‘Clásico’ puts Madrid at ease again, leaves Barça pressured

Sports

Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos celebrates as he runs past Barcelona’s Lionel Messi during the Spanish La Liga soccer match between Real Madrid and Barcelona at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid, Spain, Sunday, March 1, 2020. (AP Photo/Andrea Comas)

MADRID (AP) — What a difference a “clásico” makes.

The bad press, the pressure from fans, the lack of confidence — all gone with a victory.

The renewed criticism, the increased doubts, the letdown — all back with a loss.

Spain’s biggest soccer match can quickly change the narrative of the season, and this time it shifted in favor of Real Madrid after the team’s 2-0 win over Barcelona at the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium on Sunday.

Madrid had entered the match on the cusp of a crisis after a series of poor results. It left being praised and filled with confidence for the rest of the season.

Barcelona had been the team thriving going into Sunday’s game, coming off four straight league victories and playing well under coach Quique Setién. It went home without the Spanish league lead and with critics back in attack mode.

“It had been a complicated week for us and we knew we were going to have an opportunity to change things around on Sunday,” Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane said. “It was a deserved victory. It gives us a huge boost, it’s good for our morale.”

It’s been an up-and-down season for the Spanish powerhouses, with one team on top one day and struggling the next.

Barcelona had been the team in trouble at the start of the year amid an institutional crisis that included a controversial coaching change and conflicts between players and club officials. Madrid was playing well at that time, having won the Spanish Super Cup and taking over the Spanish league lead.

But the pressure was back with Madrid after consecutive setbacks and a winless streak at home that included a loss to Manchester City in the last 16 of the Champions League last week. Barcelona had withstood its crisis and turned critics away with good performances heading into the “clásico.”

“Each team had its problems, it’s not like we were doing great either,” Barcelona captain Gerard Piqué said. “We could have made a statement with a win, but they came out of the match stronger and we were the ones disappointed.”

There were different phases within the match itself, with each team dominating a half before Madrid earned the victory with second-half goals by Vinícius Júnior and Mariano Díaz to take a one-point lead over Barcelona at the top of the standings.

Setién said he expects more twists and turns the rest of the season.

“There’s still a lot to play for,” Setién said. “It’s true that it’s a tough loss, these matches obviously always affect the losing side. But we can recover. We knew this match alone wasn’t going to be decisive.”

Zidane also didn’t think Sunday’s “clásico” meant the end of it.

“We will have other difficult moments this season and we will be criticized again at some point,” Zidane said. That’s how it works. It’s nothing new.”

WHERE’S MESSI?

It was an unusually quiet night for Lionel Messi at the Bernabéu. He wasted some clear chances he normally converts, including two in one-on-one situations against Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois.

Heavily marked by Federico Valverde, Casemiro and Toni Kroos, Messi couldn’t create many scoring opportunities for his Barcelona teammates. His night ended with a yellow card for a hard foul from behind on Casemiro.

Antoine Griezmann was another player who failed to make an impact for Barcelona.

CRUCIAL COURTOIS

Courtois kept Madrid in the game while the team struggled in the first half, making crucial stops when Barcelona had clear chances. He beat Messi and Arthur in one-on-one attempts before halftime, and made a good save after an attempt by Martin Braithwaite in the second half.

“I was able to make some good saves when I had to make them,” Courtois said.

Coach Zidane said “Thibaut was fundamental.”

RONALDO VISIT

With Serie A games postponed, Juventus forward Cristiano Ronaldo went to the Bernabéu to watch his former club.

Ronaldo was in a VIP suite and was seen applauding Vinícius Junior’s opening goal.

HAZARD SURGERY

Eden Hazard missed the “clásico” on Sunday and Spanish media said he was expected to travel to the United States this week to undergo surgery.

Madrid’s biggest signing in last year’s offseason, Hazard broke his lower right leg a week ago, just as he was returning to action after missing nearly three months because of a similar injury.

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