La Liga in focus: Casemiro ‘The Tank’ is Real Madrid’s steady influence in recent rise

Coach Zinedine Zidane made it clear that Real Madrid's priority lay in winning an 11th European Cup, but Saturday’s surprise clasico victory has given their season both a twist and a boost at a crucial time ahead of Wednesday's Uefa Champions league quarter-final first leg with Wolfsburg.

Casemiro, right, was instrumental in thwarting Barcelona's attacks during a 2-1 win at Camp Nou. Juan medina / Reuters
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Real Madrid played in el clasico at the weekend, while Wolfsburg, their opponents in the Uefa Champions League quarter-final first leg Wednesday evening, played in a game referred to as "el plastico" against Bayer Leverkusen.

Die Welt called the meeting "the battle of the unloved plastic clubs" in the week that six "traditional" German teams – Hamburg, Cologne, Eintracht Frankfurt, Werder Bremen, Stuttgart and Hertha Berlin – lobbied the Bundesliga to distribute television money based on other factors than merely league position, including membership and number of away supporters.

See also:

• Ian Hawkey: Driven by Volkswagen, Wolfsburg face Real Madrid aiming to steer clear of domestic slump

• Uefa Champions League quarter-finals: Previews, TV info and UAE times

• Andy Mitten: Luis Enrique, ever the pragmatist, banishes Barcelona's el clasico defeat to the past

Wolfsburg lost and slipped to eighth in the Bundesliga table. To qualify for the Champions League again next season they will have to win the competition this term, a tall order given they play Real Madrid, with the second leg in the Bernabeu.

Madrid have had a poor season by their own stellar standards, but their European form never wavered like their domestic form. They won five and drew one of their six Group A games, scoring 18 and finishing ahead of Paris Saint-Germain, then beat Roma home and away in the last 16.

Coach Zinedine Zidane made it clear that their priority lay in winning an 11th European Cup, but Saturday's surprise clasico victory has given their season both a twist and a boost at a crucial time. They are still seven points behind Barcelona in the Primera Liga and one behind Atletico Madrid, in second, with seven games to play.

Though a domestic triumph remains improbable, but as Gareth Bale said after the 2-1 win at Camp Nou: “It’s a massive victory for the whole club. Tonight really does put us mentally in a strong position, we can beat anyone on our day. We showed that. Barcelona are considered to be the best team and we beat them in their own back yard. It mentally puts us in a great position but we have to keep working hard.”

Of Wolfsburg, whom Madrid meet for the first time, Bale said: “We know about Wolfsburg, we know they’re obviously a good team, you have to be to be in the quarter-finals.” True, but the Germans are probably the weakest team left. They have reached the knockout stages for the first time in only their second appearance in the competition, qualifying from a group with no standout teams by beating an injury-hit Manchester United side in their final group game.

Raphael Varane is a doubt, but otherwise Madrid are at full strength and the injuries which plagued Rafa Benitez’s spell at the club are but a memory.

Players are hitting form, too, as Madrid enter the quarter-finals for the sixth season in a row. Bale was full of confidence at Camp Nou, Madrid's best player even when his side were behind. Brazilian midfielder Casemiro also performed well. Considered a weak point against Barca's brilliant attackers, he broke up the link from Barca's midfield to front line earning the headline "The Tank" in Monday's edition of Marca, where he was pictured winning the ball in duels against Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez.

The former Sao Paulo midfielder, 24, who spent last season on loan at Porto, has risen from a peripheral player under Benitez to a key figure under Zidane. Under Benitez, he started only one of the first six league games, before becoming a regular as injuries took their toll. Zidane didn’t turn to him immediately and he played only 20 minutes of Zidane’s first nine league games, but he has become integral and Madrid’s form has improved with it.

Madrid have won six of the past seven games which Casemiro has started, with fans preferring him to Toni Kroos and James Rodriguez. The defence behind him looks more comfortable – Madrid have scored 20 and conceded only four with Casemiro in the side at the base of Madrid’s 4-3-3 formation.

Casemiro, who considers himself to be from Madrid’s cantera since he joined their B team first, got his first goal for the first team in the 2-1 win at Las Palmas last month. The focus at Madrid is often the players in attack, but Casemiro has been the most steadying influence in the side’s rise.

Without an away win all season, now Sevilla have lost at home

The clasico result garnered most of the attention in Spain at the weekend. It was the first time that a team had come from behind to win at Camp Nou since Mallorca in 2007/08, but Real Madrid always had the players to beat the best, and they did that.

Another Real enjoyed a spectacular 2-1 away win at a club with a formidable home record at the weekend. Real Sociedad’s triumph at Sevilla was the Basques’ best result of the season. The Andalusians had won 17th consecutive home matches, with Unai Emery’s side beating Real Madrid and Barcelona at home. Sevilla were the last team to overcome Barca before they went 39 games unbeaten, it was some consolation for their 5-4 European Super Cup final defeat to the Catalans.

Sevilla were defeated at Camp Nou in the return league game in February, but when Luis Enrique described them as the best team to visit Barca all season few disagreed. They were a team on the up after a bad start to the campaign which saw them bottom of the table after five matches and ninth after the first game in 2016.

Sevilla finish strongly, though, and their form improved as they began to climb the table. A week after holding Atletico Madrid away on January 24, Sevilla beat Levante at home and moved up to fifth. Their aim was to close the gap on Villarreal, in fourth, and qualify for the Uefa Champions League again – their notable European success has come in the Europa League, where they have reached the last eight again in a competition they won last May for the third time in 10 years.

Sevilla’s biggest problem was their dreadful away form. While their home form is superb, they remain the only team in La Liga yet to win away this season. Only Barca have won more home games than Sevilla and Sevilla would have equalled the Catalans’ record of 14 wins from 16 home games had they beaten Sociedad. But they lost 2-1 after trailing 2-0 at half time. Sevilla have slipped to seventh and are now nine points off Villarreal in that fourth Champions League spot.

Sevilla could reach the Champions League again by winning the Europa League, but a top-four finish now looks unlikely. Their aim is now to finish in the top six so that they can get back into the Europa League.

Sevilla have a chance to rectify their away situation and avoid it being three straight league defeats: they play hapless Valencia on Sunday.

Player of the week

Several Real Madrid players were worthy of note for their second-half performances in a 2-1 win at Barcelona, but full-backs Marcelo and Dani Carvajal were a key reason why Barca struggled to trouble Keylor Navas in Camp Nou. The defenders are fast and strong and had the measure of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez.

Game of the week

Real Sociedad beat Barcelona last season, causing all kind of arguments and the departure of Barca sporting director Andoni Zubizaretta from Camp Nou. The Catalans have not looked back, until this week. Barca return to Anotea, where the Basques want to build on their fine win in Sevilla.

What else?

• Eibar lost a third consecutive home game, a 2-1 defeat to Villarreal. The Basques are starting to drop down the table, as they did a year ago. The difference is they have already got 38 points and are ninth. They are all but safe and survival in a league where they are by a distance the smallest club marks a huge success.

• Atletico were excellent as they beat Real Betis 5-1, with Antoine Griezmann scoring another two goals. The 19-goal Frenchman is the top scorer outside of players from the biggest two clubs. Atletico sit between Barcelona and Real Madrid in second.

• Alaves went back to the top of the second division with a 1-0 win at Albacete. Gimnastic Tarragona, the Catalan side who last graced the top flight in 2006, moved up to third after a draw with another promotion-chasing side, Cordoba. The 10,162 fans who made up promoted Nastic’s highest crowd of the season saw plenty of goals – four for each side.

• Both Levante and Sporting Gijon, in 20th and 19th respectively, needed to win their Monday night clash. They drew 0-0.

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