Despite making their jobs harder by conceding an own goal, Barcelona have likely all but wrapped up La Liga on Sunday with a 2-1 victory in El Clasico against rival Real Madrid at the Soptify Camp Nou. A 92nd-minute goal by Franck Kessie gave him his first La Liga goal and Barcelona a 12-point advantage atop the league.
Real Madrid started quickly registering their first shot on target less than a minute into the match but they wouldn't get another one for over 70 minutes as Barcelona's defense continued to impress. Real Madrid had hope after a Ronald Araujo own goal in the ninth minute but after asking all the questions in attack, Barcelona finally found their breakthrough right before halftime via Sergi Roberto.
Scoring his first goal in an El Clasico, Roberto took advantage of a ball pinging around the box, driving it past a helpless Thibaut Courtois. Then Barcelona withstood waves of Real Madrid pressure before Kessie called game in stoppage time. In a game where Real Madrid needed nothing less than a victory, the team didn't show fight until a triple change in the 76th minute which didn't leave them with enough time to fend off a dominant Barcelona team.
Has Xavi arrived?
Coaching his first El Clasico at home, it was a victory that had to feel good for Xavi in his third straight win over Real Madrid. This season has been a struggle for Barcelona with the team crashing out of Champions League and Europa League which has created financial uncertainty but Xavi has kept focus on the pitch despite chaos off of it. Already winning one trophy this season in the Spanish Super Cup and in line for two more as things stand, Xavi has brought Barcelona back to the top of La Liga.
Showing tactical flexibility to defeat Real Madrid despite injuries in Copa Del Rey and then bringing Roberto into the lineup Sunday to help deal with Vini Jr., Xavi isn't stuck into playing a specific way with the team despite also bringing beautiful soccer back to Camp Nou. With the addition of Robert Lewandowski, the team has had a focal point and even on days where he isn't scoring, he makes a difference.
Looking at Kessie's winner, Lewandowski wheeling out caused just enough attention, allowing Kessie a free shot while Xavi also made the game-changing sub showing his knowledge of the squad in the moment.
Defense is critical
Barcelona's success this season has been based on the strength of a defense that held Real Madrid without a shot on target after the first minute of the game until the 79th minute when Benzema again delivered a tame effort toward Marc-Andre ter Stegen. Despite unconventional lineups, Barcelona have only allowed nine goals across 26 matches in league play which is an astounding defensive record.
Despite an unfortunate own goal, Araujo and Jules Kounde shined containing Real Madrid's wingers and Benzema during the tie. Turning defense into attack, they were also able to support the midfield when needed which makes things smoother in build-up. Holding Real Madrid to only 11 shots and only letting three of those reach the keeper will be a recipe for at least a draw every time.
While this is the last meeting between the two clubs in the league, have no fear as another El Clasico is around the corner on April 5. After losing the first leg of the Copa Del Rey semifinal first leg to Barcelona 1-0, Real Madrid will again have to travel to the Camp Nou but this time, a chance to play in a cup final is on the line. With Real Madrid already 12 points behind in La Liga, it will likely be the club's only chance at a domestic trophy this season while Barcelona can sweep their rivals.
With the game taking place over a week before Real Madrid clashes with Chelsea in the Champions League quarterfinals, Carlo Ancelotti will be able to throw everything he has at the fixture but with three losses in succession, can the team right the ship in time to defeat Barcelona?