FC Barcelona played the first of two games in four days at the Santiago Bernabeú against eternal heels, Real Madrid. Though Barça frequently was on the back foot due to the endeavor of junior galactico Vinicius, the circles he dragged Nelson Semedo in did nothing to advance the merengue cause by way of goals.
Valverde had set his team up in his apparent preferred starting eleven of Messi, Suarez, and Dembélé up front (though Dembélé was tasked with dropping to a 4-4-2 out of possession). Rakitic, Sergi Roberto, and an absolutely unbreakable Sergio Busquets were in mid. Alba and Semedo were the backs for Pique and Clement Lenglet in the center of defense. With Cillessen still busted and on the injury list, the goal was manned by Ter Stegen, though he wouldn’t normally play in the Copa.
The first half was fairly cautious. Lucas Vazquez had a good showing, along with Sergio Reguilón–Marcelo’s heir apparent since the Brazilian’s form collapsed. But really, Vinicius was the only certified problem for the Barça defense (Semedo in particular) to contain. Benzema is notably more active than during previous seasons, but they still lack attacking spark.
Consequently, Suarez managed to strike five minutes into the second half off of a brilliant break led by Dembélé. Messi gave the young provider huge encouragement after the goal. He is clearly a fan of the young man on the pitch. A short while later, it was Dembélé again, breaking down the right wing when Messi had moved to the center of the pitch to boss midfield. Though the French World Cup winner had been sizzling a cross to meet Suarez in front of the goal, it actually got intercepted by Varane and turned into his own goal. French on French crime. Two nil, Barça.
It was only a bit after that when Casemiro fouled Suarez near the goal and drew a penalty, which Luis dispatched in an homage to the hometown captain, by dinking in a panenka to make it three for Barcelona.
Modric and Casemiro looking worse for wear
The rest of the game was played out with the dreary certainty of the home side, plus all of their nearly 90 thousand supporters, that they had again been beaten wholly by their greatest rivals. The pattern of taking the L thanks to Leo, continues.
Coutinho got some time off the bench replacing Dembélé, but the little ‘magician’ looked like a lost kid at magic camp whose mom had sent him with the wrong wand. The pattern of subbing him on for Dembélé is not satisfying anymore, and ideally, Ousmane should not lose his place on the field automatically. If the experiment in Sevilla mid-week is any indicator, it is possible to play all four of their marquee attackers at the same time. With Valverde’s overwhelming conservatism usually winning over the urge to attack, it seems that may just be a measure for extreme situations.
So how does it feel right now? Like Barcelona have again certified their dominance over Madrid in their own house. This game had arguably higher stakes than the two teams’ upcoming league clash on Sunday. They played and won, leaving only a single final to be played to seal that competition and potentially get a trophy, and in la Liga they still lead Real Madrid by nine points. Even if they lose on Saturday, Barça still are strongly in control of the league and will go into a cup final as natural favorites over possible opponents Valencia or Real Betis.
After weeks of stuttering and struggling to assert real spark and inspiration, Barcelona have found some mojo back. The final 45 minutes of a deadlocked semi-final, in the home ground of their bitterest rivals was all it took to make it happen.