Barcelona ran out 2-1 winners against Real Madrid Saturday evening thanks to goals from El Clásico debutante Neymar and Alexis Sanchez. Madrid youngster Jese Rodriguez managed to pull one back in stoppage time but it was too little, too late for a Madrid side that were outclassed by their Catalan rivals.
It took a while for the game to really get going, with both sides trying to feel each other out with the addition of new management and new superstars since their previous meeting last season. With 96,000 fans in attendance, the match was a feisty one, although thankfully not with the violent undertones which have marred many recent Clasicos. Neymar and Gareth Bale were having contrasting games from the first whistle, with the Brazilian starlet flummoxing the Madrid defense with some silky dribbling on the edge of the box. Bale, on the other hand, was ineffectual at best, with his first touch of any impact coming after 20 minutes had been played - a scuffed pass which ballooned into the stands.
Madrid did their best to keep Lionel Messi quiet, but when the Argentinian did find himself on the ball, his dribbling and passing was impeccable. It was no surprise when the first goal did come after 19 minutes, with the outstanding Andres Iniesta playing Neymar in behind as the £50 million youngster made no mistake with a well-placed finish across goal into the bottom-right corner.
Despite Carlo Ancelotti playing Sergio Ramos as a holding midfielder, Barca were dominating in the middle of the park. Madrid seemed to be missing the creative spark so often provided by Mesut Özil or more recently Isco, and although Luka Modric was tidy, he was not outstanding. They did start to get into the game more after the half hour mark, but the first contentious refereeing call came after 35 minutes when Adriano went flying into Ronaldo.
From the resulting free kick, Gerard Pique headed the ball into the back of Bale, two or three yards in front of him. Rather confusingly, the referee blew for handball, and Barca threatened to break. Neymar, streaming forward with some support, went down fairly easily off the ball under the challenge of Dani Carvajal, but it was not spotted by any of the officials and the play went on.
With Messi becoming more active, Barca’s midfield trio of Xavi, Iniesta, and Fabregas were close to their scintillating best with some beautiful interplay, and although Varane and Pepe were solid at the back for Madrid, they were becoming increasingly susceptible to Iniesta’s perfectly weighted passes in behind the defense. With the half drawing to a close, Victor Valdes was called into action to make a truly stunning save.
Cristiano Ronaldo breezed past Dani Alves (easier said than done) down the left wing and put in a delicious low cross for Sami Khedira, who made good contact inside the six yard box but Valdes saved sensationally on the line. The ball bounced down onto the defender’s hand, but nothing was given - it would have been a very harsh penalty decision. Madrid were growing restless, but Bale’s yellow card on the stroke of half time seemed harsh. Bale and Pique both went for the ball in a similar manner out on the wing, but Pique tumbled to the floor and Bale was cautioned for a high boot.
Whatever Ancelotti said at half-time clearly worked, as Madrid were much-improved in the second half. Despite barely surviving a period of Barca pressure on the hour mark, Los Merengues bounced back well, with three white shirts crowding Iniesta out in the center circle. Modric played a nice ball through to Ronaldo who saw a powerful shot saved by the impressive Valdes. From the resulting corner, Angel di Maria attempted a stinging volley which was disappointingly struck straight at the keeper, who is set to leave the Nou Camp after this season.
The introductions of Karim Benzema and Asier Illarramendi for Bale (2 shots, 0 on target) and Ramos worked wonders for Madrid, though Benzema headed well over from the edge of the six-yard box. Soon after, there was another controversial call from the referee; Ronaldo sprinted through on goal and was clearly tripped by the retreating Javier Mascherano. Nothing was given, and Ronaldo understandably took out his frustration on the Nou Camp turf.
Benzema soon hit the underside of the bar with a stunning strike from range, but the introduction of Alexis Sanchez for Barca was soon to pay dividends. The Chilean and Iniesta both nearly played each other in behind the Madrid defense in the space of 30 seconds, but less than 10 minutes after coming on, he doubled Los Blaugranas’ lead with a stunning effort. Sent through on goal, he brushed off the challenge of Raphael Varane before cutting back and lofting a sublime chip over Diego Lopez, who was caught in no man’s land halfway out of his box. Iker Casillas watched on unimpressed from the bench.
Although it is true that Barca were much more cohesive on the ball and fastest to every loose pass, it can’t be argued that many of the 50-50 decisions seemed to go their way. Bale went off fairly anonymously before Neymar left to a standing ovation. Dani Alves found himself in space out in the right, beating two defenders before back-heeling the ball though Ronaldo’s legs and shooting straight at Lopez.
Madrid should have had a goal back with five minutes to go with the impressive Benzema playing Khedira through; the German hit a tame shot straight at the goalkeeper, with Ronaldo standing exasperated, unmarked, and ready for a tap-in. Soon after, the Portuguese broke again down the left and played through Spanish youngster Jese Rodriguez, who hit a powerful shot through the legs of the otherwise impressive Valdes, who possibly could have done better.
Madrid did themselves no favors despite having only two minutes of stoppage time left to play, conceding a needless foul on the edge of their own box. Messi dribbled past three defenders and pulled the ball back for Alves, whose shot was deflected behind. The following corner was poor but it didn’t matter to Tata Martino, who celebrated his first Clasico win since becoming manager over the summer. The result leaves Barca four points clear at the top of La Liga (having played one more than Atletico in second) and six ahead of Ancelotti’s Madrid.