Neymar steals spotlight in Barca win

One name was on the lips of Barcelona fans as they filed out of the Camp Nou after Saturday’s 2-1 win over Real Madrid. La Liga‘s Clasico has been dominated by Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in recent seasons. But European football’s biggest domestic game has a new star — Neymar lit up Saturday’s game with a goal and an assist in his first appearance.

The Brazilian starlet, still only 21, already has a habit of scoring on big occasions — he hit the winner for former club Santos in the 2011 Copa Libertadores final against Penarol, the clincher in Brazil’s Confederations Cup final win over Spain last summer, and his first Barca goal eventually decided August’s Spanish Supercopa against Atletico Madrid.

And he took just 19 minutes to mark his first El Clasico, taking Andres Iniesta’s pass and shooting past Diego Lopez, although the shot did take deflection off Dani Carvajal on the way in.

Neymar said pregame he remembered watching Ronaldinho shine against Madrid in 2005, and there were glimpses of his fellow Brazilian as Barca’s new number 11 followed his goal by running through some tricks, with 95,000 home fans inside the ground cheering his every touch. This was not a case of him showing off however — he always had his head up to look for a pass after beating his man.

The irony was that Madrid had long tracked the Brazilian starlet, and Blancos president Florentino Perez even made a last minute attempt to hijack his €57 million move from Santos to Catalonia last summer. That bid failed though — perhaps leading to Perez’ determined pursuit of, and world record fee €101 million paid to Tottenham for, Gareth Bale.

Madrid’s new galactico was deemed fit enough to play in the Spanish season’s first showpiece game but he started in a different position than expected. Blancos boss Ancelotti sent Bale out as a central attacker, in a starting XI which contained another surprise as Sergio Ramos was placed in midfield.

Both decisions quickly looked like mistakes. Inside the first 15 minutes, a lost looking Bale had swapped positions with Angel di Maria, but the Argentine winger did not look comfortable either. It was strange watching the richest soccer club in the world, who can buy almost any player they want, putting many square plugs in round holes.

Ramos was first noticed when he picked up a yellow card for flattening Neymar twice in a minute midway through the first half. Barca’s midfield passing — with Cesc Fabregas, Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez all included for once — left the converted defender and his colleagues chasing shadows. The home side were full value for their lead at the break.

The second period began with Ramos lucky to escape a second booking for a trip on Iniesta, and Ancelotti soon removing him before the referee did — with young specialist midfielder Asier Illarramendi coming on.

Meanwhile Neymar continued to look the most dangerous individual on the pitch — with only a superb save from Lopez, then a supremely-timed challenge from Raphael Varane, stopping him adding to his tally.

Neymar celebrates his opening goal with Barcelona teammates against Real Madrid (Image: David Ramos/Getty).

Bale was trying his best, but is clearly not happy with his fitness yet, and was withdrawn on the hour mark. Karim Benzema entered and Ancelotti now had his players at least in their right positions.

Madrid immediately had more of the ball, but were creating little and Barca’s biggest danger seemed complacency. An over confident Iniesta lost the ball in midfield — it was moved quickly to Cristiano Ronaldo who brought a flying save from Victor Valdes in the Barca goal. The Portuguese was having a frustrating evening — he wanted a penalty soon afterwards for a push by Javier Mascherano but the officials waved away his claim. Benzema came closest for Madrid with a screaming 25 yard effort which rattled the bar with Valdes beaten — the Frenchman showing he should really have been included from the start.

Barca reacted to that scare by focusing on a second and — with Xavi in full control of midfield — it soon arrived. Neymar was involved again, his pass allowed substitute Alexis Sanchez to run clear, pause, and then lift a delicious lob over Lopez for the second. Even with the late consolation strike from Madrid sub Jese Rodriguez — a mistake from Valdes — the game was out of reach.

The only slight concern for Barca coach Gerardo Martino was an unusually quiet display from Messi. But the Camp Nou did not care — the ground chorused "Neymar, Neymar" as their latest hero was withdrawn seven minutes from time, his work for the night done.