On Wednesday, Real Madrid became the latest opponent to pay a steep price for failing to capitalize on a lackluster stretch by Barcelona.
The Copa del Rey semifinal second leg at the Santiago Bernabéu ended in a 3-0 win (4-1 aggregate) for the Catalans, who should have left the pitch at halftime down by at least a goal. But Barcelona, led by Luis Suárez, flipped a switch at halftime, as their efficient finishing gave them a comfortable victory despite just four shots total and only two on goal.
These teams will meet again Saturday in Madrid, this time in La Liga. Below are four takeaways from Barcelona advancing to face Valencia in the Copa final on May 25th. Barcelona enters the game as a -390 favorite to Valencia’s +340.
1) Suárez finds his touch
The Uruguayan scored what seemed like a meaningless goal in extra time last Saturday to wrap up a 4-2 win over Sevilla. But after his performance Wednesday, that last-minute breakthrough – the 32-year-old’s first goal since Jan. 30 – might be looked at as a pivotal moment a few months from now.
Barcelona has a great shot at a double – the Copa del Rey and La Liga both look like inevitabilities at this point – or a treble. Such an accomplishment is far more likely if Suárez can continue to finish in front of the net and silence the “Messidependencia” chatter.
On his first goal Wednesday, in the 50th minute, he was the beneficiary of an excellent pass from Ousmane Dembélé, but that didn’t make Suárez’s finish any less impressive. Barça’s tally in the 69th went down on the stat sheet as an own-goal by Real Madrid’s Raphaël Varane, but it was Suárez who made the play. His second goal came from the spot after his foot was stepped on by RM’s Casemiro. Barcelona is dangerous enough when they have to be carried by Lionel Messi, who did not take a shot Wednesday (!). With Suárez and Dembélé on point, this is a team with every reason to be thinking treble.
2) Marc-André ter Stegen impenetrable, again
The keeper is rarely the first person you think of after a hat trick, but Marc-André ter Stegen was excellent for Barcelona.
Real Madrid was held scoreless despite no shortage of opportunities in the first half. Part of their inability to convert was self-inflicted, but a lot of it had to do with tremendous work by ter Stegen. His second-half stop of a header by Reguilón, which would have tied the match at 1-1, was a must-see diving save.
The first half of Wednesday’s game was the latest instance of Barcelona getting little going but staying level thanks to its keeper. Before the recent offensive explosion – the Catalans have scored seven goals in their last two matches – they were in a funk, with just two goals in four games from February 6-19. Thanks largely to ter Stegen, that stretch did not include a loss, as Barca managed a win and three draws with its offense MIA. With a keeper playing as well as ter Stegen complementing the inconsistent but undeniable firepower up top, it’s going to be hard to bet against this team in big games.
3) The nosedive continues for Los Blancos
It’s hard to fathom after the last two weeks, but there was legitimate reason to believe Real Madrid could get back into the La Liga mix earlier this month. Following the Champions League Round of 16 first-leg win over Ajax on Feb. 13, RM were as hot as anyone on the continent.
Since that game, Manager Santiago Solari’s club has lost to Girona and Barcelona and been fortunate to defeat Levante.
Unless Real Madrid bounces back with a victory Saturday in their second showdown against Barcelona in four days, they can forget about La Liga. The gap between third-place RM and the league leader is currently nine points. There will be no coming back from a 12-point deficit in the 12 games remaining after Matchday 26 – and the odds will remain long even if Los Blancos pull off the upset Saturday.
4) The silver lining
Vinicius had a head-turning performance for Real Madrid. Whether you choose to go glass half-full and fixate on all the chances he created for himself or take the pessimistic route and lament his inability to finish, there was no denying his impact.
Watching an 18-year-old give Barcelona defenders fits was stunning, even if he ended up with nothing to show for it. Real Madrid needs him to learn to capitalize on his chances soon, but Madridistas have to be thrilled to have a teenager with the confidence and physical ability to put an elite club on its heels the way Vinicius did Wednesday.