Tactical Insights

Real Madrid 3 Barcelona 2 – Yamal’s ‘ghost goal’, Bellingham’s El Clasico winner – The Briefing


Jude Bellingham stole the show again with a stoppage-time winner for Real Madrid in Sunday evening’s Clasico meeting with Barcelona.

Andreas Christensen put Xavi’s side ahead after an error from Andriy Lunin at a Barca corner in the first half, before Vinicius Junior equalised from the penalty spot.

Before the break, Lamine Yamal thought he had put Barca 2-1 up. From one angle on TV, it looked like the ball might have crossed the line after his deft flick, but La Liga does not have goal-line technology (more on that later) and after a VAR check, play carried on.

In the 69th minute, Fermin Lopez finished from close range as the away team finally went in front again, but Lucas Vazquez — having scored an important penalty in the Champions League shootout against Manchester City on Wednesday — popped up at the back post with the leveller.

Then, in the 91st minute, Bellingham smashed the ball home to once again make his mark on Spanish football’s biggest fixture, just as he did in October, sealing a win that sees Carlo Ancelotti’s side move 11 points clear at the top of La Liga.

Here, The Athletic’s Dermot Corrigan, Tomas Hill and Thom Harris take us through the major talking points.


Lunin’s flappy start

Andriy Lunin’s emergence has been one of the stories of the season for Real Madrid. The Ukrainian goalkeeper has stepped up in Thibaut Courtois’ absence through injury, as illustrated by his fine penalty shootout performance against Manchester City in midweek.

But his showing here was proof of the strain that comes with being Madrid’s No 1. Lunin was shaky in the opening stages, clearing straight to Raphinha when Robert Lewandowski put him under pressure and then producing the error that led to Barca’s opening goal in the sixth minute. Raphinha swung in a corner and Lunin flapped at it, allowing Christensen to head into an empty net.


Christensen celebrates his goal (Alvaro Medranda/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)

Barca needed that fast start — La Liga was all they had to play for after their Champions League disappointment against Paris Saint-Germain — and they continued to target Madrid from corners. Los Blancos got away with another Raphinha delivery that was flicked on by Yamal in the 28th minute with the score at 1-1 — with Carlo Ancelotti’s side perhaps saved by a lack of goal-line technology.

It was a tactic Manchester City had used to great effect against Madrid and their weakness from corners may have had something to do with Ancelotti’s selection. Here, the Italian started with midfielders Eduardo Camavinga and Aurelien Tchouameni at left-back and centre-back. The former struggled to contain Yamal in the first half and Madrid lacked a powerful presence when defending set pieces. You wonder how different things might have been with Courtois in goal and a fully fit Eder Militao at the back.

Tomas Hill


Was it a goal?

Barcelona thought they had gone 2-1 ahead when Yamal’s near-post flick at a corner arrowed the ball towards goal. Lunin got across to shovel it out, but the impression watching — and Barca’s players shared it — was that the ball had crossed the line and 16-year-old Yamal had added ‘youngest Clasico goalscorer’ to his already long list of records.

However, that could not be proven, as unlike most other big leagues, La Liga does not have goal-line technology. After a VAR check — broadcast pictures only showed two angles from which it was impossible to tell for sure — the score stayed at 1-1.

No goal-line technology in Spain has already been controversial this season, with Real Sociedad’s Scottish left-back Kieran Tierney sure he had scored in extra time of a Copa del Rey semi-final second leg against Mallorca. That could not be proven either and Mallorca went to the final on penalties.


Lunin claws the ball off his goal line (Thomas Coex/AFP via Getty Images)

Rafa Benitez was also surprised to find that Spain did not have goal-line technology during his time as Celta Vigo coach this season. “I asked the fourth official about the goal-line technology check and he told me they don’t have it. I couldn’t believe it,” said Benitez after an effort from Celta’s Jonathan Bamba was not given back in September.

This is because the introduction of the technology got caught up in the interminable rows between La Liga and the Spanish federation, especially during Luis Rubiales’ time as president. An updated VAR system is coming for 2024-25, including semi-automated offside, but there are still no plans for Hawk-Eye goal-line technology.

“Goal-line technology is not a financial issue, it is about use,” La Liga president Javier Tebas said earlier this campaign. “In one season there are only four or five incidents of this type.”

One of those four or five happened at a very high-profile moment tonight.

Dermot Corrigan


Barca’s high-press gamble

Neither team could wrestle control in a scattergun first half, both sides loose in possession and porous in their high press. It was Barcelona’s riskier out-of-possession approach, however, that provided them with a foothold in the game and their most effective route to the byline.

Xavi’s side were threatening from set pieces and they won their first of the game from a Madrid goal kick. With Ilkay Gundogan stationed high to man-mark Toni Kroos, the conductor could not receive the ball and dictate play from deep. Christensen also stuck to Bellingham tightly, while De Jong kept an eye on Luka Modric in a deeper position.


Yamal often got the better of Camavinga (Diego Souto/Getty Images)

All of this, coupled with pressure from Raphinha and Lewandowski, meant the ball kept going out to the left from Real Madrid goal kicks, where Barcelona could squeeze up and intercept the ball down the line, as Jules Kounde did for the goal.

Particularly in the first half, before Gundogan was moved into a deeper role following substitutions at half-time, Barcelona winning the ball in these advanced areas saw Gundogan and Yamal link up down the right-hand side, the latter providing a constant threat with his incisive runs into the penalty area.

It was a strategy fraught with risk, particularly with just two defenders left covering when Kounde stepped up, but it gave Barcelona a way into the game without being able to dominate the ball.

Thom Harris


Madrid’s fancy new TV

Works on Real Madrid’s renovation of their Santiago Bernabeu stadium are still not quite finished, but on Sunday evening, we did see the new 360-degree video screens around the ground in action for the first time.

The new roof was closed, too — Madrid think it helps with the atmosphere. It has nothing to do with the weather (as you might have guessed).


Madrid and Barca players lining up at the Bernabeu (David Ramos/Getty Images)

Madrid first closed the Bernabeu roof against Getafe in La Liga in September. The feedback was positive and the acoustics were better. They did the same for their Champions League quarter-final first leg against Manchester City earlier this month and it makes a difference. The atmosphere then, as tonight, was spectacular.

Mario Cortegana


Xavi’s big call on Lewandowski

Xavi kept saying pre-game that this was “the most important game of the season”.

So the Barca coach must have been frustrated after his team had gone ahead early, only for a basic error by left-back Joao Cancelo to allow Vazquez in behind him, which led directly to Madrid’s equaliser from the penalty spot by Vinicius Jr.

Xavi’s thoughts on his squad also seemed clear when he withdrew the team’s senior goalscorer, Lewandowski, with the score at 1-1 and with 30 minutes remaining.

Lewandowski had zero shots on target during his time on the pitch, but it was still a big call given the Pole is the signature signing of Joan Laporta’s second term as president.

Barca’s goal to make it 2-1 seemed to back up Xavi’s point. Lewandowski’s replacement, Ferran Torres, made the run from deep that distracted Lunin, who could only parry the ball out to another substitute, Fermin Lopez, to knock home.


Lewandowski did not have his best night for Barca (Mateo Villalba/Getty Images)

The goal was also set up by Yamal, Barca’s most dangerous attacker throughout, just as he so often has been in recent months, as Xavi has trusted more in La Masia products than expensive big-name arrivals.

Madrid’s goal to make it 2-2 was also significant in this way, as Cancelo did not track Madrid right-back Vazquez.

How all this, and the disappointing defeat, affects Xavi’s future remains to be seen. Until the PSG game midweek, Laporta had been among those trying to get Xavi to change his mind on his decision to leave in the summer.

But after losing to PSG and with their La Liga title chances now surely over, the president might prefer to have a coach more in line with the boardroom’s thinking.

Dermot Corrigan


Bellingham’s big moment

In these sides’ last La Liga meeting in October, Jude Bellingham decided the game with two goals — the first of those a spectacular effort from distance and the second a stoppage-time winner.

That was during a blistering run in which the summer signing scored 17 goals before Christmas, but the goals have dried up since then. Bellingham had not netted for Madrid since a 4-0 win against Girona in February and had been forced to address questions over his form. “I don’t mind the criticism, what matters is how you respond,” Bellingham told reporters before the Champions League quarter-final second leg against City.


Bellingham had not scored for Madrid since February (Diego Souto/Getty Images)

But it was still striking to see Bellingham nowhere near the box for Vazquez’s volleyed equaliser in the 73rd minute. It was the kind of box-crashing run the 20-year-old would have made earlier in the campaign — although his role has changed. While he remains La Liga’s second-top scorer with 17 goals, Bellingham now does a lot of important work for Carlo Ancelotti’s side in defensive transitions. He showed flashes of brilliance at the Bernabeu and certainly didn’t lack for hunger, as shown by a lunging challenge on Marc-Andre ter Stegen in the 72nd minute.

A 2-2 draw would have suited Madrid fine, but it was perhaps inevitable that Bellingham would break his scoring drought against his side’s great rivals. He ghosted in unmarked in stoppage time to get on the end of Vazquez’s low cross — as if Barca’s defenders had forgotten he could score — and sent a shot high into the net.

Cue that celebration, which Madrid fans will surely have missed since February.

Tomas Hill


Where does this leave the title race?

Barcelona realistically had to take all three points to keep their faint hopes of defending their La Liga crown alive. Even (what looked like being) a spirited draw would have felt like an anti-climactic fizzling out to their late-season revival.

Bellingham’s late strike — the second time the Englishman has decided El Clasico in stoppage time this season — looks like the crushing blow that will bring an inconsistent season, and Xavi’s tumultuous reign as manager, to a brutal and trophy-less close.

Now 11 points clear, Opta gives Madrid a 100 per cent chance of securing a record-extending 36th title. They are unbeaten in 25 La Liga games, have not lost at home for over a year, and need just eight points from their remaining six games to mathematically seal the deal. Games against two sides in the bottom three in Cadiz and Granada in May should give Los Blancos ample opportunity to stroll to the finish line.

With the Champions League still to play for, too, Ancelotti has what would be his 12th and 13th titles at the club firmly within his grasp.

Thom Harris


Recommended reading

(Top photo: Oscar Del Pozo/AFP via Getty Images)



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