No Ronaldo, no Messi but there is hope for El Clasico

Both Real Madrid and Barcelona need … The post No Ronaldo, no Messi but there is hope for El Clasico appeared first on Football365.

No Ronaldo, no Messi but there is hope for El Clasico

The last thing Barcelona need is a constant reminder of Lionel Messi everywhere they turn, but the problem is that they are in a year of firsts without him. The first game has long gone, marked as it was by the Camp Nou crowd chanting his name in the 10th minute, as much in protest as homage; their first Champions League game, against Bayern Munich, was a painful reminder too, but Sunday will sting the most. Not since 2005 have the Blaugrana named a squad for El Clasico without their former talisman for any other reason than injury or suspension.

This is the fixture, not just for Barça, Real Madrid or even in Spain, but arguably the world. It still feels unnatural that Messi, the top scorer between these sides, will not be on the pitch. His exit remains the deepest cut of a difficult summer for Barcelona, and it has been a sobering experience for fans and pundits alike to recalibrate their expectations this season.

This is a rivalry in the purest sense; defining a derby can be tough, and the most common way is to look at geography. Barcelona and Madrid are not local to one another, but they represent different ideologies, politically and in a sporting sense, too. Yet, on Sunday, when Los Blancos travel to Cataluña, they will be brought together by a shared feeling of emptiness, both licking their wounds after falling from their perch. This match will always be box office, but the loss of collective domination will leave everybody feeling uneasy.

They’ve each been besieged by financial difficulty, though Madrid to a lesser extent, which has accentuated their respective falls from grace. Bad judgement and an over-reliance on Messi has seen , culminating in over £1bn worth of debt and a severe weakening of their playing squad, less than a decade on from an era which saw them dominate Europe with an unprecedented combination of style and substance. Madrid held on to their own great generation for too long; Luka Modric, one of the last bastions of a team which won four Champions League titles in five years between 2014 and 2018, is 35, the same age as Sergio Ramos, who, alongside centre-back partner Raphael Varane, departed this summer. Cristiano Ronaldo left in 2018 and it’s impossible to separate the start of Madrid’s transitional phase and the end of his spell at the club.

It is hard not to look back when this fixture come around; the stardust is still there, the buzz and the clamour to see what happens will never die, but with Messi and Ronaldo now both ending their playing days elsewhere, there is a sense of loss. It was their personal rivalry – challenging each other for the Ballon d’Or, the individual award they shared for a decade – which added an extra level to the hostilities. Their personal identities reflected their clubs. Messi’s perception as a humble team player fit right into Barça’s own ethos, centred around internal growth, whereas Ronaldo’s brash, somewhat arrogant reputation made him the marketing dream Real Madrid needed. The reality was far more nuanced, but football rivalry has no time for that.

Even managerial feuds fed the beast. Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona are widely regarded as the benchmark for elite club football and Real Madrid were so desperate to stop them that they compromised their demands for a certain style of play and hired Jose Mourinho, then at the top of his game. He and Guardiola had worked together when he was assistant at Camp Nou in the 1990s, but their relationship frosted when they both went for the Barça job in 2008 and Guardiola got it. During two years on either side of the divide, they became biter rivals; every Clasico was intense and of the highest quality, with red cards and goals practically guaranteed. The peak of this heat came when, in April 2011, they met four times in 18 days across La Liga, the Copa Del Rey and Champions League.

In 2012, Mourinho succeeded in denying Guardiola the title and reinstating Madrid as champions with their 32nd league title and 100 points. Guardiola stepped down by the end of that season.

Those moments are so deep that it is easy to think they’ll last forever. Right now, it is a fixture at its lowest ebb, having long lost its spark. Messi’s exit signifies the end of that era.

But out of the ashes of the old could rise a new generation. , in particular, are positioning themselves for a resurgence; the signing of Eduardo Camavinga was shrewd, and he’ll likely be joined by president Florentino Perez’s latest transfer obsession, Kylian Mbappe, on a free transfer next summer, with money left over to join the race for Borussia Dortmund striker Erling Haaland. But in 21-year-old Brazilian Vinicius Jr, they have a superstar ready to take the next step. His bedding-in period has run parallel to the club’s transition, but with five goals in eight La Liga games this season, and a coming-of-age performance in the Champions League at Shakhtar Donetsk this week, his time is now.

Spain’s golden boy Pedri is unlikely to start for Barça, but , Messi’s successor in the number 10 shirt and fresh from signing a new six-year contract, is due his own stamp of authority in this’ fixture.

With gloomy clouds still formulating over Barcelona, debt still to be shifted and the ghost of Messi still casting a shadow, plus Real Madrid’s own rebuild, La Liga has suffered. This game needs to pop to restore some excitement; it is easier to dismiss El Clasico more than ever right now, but it is still the biggest game on the planet. Sunday will be an occasion with a sense of hope and emergence. It doesn’t all have to be about missing the past.

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Gelhardt turns Leeds tide as Bielsa reaps small squad benefits

Bielsa got it wrong, then got … The post Gelhardt turns Leeds tide as Bielsa reaps small squad benefits appeared first on Football365.

Gelhardt turns Leeds tide as Bielsa reaps small squad benefits

Marcelo Bielsa got it wrong, then got it very right, as Leeds showed the power of a small squad to earn a massive point against Wolves.

Pep Guardiola, Mauricio Pochettino, Johnny Nic and most inhabitants of West Yorkshire worship Marcelo Bielsa, and for good reason. He’s the humble genius who improves all the players he works with and makes teams far greater than the sum of their parts. He’s turned a mid-table Championship side into one of the great entertainers of the Premier League.

Criticism of Bielsa is a clear sign that said critic knows nothing about football and how bloody dare they, anyway. But even football deities make mistakes and Bielsa made one against Wolves, as he as good as admitted himself through his own in-game tinkering.

The Athletic revealed back in September that Marcelo Bielsa was ‘pondering the possibility’ of moving Raphinha into the No.10 role in order to play Jack Harrison and Daniel James either side of him to ‘enhance the potency of his attacking line’.

As Phil Hay wrote on Twitter, Bielsa ‘unleashed the dragon’ against Wolves. But instead of Raphinha moving centrally, Dan James played as a No.9 and clearly had very little idea how to. He had just nine touches in the first half despite Leeds dominating possession, with much of it around the Wolves area. The dragon’s roar produced nothing but steam – they missed Patrick Bamford desperately.

Leeds were also without Raphinha, their one real threat in this game and this season, for most of the second half after he was forced off through injury. It meant Leeds ended the game with a notable lack of quality on the pitch. That Leeds, without Raphinha, Kalvin Phillips, Patrick Bamford and Robin Koch, should be relegation candidates – any mid-table Premier League side would be were they missing arguably their four best players.

And yet, roared on by a raucous Elland Road crowd, Bielsa’s side dug deep. They were all over Wolves, not creating chances through particular moments of magic or flowing passing football, but by suffocating them with the high press and sheer weight of numbers. It was chaotic, but it was Bielsa’s best bet without true quality to call upon. It’s the in-game changes that show a manager’s real class and Bielsa got the second half just right.

His biggest and best call was introducing Joe Gelhardt. In just his second Premier League appearance, the 19-year-old won the penalty – converted confidently by Rodrigo in injury time – with a fine, jinking run, and could (perhaps should) have scored a couple himself. He very clearly showed Bielsa the benefit of a centre-forward playing centre-forward. Should Bamford not be fit for Norwich, Gelhardt may well have played himself into the starting line-up.

More crucial than Bamford to Leeds is Kalvin Phillips. What will have been of particular concern for Bielsa at half-time was just how little Wolves had to do to be ahead. They scored through Conor Coady pumping the ball forward and Leeds failing to deal with the scraps that resulted. Raul Jimenez and the goalscorer, Hwang Hee-Chan, were picking up far too many loose balls in general. Phillips is normally around to clean up and set Leeds on their way forward. They were hesitant at the back and lacking quality in transition in his absence. His imminent return is huge.

The side does lack cutting edge without the star names, at least two of which would grace almost any Premier League team. But crucially, the drop in quality didn’t lead to a change in philosophy. And that’s one of the benefits of a small squad, for which Bielsa has been criticised in recent weeks. It’s difficult for players to buy into an ethos like Bielsa’s if they have no real hope of featuring.

Footballers need to know that hard work pays off. It did against Wolves on Saturday and it always will for Leeds players under Marcelo Bielsa.


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