Real Madrid downed Barcelona 3-1 on Saturday behind a man of the match performance from Marcelo and a critical penalty kick slotted home by Cristiano Ronaldo in a firecracker of Clasico. It was Real’s 92nd win over their gravest rivals in El Clasico, and it came at a critical time, as with the win, Real sliced Barcelona’s lead atop La Liga to a single point. This was just Barcelona’s first league loss under manager Luis Enrique.
The so-called "billion dollar game," christened that due both to the cost of both team’s extravagantly expensive starting lineups, and its global appeal, lived up to its billing. Both sides played an all-out attacking game at close to warp speed, a frenzy of a match that only ebbed when Real’s front three snapped the game open in the second half.
”Madrid deserved to win,” said Barcelona manager Luis Enrique. ”This is a loss that clearly leaves Madrid as good or better than we are and we have to correct the mistakes we made today.”
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Barcelona came into the game with several things on the line. Lionel Messi is chasing Telmo Zarra’s all-time La Liga scoring record and they had the chance to put a full seven points between themselves and their arch-rivals with a win. And Real, of course, had a chance to close the gap atop the table to a single point, reeling back a Barcelona side that have looked irresistible this season. Barca keeper Claudio Bravo has been impeccable between the posts, meaning that if the Catalans were able to keep a clean sheet, they would set a European record as no team had run off nine games without conceding a goal in the Spanish top-flight.
Barcelona got off to the right start after just four minutes, and with vicious service from new boy Luis Suarez, finally back in action after his lengthy suspension for biting Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini at the World Cup. Suarez fired in a cross-field pass that Neymar collected on his chest, settled, then drifted right before uncorking a curling shot to the far post that gave Iker Casillas no chance. While Suarez’s service will surely have had folks in Liverpool chucking their remotes, the goal was truly created by Neymar, who created the space and then picked his spot.
The game continued at blazing pace, with both teams choosing to bypass the midfield in favor of lightning attacks, and Real roared right back into action with Cristiano Ronaldo at the center of all the action. He would tee up Karim Benzema with a fine pass in the 12th minute that the Frenchman could only head onto the crossbar. Benzema was able to get onto the rebound, but again a hint of the woodwork carries his shot out of play. Toni Kroos would fire in a 25-yarder that Bravo was forced hold well, and then Ronaldo had his own chance, scuffed right to Bravo.
Messi nearly made Real pay for their pressing style, with Suarez collecting a loose ball, and racing down the left flank to send in a pinpoint cross. With Messi just four yards away from Casillas’ line, he turned his hips to take the shot, and muffed it badly, send the ball wide of the frame.
That wastefulness would come back to haunt Barcelona as Real, roared on by the Bernabeu faithful, finally drew level after Gerard Pique handled the ball inside the box. Attempting to cut out another cross from Marcelo, an increasingly insistent presence, he went to the turf and handled the ball, allowing Ronaldo a chance from the spot. He made no mistake, sending Bravo the wrong way and putting the ball home with a side-foot.
Then, James Rodriguez almost sent Real into the lockers with a lead, but his uncontested header was a mess, spinning away from both the waiting Ronaldo off his right shoulder and the frame of the net.
But the wheels would come off Barcelona after the break, with Real’s lighting attacks too much for a midfield that seemed a touch slow. With Xavi a non-factor for much of the match — he would be yanked on the hour — Barcelona would be pressed back and forced into conceding what would prove to be a critical corner kick.
With Toni Kroos on the ball and Barcelona at sea in the back, the German star punched the ball out to he top of the box, where Pepe was left free. He simply arched up and headed the ball right through a helpless Bravo to give Real a 2-1 lead.
Real would extend their advantage on the hour as Mascherano and Inesta would get their signals crossed under attention from Isco. Isco would seize the ball out wide left, and with a deft flick, threaded the ball into James. The young Colombian star then dinked the ball out to Benzema, totally alone, for him to ping the ball off the far post and in past Bravo.
From then on, the floodgates seemed to open. Pique and Sergio Busquets both endured horrid games as the play simply passed them by, and as the match became more stretched, chances cropped up for Ronaldo, Rodriguez and Benzema. Barcelona simply looked overwhelmed.
”We didn’t lose our heads after conceding,” Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti said after the match. ”We stuck to our plan and I like what I saw because we maintained a high rhythm of play after (Wednesday’s win at) Liverpool.”
”The team was incredible in every aspect,” Madrid defender Sergio Ramos said. ”Even though we fell behind early we always kept clear that we wanted to dominate the match and not relinquish possession to them.”
Barcelona will have to wait until March for a chance at revenge in the league, but there are surely to be more clashes between these two giants this season. The difference between these two sides can only be measured in fractions, and while this was the galacticos’ day, it is unwise to bet that a team containing Messi can be held at bay forever.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.