Football Focus, Barcelona-Madrid: Barça’s midfield dominance; Madrid’s periodic opportunism

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source:  FC Barcelona’s 2-1 win over Real Madrid in the first 2013 installment of El Clásico kept it undefeated and at the top of the La Liga table. Aside from a 15-minute spell of Madrid domination in the second half, the result always looked assured.

Barça dominated the first half, moving the ball at will and allowing Neymar to run at defenders. Lionel Messi played as a tucked-in right winger on the opposite side of an asymmetrical 4-3-3.

Neither team played with a traditional center forward, as Gareth Bale drifted between the right and left sides for Madrid, and Cesc Fàbregas did the same for Barcelona. Both favored attacking through a certain side, as Madrid overloaded Barça left back Adriano, and Barcelona tended to look for Neymar as a first option.

As always in the Spanish league, positions in attack remained fluid and interchangeable, aided by the teams’ use of a false nine. That resulted in a central overload that favored a dominant Barcelona midfield triangle.

Early Barça dominance sets the stage

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(Chalkboards courtesy of FourFourTwo Stats Zone)

The home team set the tone early, out-passing Madrid, 147-73, in the first 20 minutes. The early spell gave the game its first goal and established its rhythm. Hard tackles and the expected intricate passing moves would be the flavor of the day.

With Messi used to playing a central role, Barcelona played wide through the left flank more often. Messi frequently tucked in to give Dani Alves his accustomed space to overlap. The team’s attacking shape was designed to make defenders think twice about their positioning and put numbers in the middle:

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Fábregas ended up on top of the midfield triangle often, creating almost a diamond. Neymar’s width gave him multiple isolation opportunities against Daniel Carvajal. It was one of these instances, created by Andrés Iniesta’s dribble to commit two defenders, that gave Neymar his goal.

The attacking patterns that emerged were either an interchange of short passes in the middle and on the right with Messi, or a longer ball to Neymar on the opposite side.

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(Chalkboards courtesy of FourFourTwo Stats Zone)

Real chances in second half

The best spell for the visitors occurred just after the second half kicked off. Madrid found its way around Barcelona’s stranglehold in midfield, opting for longer, squarer passes to get possession in wider areas.

Real’s attacking shape all game provided chances of sustained possession when the field and players spread farther. Luka Modrić and Sami Khedira pulled farther to their respective sides of the midfield triangle than normal in a 4-3-3, while Bale drifted from side to side (but he preferred the right):

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Madrid’s best area of attack became a triangle higher up the pitch, involving Bale, Khedira and Ángel di María. However, even when those three became involved and maintained the ball, Real could not get behind Barcelona’s back line without assistance from a bad giveaway or poor positioning. Most of its dominance — in the spell in which it found some — was on the border of midfield and the attacking third.

Win the midfield, win the game

The match progression showcased Real and Barça’s individual strengths as teams. Barcelona controlled the middle of the field, while Madrid had to pick its moments and play more opportunistically. Against weaker teams, Real can also control the middle, but its biggest strength is along its front line, while Barcelona’s is in the middle.

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(Chalkboards courtesy of FourFourTwo Stats Zone)

Barça’s Busquets-Xavi-Iniesta midfield triangle completed 175 (91.1 percent) of its 192 attempted passes, led by Busquets’ 50-for-52 performance. In the Barcelona-dominated first half, Busquets completed all 29 of his attempts. Iniesta’s higher rate of incompletion came from his probing forward passes, trying to get behind the Madrid defense.

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(Chalkboards courtesy of FourFourTwo Stats Zone)

By comparison, the Ramos-Khedira-Modrić trio completed 89 (83.2 percent) of 107 attempts — a lower percentage in just over half as many tries. Bale’s poor performance had a greater impact than it normally would have because of Barça’s midfield dominance; he could not find the ball very often, receiving just 10 passes in the attacking third and two in and around the penalty area before being substituted.

Shifting season paradigms

Saturday’s result asks more questions of Madrid’s early season form than Barcelona’s. Real has proven to be a competent team in continental play this season, racking up a plus-10 goal difference in three victories. Even in its 1-0 derby loss to Atlético Madrid in La Liga, Real controlled the middle.

However, coming up against a team with Barcelona’s skill set proved to be a tough challenge. Perhaps it says more about Barça’s ability. Maybe assertions of domestic and European dominance from a star-studded lineup — headlined by Bale, who was ineffective on Saturday — were premature.

After its dominance in El Clásico, FC Barcelona now looks like the team to beat.

Lletget diagnosed with foot sprain, escaping further damage

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Word has arrived from the LA Galaxy camp that will see USMNT fans feel relieved as Sebastian Lletget has escaped the news many feared.

The young attacker was impressive in the first 18 minutes of the United States’ 6-0 win over Honduras, but was injured minutes after scoring the opening goal and could not continue. Replays showed that Lletget got his foot caught underneath a defender in the process of a hard challenge on the right wing.

There was concern that Lletget would be out for a significant amount of time, but the Galaxy announced that after testing over the weekend, Lletget did not suffer any structural damage and was diagnosed with a left foot sprain.

[ MORE: USMNT adds Paul Arreola to roster, drops Lletget, Brooks, Morris ]

Lletget will visit a specialist on Monday to determine a plan for recovery, and it’s possible that he will still have to miss some time in the near future. The Galaxy visit Vancouver on Saturday, and his status for that match has to be considered up in the air. They then host Montreal on April 7.

While Lletget obviously misses out on the next USMNT game at Panama on Tuesday having already been dumped from the roster, he will most definitely be available for the June games against Trinidad & Tobago and Mexico, and will likely be an option for Bruce Arena given the manager’s history with Lletget at Los Angeles.

The United States have been struck with a collection of injuries that all occurred just before the international break, hampering the squad significantly. Bobby Wood, Jordan Morris, and Fabian Johnson all went down in the days before reporting for international duty, and the team lost Lletget and John Brooks in the Honduras win. Lletget’s departure could see Alejandro Bedoya into the starting lineup on Tuesday, with the Union midfielder having replaced Lletget in the Honduras match. Also in contention is Jermaine Jones, who could come in after his suspension and push Darlington Nagbe onto the wing.

Southgate can see Defoe in England squad long-term

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Gareth Southgate praised Jermain Defoe after his contributions to England’s 2-0 win over Lithuania on Sunday, but accidentally put a condition on his position in the squad.

The 34-year-old scored the opening goal and contributed heavily to the buildup of Jamie Vardy‘s score, and Southgate was happy that his decision to play an in-form striker paid off.

“If he scores like he is in the Premier League, there’s no reason why he wouldn’t be,” Southgate said. “We’re never able to pick a full cohort, so it’s important we can call upon the likes of Jermain and he can have the impact like he did today.

“I think we’ve got to look every time we get together as to who is in form. I don’t know if we can have a distinct pecking order because players who are playing well deserve the opportunity. If we are going to be successful, we have to have that competition for places. The reality is we will always lose players to injury.”

[ MORE: Defoe walks out Bradley Lowery before England game ]

A reporter asked him to clarify why he specified that Defoe should be scoring in the Premier League, and with his club Sunderland under heavy threat of relegation, Southgate admitted he let one slip.

“I walked into that,” Southgate said. “I guess the ideal world for all our players is they are playing regularly at a high level. The flip-side is we don’t have a huge pool of players to pick from.  We have to balance off a few different things. I can’t constrain myself on selection entirely, but I know ideally what I’d like to have. His performances and his goalscoring form this season have counted for him.”

Defoe has 14 goals in 28 Premier League appearances for Sunderland this season, but he’s proved the Black Cats’ only threat as they sit bottom of the league table with 20 points. Defoe has become the center of opposition game plans, and as a result he’s slowed down, with just two goals in his last seven games, and the club has little else to pick up the slack.

Still, at 34 years old, many wonder how much longer Defoe can contribute, and if he’ll be a viable option for next year’s World Cup.

Group F gets messy as Slovakia and Scotland grab wins

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England is in control at the top of Group F, but below them things are beginning to get complicated.

Despite the absence of Marek Hamsik due to a last-minute injury, Slovakia defeated Malta 3-1. They took the lead just 97 seconds in as Vladimir Weiss put the visitors in front with a beautiful curling strike from outside the box. Malta struck back through domestic striker Jean Paul Farrugia in the 14th minute, but that was all Malta could muster.

Slovakia would go ahead just before halftime as FC Copenhagen midfielder Jan Gregus put them in front in the 41st minute. The speculative shot from Gregus came from a great distance out, and as it skipped across the ground, it appeared Malta goalkeeper Andrew Hogg saw it late, as his dive was poor and it skipped off his hands and in.

Both teams ended with 10 men on the field, as Farrugia was sent off with 16 minutes to go for a second yellow, and Adam Nemec saw the same fate in injury time, but before he was sent off, Nemec was there to kill the game off in the 84th minute.

That put Slovakia up to nine points, and it moved them into second place thanks to late drama in Glasgow. Chris Martin gave Scotland all three points with an 88th minute strike as the home side won 1-0 over Slovenia, who dropped from second to third with the loss. The Fulham striker got a beautiful feed through the back line from Stuart Armstrong, and while his shot wasn’t terribly accurate, it was enough to win the game as Slovenia goalkeeper Matus Kozacik gave it a poor effort.

The win for Scotland pulls them above Lithuania and into fourth, a point back of Slovenia in third.

Wasteful Poland snatches late 2-1 win at Montenegro

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Poland was in control for much of the game, but failed to finish in front of net until Borussia Dortmund full-back Lukasz Piszczek found the winner with eight minutes to go as the visitors increased their lead at the top of World Cup qualification Group E.

Robert Lewandowski put Poland in front five minutes before halftime with a brilliant free-kick that left Montenegran goalkeeper Mladen Blozovic completely baffled, but Montenegro looked sturdy at the back for much of the game and dangerous on the counter. They’d hit just past the hour mark as Stefan Mugosa headed in to level the score.

Lewandowski had a pair of massive chances in the second half, but couldn’t get either to go down as Blozovic was there to turn him away, and Montenegran defenders cleared off the line as well. Luckily for Poland, they had Piszczek who burst down the right to beat Aleksandar Sofranac, and he produced a stunning finish looped over the closing Blozovic from a tight angle, dinked off the far post, and into the back of the net.

That would do it for Montenegro who had little attacking ability outside of their countering abilities, and with Poland happy to ease out the clock, the hosts didn’t have enough.

The win pushes Poland six points clear at the top of Group E, a sizeable lead with five matches remaining. The battle for the second-place spot is tight, with Montenegro still in command on seven points, level with Denmark but ahead on goal differential. Armenia and Romania are even with six points each.