While the competition and the calendar made it clear that Saturday’s Clasico was an inconsequential preseason matchup – the first to be played on American soil – Barcelona and Real Madrid made it clear that any time they are on the pitch against one another, we are in for a show.
The totality of Barcelona’s performance did not quite live up to the soaring heights they reached in the opening 10 minutes – as if it could against such opposition – but a deft second-half goal from Gerard Pique put the bow on another solid all-around effort from Barcelona, giving the Catalans 3-2 victory against their arch rivals as well as the prestigious honor of winning the 2017 International Champions Cup.
Barcelona swept their trio of preseason games in America against quality opposition, and unsurprisingly they did so on the strength of their famed front three. While it was Neymar who scored a brace against Juventus and the only goal against Manchester United, Lionel Messi was the star who stepped up to get Barça on the scoresheet in the third minute. The goal came on a broken piece of play during which Sergio Busquets ended a tug-of-war for possession near Madrid’s box before sliding a perfectly weighted ball into Messi’s path.
Minutes later, it was another quick transition in Madrid’s half that led to a screamer from Ivan Rakitic. Busquets won the ball once more as Madrid tried to exit their zone, allowing Iniesta to push the ball forward to Neymar. The creative Brazilian put his marker on his backfoot before sliding the ball across the top of the box where Suarez dummied the ball brilliantly for Rakitic, who thumped it past Keylor Navas in a fashion that is fairly typical of the Croatian.
Barcelona’s pressure and intent in the opening segments of this game were extremely encouraging, and they could have easily put three or four past Madrid with a bit more clinical finishing from Neymar and Messi. Madrid would grow into the game near the midpoint of the half, though, and while it was Barcelona’s forwards who drove their attack, the Madristas relied upon their dynamic midfielders to carry them forward. Inspired runs from Mateo Kovacic and Marco Asensio got Madrid level before halftime and managed to expose Barcelona in a way that they had avoided against Juve and United.
Kovacic’s goal in particular was impressive because it was the first time this preseason that Barcelona had been broken down while having their defense set. With Barcelona defending with two lines of forward, Kovacic managed to find his way around Rakitic by playing a 1-2 with Casemiro, which left him charging toward goal one-on-one with Pique. The Croatian slithered right past Pique and finished with a clinical driven shot to the far post. While Rakitic could have done better to predict his compatriot’s movement and Pique could have saved himself some embarrassment with more conservative defending, you have to chalk the goal up to a great bit of skill from one of Madrid’s promising young midfielders.
Asensio’s goal was a more familiar one in terms of the kinds of goals Barcelona tend to concede, and it is surely the one that frustrated Ernesto Valverde the most of the three the Catalans allowed on tour. Off a corner kick for Barcelona, Kovacic and Asensio managed to sprint past Aleix Vidal and Jordi Alba in the middle of the field, playing off of each other before Kovacic snuck the ball past a late-arriving Alba and Asensio buried the equalizer. Vidal and Alba are two of the faster full backs in Spain, but Asensio and Kovacic had little problem beating them down the field.
Barcelona would regain the lead shortly after halftime. With perhaps his final meaningful kick as a Barcelona player, Neymar’s free kick from the left side of the box landed on the right foot of Pique, who gently lofted it into the net. Valverde kept his starters on the field for another 20 minutes or so before making mass changes, content with the effort he got from his stars for the majority of the night and the tour.
Nelson Semedo was the standout among the second wave of players. After a couple of timid outings to begin his Barcelona career, Semedo looked like the inventive full back Barcelona were looking for when they bought him from Benfica. He was confident with his touches and always looking to get forward, and his lofted ball over the top to Paco Alcacer should have led to a goal. Semedo’s forward passing already resembles what Dani Alves brought to Barcelona, and whether Valverde’s tactics ask him to be a dance partner with Messi on the touchline or a stand-in on the right wing as Messi plays centrally, he looks capable of filling the role.
Carles Aleñá finished off his eye-opening preseason tour with a nice cameo. The Barcelona board has said on many occasions that a player from the B team would be promoted this season, and the assumption has long been that Marlon would be that player to act as the fourth CB now that Jeremy Mathieu has been sold to Sporting. Well, with each passing day that Thomas Vermaelen remains at the club, thus making Marlon more of a fifth option relative to their wages, perhaps Aleñá’s chances of making the first-team to start the season rise. A decision like that would seemingly require at least one departure, but if Valverde was as impressed with Aleñá as most cules were, then it might just come to fruition.
Barcelona’s perfect ICC run was a success, and not just because the club won the competition. The results are largely meaningless in this context; it is the performances that matter. Well, the early returns on Ernesto Valverde’s Barcelona are indeed positive. He has implemented a system that simultaneously props MSN on a pedestal while offering them the necessary support they require from the midfield, which is a combination Luis Enrique couldn’t quite uncover after winning the treble in his first season.
But now the Neymar saga looms even larger. Despite all of the good signs Valverde’s men showed in the ICC, all of their work would be undone if Neymar decides to depart for greener pastures.