Ex-Liverpool star Luis Suarez scored the winner on Sunday, threading the needle to lead Barcelona to a 2-1 victory over Real Madrid in the Clasico. The win solidified Barcelona’s grip on the La Liga title and kept an out-of-sorts Real Madrid side firmly in crisis.
But this 230th meeting of what is simply the greatest club game in the world also lived up to expectations. For much of the match, it was a scorching game largely free of the extracurricular activities that have marred past meetings between the two sides. Featuring two of the best attacking tridents anywhere in world football – and the two greatest living players – this was a Clasico that lived up to its billing.
Real Madrid had won this fixture in October by an impressive 3-1 margin, dealing Barcelona what was at that time their first loss of the season. And that helped spark a run of form that saw them reel off 22 straight wins – and spark talks of crisis at Camp Nou as the New Year rang in.
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But entering this game, the teams were heading in opposite directions, with Real crashing out of the Copa del Rey, falling behind in the La Liga race, and getting walloped by cross-town rivals Atletico in the derby. Cristiano Ronaldo was seen mouthing obscenities at his own fans after Madrid made heavy weather of Champions League play against Schalke, and there was a feeling of gloom setting in.
In contrast, Barcelona have picked up steam and looked brilliant in Europe, taking apart an expensive Manchester City side with a performance that was simply a next-level thrashing. Lionel Messi, once looking jaded, has exploded of late, and it was expected that tonight he would pull the strings to fine effect.
Messi met those expectations, as Barcelona came out early and looked to put pressure on Iker Casillas from the kickoff . Andres Iniesta and Luis Suarez almost forced a goal inside of three minutes, and Neymar and Suarez would run a tricky set of one-twos that had Casillas fuming at his back line. But Neymar’s final touch was often too heavy or awry – a theme that would continue throughout the match as he left several chances lie fallow, and opened up more questions about his ability to finish.
It was Ronaldo who would actually come closest to scoring early as he sidefooted a volley off the underside of Claudio Bravo’s crossbar in the eleventh minute. Collecting a lovely long, searching ball from Marcelo, Karim Benzema found himself in space on the left side of the area and stopped, thinking he must be offside. He wasn’t, and with Barcelona’s back three converging on him, he clipped the ball over them to a waiting Ronaldo at the far post. He was unlucky not to draw first blood, and was left with a wry smile on his face as Bravo went tumbling.
The first goal, instead, would come from Lionel Messi after a soft, and somewhat silly foul from Pepe, who went into the back of Suarez. Lining up a free kick near side, about 25 yards out, Messi blew in a head-high cross that caught Real’s back line flat. Jeremy Mathieu simply ran onto the ball and nodded it to the far post, leaving Casillas helpless.
But the turning point of the match might have come on the half hour mark, when Neymar had a chance to put the game if not to bed, then more firmly into Barca’s corner. With Suarez tumbling, the Uruguayan flicked a fine square ball to Neymar, all alone with but Casillas to beat. Instead, the young Brazilian tamely kneed the ball right to the keeper, who immediately started a lightning break.
At the other end of the field, off service from Luka Modric, Benzema took the ball in stride and clipped a backheel into the path of Ronaldo. With a slide, he tucked the ball through a tangle of legs and into the back of Bravo’s net.
For the remainder of the half, Barcelona looked very uncomfortable as Modric drove Real’s midfield right through Barca. Gareth Bale nearly doubled their lead on 40 minutes when he steered the ball home after a Ronaldo flick-on, but the linesman had his flag up. It was a dubious call, as it appeared Ivan Rakitic had held both men on, but it would not count. Ronaldo would then force Bravo into a brilliant finger-tip save over his own bar with a lash from some 35 yards out that was heading into the net.
But after the break, the game changed: Barcelona simply became vastly better against Madrid and should have come away with far more in this game.
Suarez would seize the lead back for Barcelona in the 56th minute, finishing off an incredible 60-yard pass from Dani Alves with a low roller through Pepe. Collecting the ball over his shoulder in full stride, he somehow shook off both Sergio Ramos and Pepe to slide the ball to the far corner, past a despairing Casillas. It was a brilliant outlet ball, delivered with a precision so rare in the modern game when it comes to direct play.
Real Madrid were down but not entirely out. Benzema would see his shot well-saved by Bravo after it took a wicked cut off Javier Mascherano; only the keeper’s positioning saved a sure goal. And Neymar’s wastefulness kept Los Blancos in the game; he muffed two gilt-edged chances at the near post, and ignored a wide-open Suarez before finally getting the hook.
But quality showed: Casillas was forced to save Messi twice late in a yeoman display as Real started to dissipate under what became withering pressure. By the end of the game, Madrid looked a team with a crumbling sea wall, and Barcelona were able to move through them at will.