

Raphael Varane endured another Champions League night to forget in his absence, adding an own goal to his two errors leading to goals in August’s 2-1 defeat at Manchester City.

In fact, Madrid have now lost seven of their past eight Champions League games without their skipper – also including the trip to City.

This dependence on a 32-year-old Benzema and 34-year-old Ramos must be a cause for concern given Barca were supposed to be the ageing side.

It certainly suggests Madrid might not find life as straightforward as expected as they attempt to step into the void to be left by Messi.

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