Wednesday , August 10 2022

What you need to know about both teams

It’s always a big occasion when Barcelona and Real Madrid meet, though the biggest note about the women’s teams going head-to-head is the use of clasico to describe their burgeoning rivalry.

Both clubs willingly tap into the tag, though the traditional women’s clasico in Spain is between Barcelona and Atletico Madrid. As Barcelona’s goalkeeper Sandra Panos told ESPN in 2019 once Real Madrid’s women’s team was launched out of the purchase of Tacon FC, “There is more rivalry with Atletico than with Tacon at the moment,” she said. “Until now, the clasico is Atletico against Barca. The competition between the two teams has been really good and [Tacon] have to earn that position [for the fixture to be considered] the clasico, right?

Will their three head-to-head games — March 13 in LaLiga, followed by a Champions League quarterfinal double-header on March 22 and March 30 — in the next three weeks help Madrid show they’re worthy of the clasico tag?

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Right now, form sides with Barcelona: their remarkable season so far (23 games, 23 wins, 131 goals scored and just six conceded) means that they can clinch the league title this week, either if Atletico and Real Sociedad drop points before Saturday or if they beat Real Madrid this Sunday.

To get you ready for these seismic games, Alex Kirkland (Real Madrid) and Sam Marsden (Barcelona) break down the game from both perspectives.


TEAM HISTORY: The creation of a Real Madrid women’s team was long overdue by the time the club belatedly began the process with the acquisition of the newly promoted (and Madrid-based) CD Tacon in 2019. The merger saw Tacon play their home games at Real Madrid’s Valdebebas training ground the following season — finishing 10th and suffering heavy 9-1 and 6-0 defeats to Barcelona along the way — before they were officially rebranded as Real Madrid Femenino in July 2020. A much-improved team went on to put together an impressive debut 2020-21 season, finishing second in the league, albeit 15 points behind champions Barca.

The 2021-22 campaign has been tumultuous after a dreadful start, with five defeats in their first seven league games. Sources told ESPN that the relationship between the squad and coach David Aznar — who had remained in charge since the Tacon days — had broken down, with unhappiness at Aznar’s management style and criticism of an excessive preseason training regime that left players over-worked and at risk of injury. Key players Kosovare Asllani, a Sweden international forward, and Spain winger Marta Cardona both suffered serious knee problems forcing them to miss significant time. Meanwhile, the coaching staff and players were at odds, blaming each other for the string of poor results.

The situation came to a head when Aznar was fired on Nov. 29 and replaced by old club hand Alberto Toril, a former Real Madrid youth player who coached the men’s reserve team Castilla from 2011 to 2013. Toril helped steady the ship and since his appointment, the team have only lost twice, both times to Barcelona. Domestically, they’ve moved up the league table and are fifth at the time of writing.

The team’s debut campaign in Europe has also been surprisingly smooth. They eliminated the much more established Manchester City in the Champions League qualifying round, before a second-placed finish in Group B behind Paris Saint-Germain set up the quarter-final tie with Barca.

KEY PLAYERS: There’s been high squad turnover over the past three seasons as Real Madrid have tried to fast-track the construction of a competitive team, cherry-picking players from more established Spanish sides like Levante, Real Sociedad and Atletico Madrid, as well as recruiting elite talent from around Europe. Ten players arrived to improve Tacon for 2019-20, another nine were brought in for the launch of Real Madrid Femenino in 2020-21, and eight were added to the squad for 2021-22.

Those who have watched the team closely this season pick out goalkeeper Maria Isabel Rodriguez (22), known as Misa, as their outstanding player. Signed on a free transfer from Deportivo La Coruna in 2020, the Canary Islands-born keeper is an agile, acrobatic stopper who starred with this string of saves in Madrid’s loss to Barca in January. Misa’s form was rewarded with a Spain national team call-up last year, where she’s viewed as a potential long-term successor to Barca’s Panos.

Another player to watch is the tenacious defender Kenti Robles. The Mexico international is vastly experienced, having previously been a regular at Barca and Atletico Madrid, where she won six league titles and four Copas de la Reina along the way. Maite Oroz is a standout in midfield, while the forward line is led by Esther Gonzalez, signed from Levante after a 29-goal season in 2020-21. Esther is the team’s top scorer this year with 12 league goals, ahead of Athenea del Castillo with five and Nahikari Garcia with four.

Madrid further strengthened the squad in January, reportedly breaking the Spanish women’s football transfer record with the €80,000 signing of Denmark international Sofie Svava from Wolfsburg. Svava can play left-back, wing-back or further forward and has started every game since her arrival.

TACTICS: It’s been a difficult season to analyse given the stark contrast between the team’s early struggles under Aznar and the period of consolidation and rebuilding that followed Toril’s appointment in November. That wasn’t helped by the number of games that had to be rescheduled due to the pandemic in January, when the team only played once in the league all month.

The best guide we have for how Toril plans to set up the team to deal with Barca’s unmatched attacking threat is what happened the last time these two teams met, in the Supercopa Femenina semifinal in Las Rozas on Jan. 19.

There, Madrid managed to hold out without conceding until the 91st minute, when Alexia Putellas finally broke the deadlock to give Barca a narrow 1-0 win. It’s the only time Barca have scored fewer than three goals in a domestic game this season. The fact that Madrid were able to keep them at bay for so long, even if they ended up being beaten at the death, will give them some hope for this upcoming trio of matches.

In particular, the Champions League quarterfinal will see Madrid do whatever it takes to try to keep the tie alive in the home leg on March 22, so that they can go to Barcelona a week later with at least a slim chance of pulling off the highly improbable: beating the best team in Europe at a packed Camp Nou.

When Madrid get forward, they like to stretch the pitch as much as possible, with the team’s wingers staying wide. The reality, though, is that they’re still a work in progress and up against a finished article like Barca, they will have to spend much of these three games defending.


HISTORY: Barcelona’s history can be broken into three chapters. They’ve officially been part of the club since 2002, but the origins of the side date back to 1970, when a team called Selecció Ciutat de Barcelona played a friendly in front of 60,000 fans at Camp Nou. For the next 32 years, the team remained informally linked to Barca, but it wasn’t until 2002 that they were folded into the club.

The second chapter started in 2002, but it was not until 2010, following the coaching appointment of Xavi Llorens (who had previously coached Lionel Messi in La Masia, the club’s fabled youth academy) in 2006, that Barca began to take giant steps forward. By 2012, they were the dominant side in Spain, winning the league in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015, which led to them turning professional in the summer of 2015.

That’s where the third chapter begins. Ironically, that’s also when their barren spell started. They went four years without a league title after turning professional (Athletic Bilbao won one, before Atletico Madrid won three in a row), during which time Llorens left the club and was replaced by Fran Sanchez. However, it was with the dismissal of Sanchez in 2019 and the appointment of Lluis Cortes that things really began to change. Atletico won their third successive title later that year and that, coupled with a Champions League final defeat to Lyon, fuelled Barca to find a new level.

Performances and results since have been nothing short of phenomenal.

Barca have won the past two league titles and are closing in on a third. They have won 75 of their last 78 league games across those three seasons, including all 23 this term. Last year ended with a treble, capped with a first European Cup. They beat Chelsea 4-0 in the final.

Cortes left last summer, replaced by his assistant Jonatan Giráldez, but that hasn’t slowed Barca down. They have already won the Spanish Supercopa this season — the only trophy which eluded them last year — and are on track for a four-trophy, unbeaten season. They have replaced seven-time Champions League winners Lyon as the team to beat in Europe.

KEY PLAYERS: The unstoppable thing about Barca is that they have so many players deserving special attention from opponents, although there is one that stands out. Putellas, the local girl who has spent 10 years at the club, won both the Ballon d’Or and FIFA’s The Best in the past six months. She is the symbol of the side and is helping take the women’s game to new levels in Catalonia. Huge posters of Putellas adorn massive buildings and shopping centres across the city centre, spaces previously reserved for the likes of Messi or Neymar.

On the pitch, she’s a midfielder who does pretty much everything. She’s combative, but creative. She has a sensational eye for a pass, but also contributes bags of goals. This season alone she has scored 19 times in all competitions — including the stoppage-time winner in the Supercopa semifinal against Madrid in January — to add to the 26 she netted last year.

Yet you could arguably take Putellas out of the side and the level would not drop too much. The versatile forward Jenni Hermoso, the club’s top all-time scorer, came second to Putellas in the Ballon d’Or voting for 2021 while Dutch winger Lieke Martens — winner of FIFA’s The Best in 2017 and various individual awards since — is also a major threat.

There’s Norway’s Caroline Graham Hansen on the other wing, who has been bizarrely overlooked when it comes to individual recognition, and Nigerian striker Asisat Oshoala. Oshoala isn’t even guaranteed a place in Barca’s best XI, but she’s their top scorer in the Spanish league with 19 goals, followed by Martens with 17.

New signing Fridolina Rolfo has shown quality and versatility since joining last summer, while the club’s Spanish core — goalkeeper Paños, centre-backs Mapi Leon and Irene Paredes, midfielders Aitana Bonmati and Patri Guijarro — hold everything together.

It would be a mistake to focus solely on Putellas.

TACTICS: As the men have laboured in recent years, Barca’s women have become the club’s flagship team — and not just because of the success they have enjoyed on the pitch, but because of how they have earned that success. Under Cortes and with a clutch of local players, they executed the style of football that’s become synonymous with the club over the past 30 years: possession, position and pressure.

They have all the hallmarks of a Barca side, starting from the base of a 4-3-3 formation. Paños, Leon and Paredes play out from the back and Bonmati, Alexia and Guijarro are masters of keeping the ball in the middle. It helps that they have all played together, for club and country, for the best part of a decade, their interplay almost automatic.

However, the attacking talent has been outsourced. Martens and Graham Hansen both arrived in big transfers for the women’s game to bring more pace and trickery on the wings. Martens likes to come inside from the left and scores a lot of goals, while Graham Hansen hugs the right touchline to stretch opponents. She’s Barca’s chief creator. The goals come from Hermoso, in her second spell at the club following stints at Paris Saint-Germain and Atletico, and Oshoala, although in reality they come from everywhere.

That’s even more true this season. Barca have already evolved under Giraldez into something representing total football. That’s perhaps best seen in the use of Sweden international Rolfo, signed as a forward from Wolfsburg but, at times, effectively playing as a false left-back. Elsewhere, attackers like Mariona Caldentey, and even Hermoso, have been implemented as midfielders, leaving opponents unsure of who is playing where and who to pick up.

Perhaps the only thing that could stop Barca in the upcoming clasicos is injuries. Martens, Caldentey, Oshoala and Paredes all feature on an ever-growing list of absentees, but there’s hope most of them will be able to play some part in the Champions League clasicos, if not this Sunday’s league game.




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