Barcelona took control of the title race in La Liga as they opened up a four point lead at the top of the table with a 2-1 win against their fierce rivals Real Madrid. Goals from Jeremy Mathieu and Luis Suarez ensured victory despite Cristiano Ronaldo equalising in the first half for Madrid.
Carlo Ancelotti and Real arrived at Camp Nou with several questions having been raised about their slump in form, Gareth Bale’s future and Cristiano Ronaldo’s mindset. They beat Levante last weekend thanks to two goals from Welshman Bale, but that came after a spell that saw the former Tottenham man struggle in front of goal and signs of friction had appeared between him and Ronaldo.
Knocked out of the Copa Del Rey, struggling to keep up with Barca and just about managing to scrape through to the Champions League quarter finals, there has been plenty of reasons to worry the die hard Madrid fans.
Conversely, Barca have been on fire since their defeat to David Moyes’ Real Sociedad and came into the game chasing an 18th win in 19 games. Lionel Messi has overtaken Ronaldo in the scoring charts, Suarez has finally hit form and Barca were in control of the title race prior to the game – a situation that looked impossible just a couple of months ago. There have been elements of Barca’s football recently that are reminiscent of the days when Pep Guardiola was in charge of the club.
Typically, the latest installment of El Clasico started quickly and ferociously with challenges flying in and both sides feeling their way around the pitch. But it was the visitors that had the first real chance of the game when Karim Benzema lifted the ball across the box and Ronaldo volleyed it onto the bar.
There was a tentative atmosphere at the famous stadium, with the home fans well aware that a Real Madrid win would see them leapfrog Barca in the table.
However, just seven minutes after that Ronaldo chance, Barca were ahead thanks to unlikely scorer Mathieu. Messi swung a free kick in from the left and Mathieu headed past Iker Casillas for his first league goal for the club.
The first goal of the game helped to settle the Barca fans down, but Madrid were not out of the match yet. Barca continued to look dangerous and should have doubled their lead after half an hour when Suarez whipped a lovely cross over to Neymar, who inexplicably failed to score.
Then, just moments later, a piece of brilliant link up play allowed Madrid to equalise and it was – surprise, surprise – Ronaldo that found the net. Benzema held the ball up and then back heeled the ball into the path of the Portuguese, who then toe poked it past Claudio Bravo in the Barca net. When it should’ve been 2-0 to Barca, that goal made it 1-1.
As Real suddenly started to play with more confidence, Barca began to overplay and they were almost punished by Toni Kroos, before Cristiano Ronaldo entered the book for a dive on the edge of the area – something that did very little to help his reputation inside the stadium.
Madrid ended the half on top though, with Bale having a goal ruled out for offside – the flag was raised against Ronaldo, who flicked it on to Bale – and Bravo had to make a smart save to stop a stunning 35-yard strike from Ronaldo.
However, within 11 minutes of the second half, Barca were back in front. Ex-Liverpool man Suarez has started to hit form lately and he latched on to a fabulous 40-yard pass from Dani Alves before burying it in the far corner.
Towards the end of the game, the only thing of note that was happening was the referee booking more and more players. Barcelona looked the more likely to add to their lead with Casillas having to be at his best to deny Messi and Jordi Alba.
But in the end it finished 2-1 and a crowd of 98,760 saw Barca open up a four point lead. This could prove to be a defining moment in La Liga this season and nobody could say that Barca didn’t deserve to win.
Advantage Messi. Advantage Barcelona.