Barça end the day with a six-point advantage over Real Madrid after a 2-1 victory over Los Merengues at Camp Nou this evening. Neymar Jr shot Barça into the lead in the 19th minute and then the Brazilian provided the pass for substitute Alexis Sanchez to chip in a sublime second fifteen minutes from the end. Madrid substitute Jese grabbed an injury time consolation for the visitors which will mean little to Carlo Ancelotti’s men after they had two penalty appeals turned down in a closely fought contest.
A fantastic mosaic dedicated to Tito Vilanova set the scene for the game as the two teams came out to a goose-pimple-inducing A Cappella rendition of the Barça hymn. Both coaches made interesting changes to their teams. Tata Martino started Cesc Fabregas as false-nine which meant Leo Messi began on the right at the expense of Alexis, while Piqué and Mascherano swapped central defensive positions so that the quicker Mascherano could be closer to Cristiano Ronaldo. Ancelotti started Ronaldo on the left but brought in Gareth Bale as centre forward in place of the dropped Benzema. But the biggest surprise from the Italian coach was to move Sergio Ramos into a midfield three with Modric and Khedira while Varane came in to partner Pepe at the back and Carvajal replaced Arbeloa at right back.
Neither side seemed to adapt too well to the changes in the early minutes and with both sides playing a high back line the ball rarely came near the areas. It wasn’t until the 11th minute after a good build-up involving Neymar, Iniesta and Fabregas that Barça created a half chance but Messi’s shot hit a defender and the ball just ran out of Neymar’s reach and Diego Lopez gathered. Busquets and Ramos were conditioned by early yellow cards but Busquets would go on to give an assured performance while Ramos often looked close to a second yellow until he was subbed off early in the second half.
Barça began to get a slight edge. Bale fired over with Madrid’s first effort but then in the 18th minute Neymar got past Khedira before using a body swerve to throw Carvajal off balance but the Brazilian’s shot at the end of the run went straight at Diego Lopez. A minute later Busquets played the ball forward to Iniesta who accelerated forward, drawing defenders towards him, before playing the ball left to Neymar who was in just enough space to get in a shot which took a minor deflection off Varane and beat Diego Lopez inside the far post.
Madrid looked initially stunned by Neymar’s opener and Messi should have made it 2-0 after being sent through by Iniesta’s glorious pass. Messi was coming in from the right but, as he looked to side-foot for the far post, he got his sights wrong with just Diego Lopez to beat and sent the ball the wrong side of the post.
However, with the lead, Barça played a more conservative game. The team sat a bit deeper and allowed Madrid to have periods of possession, but with the Barça defence well positioned and with Valdés generally kicking long in order to limit giving Madrid chances to press on Barça’s defenders, there were few Madrid opportunities apart from another long shot wide from Bale. Di Maria curled in three free kicks from the right but Barça generally dealt well with all the high balls and Valdés remained untroubled. Then just two minutes before half time Ronaldo made his first important contribution to the game, bursting past Alves and sending in a low cross which Khedira flicked towards goal. Valdés made a good stop but then the ball rolled against the arm of Adriano who was sliding in a late attempt to stop Khedira. There is no doubt that the ball struck Adriano’s arm but there was no unnatural movement of his arm towards the ball and he was just using the arm, which was in contact with the floor as he slid, to support his body.
Madrid won their first corner of the game soon after the start of the second half but Barça continued to gain the edge thanks mainly to the form of Iniesta and Neymar. Sergio Ramos was fortunate not to see a second yellow after arriving late on Iniesta. Then in the 54th minute Iniesta sent another splendid pass that after a bounce arrived to Neymar who cracked a left-footer at goal but also straight at Diego Lopez.
Iniesta’s only poor moment of the game was in the 58th minute when he was robbed by Khedira, and Modric sent Ronaldo into the area for Madrid’s best chance so far but Valdés was alert to make an excellent save to his right. Play continued with the ball arriving to Di Maria but his shot was comfortable saved by Valdés who was able to catch the ball above his head.
Illarramendi had replaced Ramos in midfield and now Ancelotti brought on Benzema for Bale but neither team could make much headway. Messi had moved to the middle which meant Fabregas was stranded ineffectually out on the right and eventually Martino brought on Alexis to offer more pace to attack the space behind the high Madrid defence.
Madrid had their second penalty appeal in the 71st minute. If referee Undiano Mallenco read the first decision correctly this time it looked like Mascherano made contact with Ronaldo but Undiano waved play on leaving the Portuguese gesticulating his frustration. There was more frustration for Madrid soon after when Benzema let fly with a bullet which crashed against Valdés’s crossbar. With just a one-goal difference there was everything to play for with fifteen minutes to play.
Ancelotti made his final substitution, throwing on Jese in place of the disappointing Di Maria and then Martino made his second, putting on Song to bolster the midfield in place of Iniesta. Barça’s disciplined performance was rewarded again in the 78th minute when Neymar threaded a pass through for Alexis to chase. Varane was in hot pursuit so Alexis waited for the Madrid defender and cut inside him as he went past before conjuring up a stunning chip that flew clear of Diego Lopez’s desperate dive and settled in the back of the net. The Chilean seems to get better and better and this will surely go down as his most memorable goal so far for the club.
There was little time now for Madrid to come back and Diego Lopez prevented another goal that would have been remembered for years after Alves’s gallop up the right with a sweet nutmeg on Ronaldo included. However, Madrid didn’t give up and Valdés had to make his fourth save of the night after Benzema’s excellent assist to Khedira. Finally, in injury time Ronaldo drew the defence towards him before finding Jese storming through on the right, Adriano couldn’t catch the Madrid youngster whose shot found a way under Valdés.
There were no more chances for Madrid to attempt an equalizer as Barça played out time. The victory once again affirms Martino’s ability to get the right results and tonight Madrid were given few chances to play to their strengths. However, it might be argued that neither team was at its best and Barça simply got the better of a below-par Clásico in terms of quality even though the excitement level was maintained to the end. Iniesta, Busquets, Alexis and Neymar in his first Clásico made the difference and deserve praise while Messi will have to wait to surpass Di Stefano’s record after a similar performance to the one we saw in Milan where he failed more often than not when he tried to make a difference. No worries for now though, with the six-point lead over Madrid, La Liga is looking that little bit closer to Barça tonight.
Barça: Valdés 7; Alves 7, Mascherano 6.5, Piqué 7, Adriano 6.5; Xavi 6.5, Busquets 7.5, Iniesta 8 (Song m77, 6.5); Messi 6, Fabregas 6 (Alexis m70, 7.5), Neymar 7.5 (Pedro m84, –).
Madrid: Diego López; Carvajal, Varane, Pepe, Marcelo; Khedira, Sergio Ramos (Illarramendi m56), Modric; Di María (Jese m76), Bale (Benzema m61), Cristiano Ronaldo
Goals: m19 Neymar 1-0, m78 Alexis 2-0, m91 Jese 2-1.
Yellow cards: m7 Busquets, m13 Ramos, m35 Adriano, m45 Bale, m59 Khedira, m64 Marcelo, m80 Ronaldo