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REALity Check: El Clásico Loss a Painful Reminder for Barcelona

A reminder that this is just the beginning and the road to redemption is a long one.

Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno

As Barcelona fans, we are used to winning. A lot. So any loss is a weird moment, a moment to get mad, anxious and nervous about the future, only to get happy again once the team wins the next match. Victories are almost a certainty, something we've become so accustomed to see over the last decade that we absolutely take it for granted.

So, naturally, losing to your biggest rival is a difficult thing. You hate the team on the other side, and your day is completely ruined after a loss. That's what happened to Barça on Saturday, when the Blaugrana got dominated and destroyed by Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabéu. After a promising start, the Catalans had no answer to the level of intensity shown by the Blancos, especially in the second half, and saw an early 1-0 lead get shattered by the hosts in a span of 30 minutes. And really, Madrid could have scored a lot more, but ended up wasting many counter-attacking opportunities and weren't able to stretch their lead to a humiliation.

Still, they dominated and totally deserved to triumph. After a sloppy start to the season, trying to fit all the pieces of the complicated puzzle created by the controversial transfer moves made by its president, Real are back on track, and now they're looking even scarier than they already were last season. Even without Gareth Bale, Madrid killed Barça with their ridiculously fast counter-attack, but yesterday they showed one more ace in the hole: the capability of maintain ball possession and create scoring opportunities with accurate passes and killer player movement. Toni Kroos is already a key part of this squad, and his association with Luka Modric have made Madrid's midfield even more dynamic. They control the tempo of the game when the team is on offense, and they have incredible awareness to help each other and cover spaces on defense. In Isco, they have a simpler version of Ángel Di María. The current midfielder is not as talented as his predecessor, but his work-rate and intensity are incredibly helpful.

James Rodríguez has shut up all critics by doing his part to make the team successful. He's not the protagonist some might think he would be, but his contributions have been gigantic. Especially yesterday, James' off-the ball work was sensational, and he played a big part in Karim Benzema scoring the third and final goal of the match.

In essence, Madrid are better than they were last year, and they are ready for the big games. They were the better team on Saturday, and Barça deserved to lose.

Speaking of Barça, the loss in El Clásico served as a painful reminder for the Blaugrana: there's a long way to go in the road to redemption. The team lost the two biggest games of the season so far in an undoubtful manner, and they looked hopeless in both matches. The problem is: Barça had played great in the previous matches, and they always seemed to be ready for the big stage. And then, the bunch of players running around like little kids looked nothing like the efficient, unbeatable team we saw only three or four days before the games against PSG and Madrid.

Something's wrong. Let me rephrase that: some things are wrong. Let me rephrase again: a lot of things go wrong. Everything goes well when Barça face Eibar, Elche, Rayo, Ajax... When the big match atmosphere involves the players and the coach, all of the good things go out the window, and the ugly, repeated mistakes happen, the team looks hilariously lost, and the strongest defense in Spain becomes a Liga Adelante bunch.

One thing is clear: there are two Barcelona teams. The one that can blowout and convince in the easy games, winning the ones they should win. And then there's the team that can compete and cope with the big teams for a portion of the game, only to get exposed and beat at the end. To their credit, the players didn't give up in any of the losses. They fough hard to the final whistle, unfortunately they didn't know what to do because the current scheme doesn't give them alternatives to change things (hold that thought).

That doesn't mean we didn't see good stuff when we lost. Neymar Jr. is CLEARLY adapted to the team, the city and the new life as a backup franchise player. The Brazilian has become an integral part of Barça's system, and his 9 La Liga goals in eight games already match the TOTAL of last season's campaign, when Ney needed twenty-six league contests to bag the same number of scores. Neymar is arguably the best player of the start of the season. He hasn't had a marginal performance yet, and that's huge.

Another plus for Barça in both losses is Javier Mascherano. Personally, I think his season is absurd. Even in the negative results, Masche was the best defensive player of the team by far, even if he was put in a position he shouldn't be playing (hold that thought). Javier has solidified himself as the 12th starter, and Sergio Busquets needs to worry about his previously untouchable spot as defensive midfielder.

In Saturday's loss to Madrid, we witnessed the much anticipated debut of Luis Suárez. Barça's biggest signing of the season was finally able to play, and he started the game, a somewhat surprising decision made by coach Luis Enrique. As expected (at least as I expected), Suárez had a wonderful start, in which he assisted the first goal and later gave Lionel Messi an easy shot that could have changed the story of the game, but Leo wasn't able to score. After this great start, Suárez obviously felt the lack of playing time, got tired, then exhausted, and finally left after 60 minutes, when he was replaced by Pedro. Overall, it was an OK game, though a very promising one. From what we saw, especially in the beginning, the trio of Neymar-Messi-Suárez can be deadly once Luisito is ready, physically and in terms of understanding his teammates, and vice-versa.

After all of that, we have to address the coaching. In both losses (and especially in the Clásico), Luis Enrique deserves a considerable part of the blame. His judgement calls were poor and tactically flawed. In the PSG match, Lucho started Jordi Alba in the left side, and poor Alba was swallowed by Lucas Moura and Van der Wiel with no help from Andrés Iniesta, who failed to fulfill his defensive duties. Also, Enrique used Mascherano as a center-back against a tall opposition, and that choice combined with other individual mistakes led to two Paris goals coming from set pieces.

Against Madrid, Lucho decided to bench Alba and put Jérémy Mathieu as a full-back. That would be a good idea, if Gareth Bale was on the pitch. As you know, he was not. On the other side, Enrique said "screw the defense" and started Ani Alves (yes, it's Ani Alves because there's no D). To make it even worse, the coach decided to have Xavi on the right midfield spot. A wise decision offensively, but terrible in terms of helping the Brazilian fella who doesn't know how to defend. Ivan Rakitic was a better option than Xavi, especially because the focus of Madrid's attack would be the left side, with Cristiano Ronaldo and Marcelo in great form. The result was a laughable performance by both Xavi and Alves, who got destroyed by their opponents.

And once again, Mascherano played as a center-back. That is not a good idea in a game like this, as the second goal scored by Pepe showed us. On the ground, Masche is a monster. In the air, he's a baby. He simply doesn't have enough height to defend the best aerial challengers of any team, let alone Madrid. That's a fact. And that is something we know since the first game he played as a CB. After all, Javier's ability of being so good in different positions hurts Barcelona. It's not his fault, though. The coach is so blindly confident in Masche being a very good CB that he makes the wrong call by putting the Argentine in a bad spot. It happened with Tito, it happened with Tata, it's happening with Lucho. That's a problem, especially when you have Marc Bartra begging to have a real opportunity to show he is legimately good to be a starting center-back at the club.

The amount of criticism thrown in Lucho's way after the defeat in El Clásico is definitely unfair. He made bad decisions, but most of the players had a really lousy game. Everyone deserves the blame for the result, but a loss this big can also be a very good thing. If you put this in perspective, you can see that Messi won't have a performance that bad again, Dani Alves is leaving soon, Luis Suárez will get better, Neymar is living up to the hype and then some, and more importantly, that this was only the TWELFTH game of a rebuilding season. As bad as losing to Madrid is, this is too early to say that everything is terrible. We have to give this group more time. As talented as this group is, it takes a while to make all those individual stars become a true team.

And hey, we're still La Liga leaders. And the only true big game we have left this calendar year is against PSG, at home, and that happens in more than 40 days. Which means that there's time to make things better, and get this group ready for the next huge test. As painful as losing a Clásico is, losses like that are almost a necessity in a rebuilding season. It makes you think, analyze, plan, change. There are corrections to be made, but only time will make those corrections be effective. It's not the end of the world. In the end, this is just a loss. And if losing in October means winning in May, I'll take losing in October any day.

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