El Clasico: Marcelo and Messi Wage War on the Wings

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This time around, El Clasico didn’t produce the kind of high-quality football we’ve come to expect in recent times. Instead of treating us to pure technical skill in a fast-paced environment, the two terms offered an extraordinarily frenetic game, and one that was characterised as much by mistakes as it was by counter-attacking opportunities.

That’s not to say it was a bad game, though. It was frenzied and dramatic and, in many ways, this was often brought about by the sloppiness in possession. In the first half, it was Real Madrid who were most dangerous, capitalising on Barcelona’s errors to transition quickly from defence into the final third. Barcelona had their chance to control proceedings in the second half, however, and again, it was Los Blancos’ inability to execute their skills that created many of their opportunities to break.

In that sense, it truly was a game of two halves played out in transition, and far from the most tactical match we’ve seen contested by these giants of modern football. And yet, despite that, there was still an intriguing individual battle that took place down Real Madrid’s left-hand side.

It was here that fullback Marcelo was tasked with quelling the influence of Barcelona’s right-winger, Lionel Messi. It was also here that neither man backed down, with both focusing primarily on attack and looking to prey on each other’s aggressive approach when the opportunity presented itself. And because of this, their battle soon became a game of cat-and-mouse, particularly in the first half, as Messi habitually refused to track Marcelo’s surging runs into the final third.

Take the 12th minute, for instance, when Marcelo sprinted beyond a disinterested Messi to receive possession in the kind of space that is usually only reserved for goalkeepers. This was because Cristiano Ronaldo had cleverly drawn Barca right-back Dani Alves inside, and the end result was that Marcelo could drive infield, attract the attentions of Alves and slot a ball in behind for Karim Benzema. The Frenchman then teed up a chance for Ronaldo, but in contrast to the faultless build-up play that preceded it, the Portuguese fired his shot into the bar.

Marcelo’s marauding contributions in attack weren’t uncommon in the first half, and although Ivan Rakitic did his best to shuffle across from central midfield to track the Brazilian, he didn’t always get there quickly enough to halt his progress.

Yet while Marcelo edged the first-half battle between the two players, Messi had his moments as well. This was evidenced in the 17th minute, where Marcelo again worked beyond the Argentine to pick up a pass from Benzema. He was unable to weave his magic on this occasion, however, and was set upon by his compatriot in Alves.

The 31-year-old fullback then supplied Messi with possession, and because he hadn’t tracked back, the four-time Ballon d’Or winner had the space to streak ahead with the ball at his feet. He made the most of it, too, spraying a pass out to Neymar on the left and continuing his run into the box. What came next wasn’t quite so impressive, as the flamboyant Brazilian’s cross was headed well wide of the mark by Messi, but this nonetheless illustrated the potential downside to Marcelo’s advanced positioning for Real Madrid.

Their battle continued to rage on into the second half, with Marcelo driving forward in the build-up to Benzema’s 49th minute chance, but once Barcelona hit the lead, the game lost its shape to some extent. Los Blancos pushed on, hoping for an equaliser, but that left enormous spaces through the middle for their opposition to exploit, and slowly but surely Messi started to drift in from the flank in order to do just that.

He set up a number of chances in transition, driving forward with the ball at his feet in central positions before teeing up one of his teammates, and in these moments, it was Rakitic who moved across to take the Argentine’s place out wide. The Croatian’s role shouldn’t be understated in this respect, as his selfless movement to take up the positions of others was hugely important to Barca, and his commitment not just to dovetail with Messi in attack, but also to cover for him in defence, definitely allowed his world-renowned teammate to thrive.

In fact, the way that Rakitic shuffled across to defend the flank was similar to what we’ve seen from Isco for real Madrid. The diminutive Spaniard regularly covers the left flank in order to allow Ronaldo to stay forward, which effectively morphs Real Madrid’s 4-3-3 into a 4-4-2 in defence. And here, Rakitic provided a similar service when covering for Messi. Granted, it wasn’t quite as systematised as Real’s approach, which we’ve seen for much of Carlo Ancelotti’s time in charge, but it certainly gave Barca’s defensive shape and strategy a similar feel to that of their opponents.

In the end, it was this, in combination with the home side’s superior finishing, that allowed them to claim a 2-1 victory on the night. It may not have been the best Clasico in recent years, but the somewhat scrappy nature of the game gave it an incredibly open complexion, and Barca were best able to take advantage of that freedom to express themselves.

It’s hard, then, not to say that Messi won his individual duel against Marcelo, especially once his first-half assist is factored into the equation. But that shouldn’t take away from the Brazilian’s performance, as along with Benzema, he was definitely one of Real Madrid’s best afield. One could, in fact, easily mount an argument that he outperformed his more illustrious opponent in front of the 98,760 people in attendance, but whichever way you look at it, the battle that took place between Messi and Marcelo down the flank definitely flavoured this iteration of El Clasico – and in a good way, too.