How Barcelona stumped Real Madrid to sprint clear in the LaLiga title race

A positive, aggressive game from the Catalans saw them pick up their 100th win in the El Clásico and move 12 points ahead

Yaser Muhammad Faisal Jubayer
Published : 20 March 2023, 01:02 PM
Updated : 20 March 2023, 01:02 PM

Barcelona and Real Madrid have already faced each other four times this season. Their first encounter, at the Santiago Bernabeu, was a clinical 3-1 triumph for Los Blancos. But since the turn of the year, Xavi's Blaugrana seem to have their number. They triumphed in the Supercopa final 3-1 and held on for a 0-1 win in the first leg of the Copa del Rey semis. Now, at Camp Nou, Barcelona had a chance to knock the wind out of their bitter rivals and gain a substantial lead at the top of the LaLiga table. Real, for their part, had to cut Barca's lead for any hope of a domestic title.

Madrid started in a 4-3-3. In a surprise move, Ancelloti left Tchouameni and Ceballos on the field, opting for the veteran duo of Kroos and Modric in midfield. While the pair had successfully snuffed out Liverpool in the second leg of the Champions League Round of 16, they had also failed to make an impression in the Copa Del Rey loss.

Barca also started a 4-3-3, with Gavi up top alongside Raphinha and Lewandowski, given the responsibility of putting constant pressure on Real's backline. Their strategy had changed too. Despite their victory in the Copa Del Rey, Barca saw just 35 percent of the ball in that match. Xavi, a midfield legend imprinted with the club's identity, was unsatisfied. 

"We are preparing the game in a certain way," he told The Athletic. "We'll try to be more dominant than we were last time against them."

From the first whistle, Barca took to the field with far more intensity and aggression, hungry for a win. This craving continued throughout the match, with Barca racking up 54 percent of the possession and rating an xG (expected goals) of 1.62 against Madrid's 0.55. They had more attempts on goal – 12 shots inside the box against Real's 6 – and more corners – 8 against 1 – and pushed into Madrid's half – with 291 passes in the opponent's side of the pitch against 210.

In response to the constant threat of Vinicius, Xavi pushed Araujo from the centre-back role to right-back this season. It worked in the teams' past two encounters and worked yet again. Araujo made 6 recoveries, 2 successful tackles, 4 clearances, and won 8 duels, limiting Vinicius to no attempts from inside the box. Unfortunately, his record will be marred by an own goal when he nodded a cross from Vinicius into the net. It was the first own goal in a LaLiga El Clásico in the 21st century. 

Despite going ahead early, Madrid never had any prolonged control of the game. With Vinicius, the focal point of their attacks, shackled, their counterattacks broke down. It was too much to ask of any one player. The midfield felt sluggish, needing to be quicker in transition to provide the necessary opportunistic support. Benzema's dip in form and his unwillingness to get in the box to meet crosses did not help.

Barca, meanwhile, overloaded their left flank. Gavi was tenacious, and Balde overlapped him with de Jong occasionally supporting them. The persistent press on that side saw Carvajal lose possession 23 times, the second-most in the game. Raphinha, on the other flank, stretched Real's backline, barring Nacho from rushing forward to support Vinicius. Busquets dropped back to play anchor while the rest of the midfield pushed high, pouncing on second balls from crosses or long balls from either side. 

Ancelloti, perhaps sensing his initial mistake, brought Rodrygo on to replace Kroos in the 62nd minute in the hopes of repeating the success of their Champions League campaign. But Barca stayed compact to block entry into the box. Only one of Madrid's 11 attempted crosses found its mark. The lack of a strong aerial presence up front showed the lack of bite in Real's current attack.  

If Real lacked the vigour for the encounter, Barcelona didn't. Their equaliser came from the aggressive approach, as Roberto was there to capitalise when a blocked shot from Raphinha fell at his feet. The decisive moment came from an interception, too, as Barca snatched the ball in the 92nd minute. Balde put it into the path of substitute Kessie, charging in through the centre-right channel, and he fired it in.

While the Blaugrana were on the front foot in the game, there were openings to be had. But the lack of lethality in the Los Blancos attack begs the question of how Madrid plans to reinforce their squad in the summer. Their unrequited love for Mbappe and Bellingham has seen their attacking prowess fall off as investment is deferred again. Three times this year, Barca have shown how to stonewall Madrid – block Vinicius from space in the box. Real could never truly take charge of the game without another lethal presence on the field.

But Xavi and Barcelona deserve their flowers too. They executed their game plan well enough to bring the third consecutive Clásico win since the fierce rivalry between Pep and Mourinho. While Xavi may have failed to make an impression in Europe, the team's domestic record has been spectacular. Camp Nou has remained unbreached this season, with the Blaugrana winning 11 games and drawing two. With 12 game weeks to go, it seems they will reclaim the league this season. Ancelloti, meanwhile, will have to put their hopes in the European basket if he hopes to avoid a sacking. 

The two sides will clash again on Apr 5, when they face each other in the second leg of the Copa del Rey semi-finals. Barcelona will enter the match with a 1-goal advantage.

This article is part of Stripe,'s special publication focusing on culture and society from a youth perspective.