Mathieu (19), Suarez (56)
Real Madrid 1
Barcelona have gone four points clear at the top of La Liga after Luis Suarez’ second half strike proved to be the difference in a feisty El Clasico. Defender Jeremy Mathieu was the unlikely first goal scorer to give Barca the lead before Cristiano Ronaldo grabbed his obligatory strike to level proceedings, until Suarez drilled the winner just past half time.
Billed as ‘the greatest game in football’, these two giants of Spain met at the Nou Camp for another ferocious clash with title implications. Not only are the sides the most decorated in Spanish football, but the intense rivalry that surrounds this fixture was also heightened by the one point separating Barca and Real at the top of the league before kick-off. If that wasn’t enough, then the starting line-ups which included mega names such as Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique, Andres Iniesta, Luka Modric, Neymar, Gareth Bale, Luis Suarez and of course, the two best players on the planet in Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, only added to the anticipation.
Once all the pre-match handshakes, flag-waving and whistles were over it was down to business, with the hosts starting on the front foot. Some neat build-up play set Iniesta in behind the left hand channel and his cut-back was deflected over by Pepe, under pressure from Ivan Rakitic.
Barca’s deadly front three of Suarez, Messi and Neymar were all receiving plenty of touches without causing any issues as Luis Enrique’s side controlled the early tempo. But despite pinning Madrid back for most of the opening ten minutes, it was the visitors who carved open the first opportunity. Karim Benzema broke the offside trap to pick the ball up in the left channel of the box, before dinking a cross towards the back post for Ronaldo. The Portuguese goal-machine seemed destined to score as he met it with a side-foot volley from four yards, but instead, his effort grazed the underside of the crossbar and bounced to safety.
It was a warning to the hosts, although their reply would yield the opening goal from the most unlikeliest of sources. With such a plethora of world-class talents on display few would have picked former Valencia defender Jeremy Mathieu to notch first but he did just that, beating Ramos to Messi’s swinging free-kick to nod the ball past Iker Casillas from ten yards.
It was a deserved lead as Barca had held the slight edge on proceedings and they could have doubled the advantage when the mercurial Messi lined up another set piece -this time within shooting range- although his effort was blocked by the Madrid wall. The away side grew into the game with a short spell of controlled possession after that until a corner for the home side would be the catalyst for a game-changing minute.
Rakitic’s in-swinger wasn’t properly cleared and fell to Suarez right of centre in the box, with the Uruguayan’s low shot falling perfectly into the path of Neymar. The Brazilian had the goal at his mercy but fluffed his lines by bobbling his strike into the hands of Casillas and from that Madrid countered. A flowing move saw Modric pick up the ball 30 yards from goal and the little Croatian fed Benzema on the edge of the area. The striker showed all of his awareness and skill with a wonderful back-flick to find the on-rushing Ronaldo, who made Neymar pay for his miss by prodding the ball past Claudio Bravo to level the match.
The equaliser came just 23 seconds after Barcelona’s spurned opportunity at the other end and Carlo Ancelotti’s men were visibly galvanised. Bale, Isco and Modric had begun to stamp their authority and the Welshman thought he had put Real in front five minutes before the break.
Benzema was again the creator as he tossed in another cross, Ronaldo flicked it on and Bale stole in behind on the stretch to slide the ball into the bottom corner. It was, however, greeted by the linesman’s offside flag which was contentious to say the least judging by TV replays, as Bale was clearly onside. The final chance of a pulsating first 45 came from the boot of Ronaldo once more as his vicious strike from just outside the box was met by a terrific fingertip save by Bravo.
The opening moments of the second period started in much the same vein as the first with Real countering from another free-kick. Some fantastic one-touch passes ended with Ronaldo slipping in Benzema and the French striker seeing his drilled effort tipped away by Bravo, before Pique scrambled the loose ball clear.
The match was now littered with niggling fouls and needless squabbles as the yellow card count totted up but from inside the pettiness came the second goal for Barcelona. Dani Alves picked up the ball in his own half and floated a 40 yard pass to largely ineffective Suarez, who showcased the talents that saw the Catalan club part with £75 million to secure his signature by controlling it with one touch and firing across Casillas into the bottom corner with his second.
The visitors needed to respond if they were to stop Barcelona from opening up a four point gap at the top of La Liga, but the stop-start fouls, play-acting and eleven yellow cards disrupted any rhythm that either side could muster. In fact the next real chance came almost twenty minutes after Suarez’ strike as Messi drove at the Real back line and curled his left-footed strike narrowly wide of Casillas right-hand post.
Neymar was wasteful once more when presented with two decent opportunities shortly after, firing wide on both occasions when perhaps a pass to a team-mate would have been a better option. At the other end, Ronaldo and Bale’s influence had tailed off as the away side struggled to create any meaningful openings, although Bravo did have to be at his best when Benzema’s deflected effort required a sprawling tip around the post from the Costa Rican keeper.
Jordi Alba could have sewn up the points with five minutes to go as he broke through the backline but Casillas was out quickly to divert his left-footed stab wide for a corner. Moments later Messi would test the Spanish keeper for one final time when he drilled a low strike towards the bottom corner as the hosts held on for a vital win.
Player Ratings (Out of 10)
Barcelona: Bravo (7), Dani Alves (7), Pique (8), Mathieu (7), Alba (7), Mascherano (6), Rakitic (7), Iniesta (6), Neymar (6), Suarez (7), Messi (7) Subs: Busquets (5), Xavi (5), Rafinha (5)
Real Madrid: Casillas (7), Carvajal (6), Pepe (6), Ramos (6), Marcelo (6), Kroos (6), Modric (8), Isco (6), Bale (5), Ronaldo (7), Benzema (7) Subs: Varane (5), Jese (5)
Man of the Match: Gerard Pique (Barcelona)
It was another intriguing El Clasico, as they usually are, given the vast array of top class talents that both sides possess. The Ronaldo v Messi duel wasn’t as prominent as previous meetings, despite the Madrid winger scoring his seventh goal in eight visits to the Nou Camp and the diminutive Argentinian showing glimpses of his outstanding ability. Neither star took control of the match or outshone the other, largely because of the stop-start rhythm that marred an otherwise exciting spectacle.
This fixture has a reputation for mixing the incredible talents with head-shaking histrionics and play acting, which was in overdrive tonight. Eleven yellow cards were shown; ranging from horribly miss-timed tackles to the shameful rolling around under any touch from an opposition player. A match that was threatening to become an end-to-end thriller eventually petered out into a tame second period thanks to the pettiness.
But in terms of football, Gerard Pique and Jeremy Mathieu were the stand out performers for the hosts with rock-solid displays, while Luka Modric and Karim Benzema played very well for Real. The same can’t be said for Gareth Bale however, as the Welshman was non-existent after half time and couldn’t effect proceedings going forward. He wasn’t helped by Dani Carvajal dropping deeper to counteract Neymar’s pace on the break, which left him isolated on the right wing for a majority of the match.