There is more than one sure-fire way to gain the lasting affections of Barcelonistas, but the best is to make your first number of ‘clasicos’ memorable and make your own contribution to matches against Real Madrid decisive.
Luis Suarez knew that keenly last October. His debut for Barcelona, following his $100 million move from Liverpool and the serving of a ban for biting at the World Cup, was away at Real Madrid. Within three minutes he had provided a cross for match’s opening goal.
Yet that day, Madrid came back to win 3-1 and embark on an extended run of good form that would put them top of La Liga by the new year. As a result, Suarez’s influence on his first clasico would be remembered as a footnote, most of all by the player himself. He responds with evident fervor to big fixtures, and losing them hurts.
Article continues below ...
His first meeting with Real Madrid in front of his Barcelona public delivered him a much happier set of souvenirs, the most important the second-half goal which sealed the outcome in Barca’s favor. That left the Catalonians four points clear of Madrid at the summit of a Liga table where, eight fixtures ago, they trailed by the same number of points.
There are still ten matches left, but the 2-1 Barcelona win felt like a very firm stride toward the league title, and toward Barca’s first trophy since 2013. Suarez’s goal animated the stadium, with 90,000 eager to acclaim a special status that other celebrated newcomers to the club have taken longer to establish for themselves.
It was a stunning match-winner, too, Suarez receiving the ball at speed, with his back to the passer, Dani Alves, who sought him out from some distance. Suarez’s first touch, to control, was assured and his turn and judgment of the angle he needed on his shot quite masterly.
“That’s what we bought him for,” said Luis Enrique, the Barcelona head coach, happy to regard the goal as a threshold moment for Suarez, who came into Barcelona not only carrying a heavy price tag but also a long suspension, a reputation for a hot temper and on-field indiscipline.
“He has a character we like here, and complements a group of players who can be a bit colder in their approach,” said Luis Enrique. “I like his attitude, his physical presence and his ability to finish with very few touches in the box.”
Carlos Ancelotti, the Real Madrid coach, paid Suarez a compliment, too. “A player like Suarez is always strong looking for spaces behind the defense,” he said of the decisive goal. “I don’t see that goal as a mistake by us.”
Ancelotti was disappointed, naturally, by the outcome, by how a Madrid performance of what he called “solid defending, danger going forward for the first 60 minutes” had fizzled in a final half hour.
Real Madrid defender Pepe echoed the sentiment of a lapse of concentration in the final half hour. “We played with our emotions, not our heads, after the second Barcelona goal,” said the Real defender, whose duel with Suarez had been an engrossing sub-plot and one that, until the goal, the Madrid man had been at least keeping even.
A Pepe challenge on Suarez had led to the free-kick from which Barcelona took the lead, Jeremy Mathieu heading Lionel Messi’s excellent pass beyond Iker Casillas. But Madrid, for whom Ronaldo had seen a volley ricochet back off the underside of the Barcelona crossbar, responded quickly, thanks to a well worked goal: A Modric through-ball, a backheel from the lively Karim Benzema, Ronaldo reaching out a foot for his 31st Liga goal of the season.
Claudio Bravo, in the Barcelona goal, had to make some alert saves, from Ronaldo and Benzema after that, but Suarez struck back just as Ancelotti’s team seemed to be taking a grip on the contest. “They played very well on the counter-attack,” said Ancelotti of Barcelona. By the final whistle he was grateful to some sharp work from his own keeper, Iker Casillas, for maintaining the margin of defeat at a single goal.
He acknowledged there had been symptoms of fatigue, particularly from Modric and Toni Kroos towards the end, but insisted that, even with the gap widening between first and second, the Liga title remains a target. “We won’t let our heads drop,” said Ancelotti. He refused the idea that Madrid’s best policy now was to preserve energies for the Champions League, where they meet Atletico Madrid in the quarter-finals next month.
For Luis Enrique, the win was “in no way decisive for the title.” But it was exhilarating for him, and for most of those in Camp Nou. Two players new to the squad season had scored – Mathieu and Suarez – and a new coach had his first victory, as boss of Barcelona, over Madrid. “It is satisfying,” said Luis Enrique, who played in clasicos for Barcelona and for Madrid. “These nights are important for the supporters.”