Madrid's 'boys from the bench' a big reason why they'll march over Barca
OK now, pay attention.
Can you tell me which two players have made the most appearances for Real Madrid in La Liga this season? I imagine the candidates are springing to your mind right away: Sergio Ramos? Toni Kroos? Cristiano Ronaldo? Keylor Navas?
No, only one of those names even makes Madrid's top-four league appearances list.
The fact is that Lucas Vazquez and Isco lead that list with 28 and 26 matches (not starts), respectively.
What's more, Lucas has the most total appearances for Madrid across all five tournaments in which Zinedine Zidane's side have competed this season. The winger has played 42 times across the UEFA Super Cup, FIFA Club World Club, La Liga, Copa del Rey and UEFA Champions League.
And as Madrid sit with a clear advantage at the top of La Liga with just the same kind of steely grip on their Champions League quarterfinal against Bayern Munich, Lucas' total so far is three goals and seven assists.
As for Isco, this is his most prolific season since joining the club, with nine goals and four assists, meaning that the two have contributed 23 goals between them in what promises to be Madrid's greatest season since Vicente del Bosque was in charge 15 years ago.
On Saturday, Lucas smashed the dugout interior in fury when he was substituted, only to claim afterward that it was frustration at Madrid likely dropping a point given that the score was 2-2 at that stage. Perhaps it was just that, rather than anger over not completing the eventual 3-2 win over Sporting Gijon. Who can say?
On Saturday, Isco scored the added-time winner with a long, raking shot that was celebrated at the end like a cup final win by him and his teammates. A massive moment.
So it's these two guys, as emblems, who help identify why it is that Madrid could tuck away a Champions League semifinal place this week and seal just their second La Liga title since 2008 while Barcelona look punch-drunk, unsure of themselves and vulnerable.
True, true: Nothing's over until it's over. Stranger things have happened than Bayern somehow winning 2-1 and then taking the tie on penalties (something I firmly doubt) or Barcelona using the Clasico mantra that "form goes out the window" in order to register an unlikely win at the Santiago Bernabeu on Sunday.
But right now, it is the state of the two squads that tells the tale of the tape.
Madrid, with two trophies already this season, keep on demonstrating the worth of having a deep squad in which everyone still believes that the whole can be greater than the sum of the parts. Just consume some facts about how they have come this far this season.
Zidane has an A team (called a "Gala XI" here in Spain) and everyone can name it: Navas; Dani Carvajal, Ramos, Raphael Varane, Marcelo; Luka Modric, Casemiro, Kroos; Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema, Ronaldo.
Give or take the odd blip of form, then, if there was a truly big game and all of these players were fit, this would be Zidane's starting XI.
Spain's champions-elect have played 31 league matches. And it's eyebrow raising, if not quite shocking, that key footballers like Ronaldo, Kroos and Marcelo have started just 24, 23 and 21 of those, respectively. Further down the list are Modric, Bale and Casemiro with 18, 16 and 15 starts apiece.
So a big group of Zidane's most important footballers have been absent for large portions of anywhere from a quarter to a half of the side's La Liga matches. Yet Los Blancos sit three points ahead of the reigning champions with a game in hand, plus the home Clasico this weekend.
That's an achievement. And one that should not be undervalued.
I guess most people, jumping ahead, will reckon I'm trying to say that Madrid's "backup players" have had more important impacts in matches, particularly given that the league leaders have won by a single goal nine times this domestic season. And that is indeed one part of my argument.
Madrid's four most-often-used subs in La Liga are Lucas, Isco, Alvaro Morata and Marco Asensio. Between them, they've hit the net 24 times in the title chase. Never mind assists. A massive stat.
By contrast, Barcelona's four most called-upon replacements in La Liga are Denis Suarez, Paco Alcacer, Andres Iniesta and Andre Gomes, who, between them, have returned just six goals. Frankly, that's a horrible total for any team's "best" four subs to have amassed at this stage of a season.
Valencia's four most-used subs, by contrast, have scored 14 La Liga goals this season, Las Palmas' have scored 10 and Deportivo La Coruna's eight. Let's face the blunt truth: Even bottom club Osasuna's four most-used bench players have produced six goals.
Whether those goals have resulted from a player coming off the bench or when that bench player starts is irrelevant. These guys are not part of the regular first team, yet when they play -- from the start or midgame -- they score more (sometimes many more) than Barcelona's do.
"Hold on there!" you'd be quite entitled to interject. "Barcelona lead Madrid on goals scored, by a distance." However, Luis Enrique's team have drawn six times, meaning that a mere two goals (let's say from that clutch of talented subs) would have brought four more points.
In that hypothetical situation (hardly a dreamland when it's a margin of two goals), Barcelona would be leading Madrid by one point and would face this weekend's Clasico with the prospect of a win, meaning that Madrid's game in hand could be rendered irrelevant.
But I think there's a far more important function that high-performing backup players provide to a team, which is fighting on three or four fronts.
A realistic biopsy of Barcelona's season will, in the end, suggest that they fell to a number of minor flaws. However, the fact remains that if they were to produce two remarkable performances this week they would still be in line to win the treble. I think it's more likely to snow in Sevilla in July than it is for Barcelona to win the fabled triplet this season, but the point is that they aren't actually terribly far off being in notable shape. Not if you analyse with cold clear eyes rather than the partisan sniping that is increasingly tending to dominate the Spanish media.
Part of Barcelona's failure, particularly as shown on the road in Vigo, La Coruna, Malaga, Paris and Turin, is an inability to press and pass like they used to. If, say, they'd started the season with Marco Verratti in their ranks and he'd stayed fit, I think it's arguable that Barcelona might be muscular competitors to win a treble, rather than rank outsiders.
But that still isn't my main point.
Madrid's main backup players are, principally, more established at the club. Whether they have been there longer or went out on loan and had to fight their way back, they are at the Bernabeu on proven merit -- not speculative.
Moreover, Zidane has managed to achieve something at which Luis Enrique has failed: He has made his players feel that it's a meritocracy at Madrid. He's made them feel that when they merit a start they'll get one. Zidane has made his players believe that if they are intense in their attitude and work ethic every single day, the whole will be greater than the sum of the parts.
For whatever reason, there has been a different ethos emerging at Barcelona. I do not believe that Gomes, Alcacer, Aleix Vidal or Lucas Digne were governed by the same beliefs or feelings as Isco, Lucas, Morata or Asensio at Madrid.
Whether they doubted themselves, felt that their pathway was unfairly blocked, began to feel that nothing they did would get them a start -- whatever the causes -- this was not a group of players who believed that they could make the whole greater than the sum of the parts. What's more, when there's a clear hierarchy that doesn't appear breakable, training suffers.
I have no doubt at all that Barcelona's training work this season will look high level in review. They are good tactically, disciplined in terms of timekeeping and attitude and not lax. But will the first XI of "Gala" players have felt that they need to look over their shoulders? That their places are in jeopardy? That the coach has a luxury of choices?
In a word: No.
And that's something that leads to tiny, wafer-thin decreases in intensity, concentration and self-assessment, which, in turn, bring about the kind of performance in Turin that will see Barcelona departing the Champions League this week and kissing goodbye to the chance of a third treble in eight seasons.
As for Madrid, they'll march on. And their "boys from the bench" will be a big part of the reason.
Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World." Twitter: @BumperGraham.