Luis Enrique’s first clásico as Barça’s coach ended in a disappointing 3-1 defeat at the Bernabéu this evening. The game started well for the visitors with Neymar Jr firing home after just three minutes but Madrid reacted with goals from Cristiano Ronaldo, Pepe and Benzema to earn a deserved victory which narrows the gap at the top of La Liga to just one point.
Carlo Ancelotti made no ‘surprises’ in his starting XI but Luis Enrique made three decisions that had limited success. First he decided on starting with Luis Suarez who looked reasonably sharp in attack considering his four-month absence but he was allowed little space and consequently lacked chances. The second decision was to start Xavi in place of Rakitic and while the veteran midfielder didn’t play badly it wasn’t one of his classic Bernabéu games and he lacked the final pass. And thirdly Jeremy Mathieu was moved to left-back which left Jordi Alba on the bench and meant the erratic Gerard Piqué partnered Mascherano in the centre.
Barça began promisingly enough. From kick-off the team passed the ball around comfortably and Madrid didn’t touch the ball for the first 70 seconds. Then in the third minute Messi dropped back to receive the ball from Alves before setting off on a quick spurt into the Madrid half, Xavi found Suarez on the right and the Uruguayan sent a fine cross-field ball to Neymar who easily cut inside past Carvajal and Pepe before shooting low inside the far post to score for the sixth successive game.
Madrid soon came searching for an equalizer. In the sixth minute Isco’s cross found Benzema just in front of Bravo but the French striker could only get a slight touch on the ball which flew away past the post. Then in the tenth minute Ronaldo crossed from the left and Benzema headed the ball against the underside of the bar and then pounced on the rebound to crack a shot that clipped off the top of the post and over.
The game was fairly even at this stage. Kroos and Ronaldo had shots from distance that Bravo saved comfortably, then in the 22nd minute Messi tested Casillas from 20 yards and a minute later Suarez whipped in an excellent low cross but Casillas spread himself well to deny Messi’s point-blank effort.
A second goal for Barça at this point might have changed the final outcome. However, Madrid began to get the better of the game with consistent attacks down Alves’s flank. It’s easy with hindsight to suggest that Rakitic and Pedro might have done a better job of supporting Alves than Xavi and Suarez but as things were the Brazilian was often left with two men to control as Marcelo got forward time and again. In the 34th minute Madrid’s overlapping left-back burst into the area and when he pulled the ball back from the by-line Piqué went to ground and his outstretched arm blocked the centre. There was little doubt that it was a penalty and Ronaldo sent Bravo the wrong way from the spot. After eight games and 34 minutes unbeaten the Barça keeper finally conceded a goal.
Barça were on the back foot now despite having more of the possession. Iniesta became Barça’s fourth player to get booked after early yellows were shown to Messi and Neymar and Piqué was booked for the penalty. Shortly before half-time James spread the ball out to Marcelo and darted into the box for the cross but sent his header well wide. The half-time whistle arrived with the score at 1-1 but there was the feeling that Madrid were slightly having the better of things.
In the second half Madrid’s lightning transition from defence to attack would prove more devastating. In the 50th minute Benzema led a counter-attack after exchanging passes with James, the Frenchman then sent Ronaldo into the right of the area and Piqué needed to make a good sliding block to stop the Portuguese’s shot. Kroos sent in the resulting corner towards the far post, Benzema played a block on Mascherano, Alves ended up on the floor, and Pepe was free to head Madrid firmly into a 2-1 lead.
There was a brief response from Barça with Mathieu cracking a fine drive from the left which produced a spectacular diving save from Casillas, but Barça’s attacks were generally coming to nothing apart from winning corners. Barça would win a total of nine corners to Madrid’s three over the ninety minutes but the Barça corners produced more danger on Bravo’s goal than on Casillas’s, especially as the game went on with Madrid’s counter looking more and more dangerous. Rakitic replaced Xavi after an hour and his first action was to take a corner from the right. As with Xavi’s corners, Rakitic’s was disappointing and as Madrid cleared their lines Iniesta found himself running back towards the halfway touchline with Isco on his back, Mascherano was running across to support but as Iniesta kept the ball in play he inexplicably knocked it past Mascherano allowing Isco to run free, quick passes through Ronaldo and James put Benzema clean through and he shot across Bravo and inside the far post.
The final half hour was too depressing to write much about. There appeared to be few ideas and little spark to Barça as Madrid defended solidly. Pedro replaced Suarez and Sergi Roberto was needed after Iniesta injured a calf muscle but the belief seemed to have gone. Messi and Neymar both faded as the game went on and the only player worthy of praise really was Mascherano who held things together a bit at the back to prevent a bigger defeat.
So, despite a generally positive start to the season from Luis Enrique’s team, having lost previously to Paris Saint Germain we have now lost two out of two of the big tests this season. It is by no means the end of the world or even the start of a so-called crisis but it is a definite warning that things need to improve. It is easy to say that Luis Enrique made mistakes in his team selection but there is no guarantee that other players or another formation would have fared better. What was of more concern was the fact that there seemed to be no ideas to turn things round once Madrid took the lead.
Real Madrid: Casillas; Carvajal, Pepe, Ramos, Marcelo; James, Modric (Arbeloa m89), Kroos,, Isco (Illuramendi m83), Ronaldo, Benzema (Khedira m86).
Barça: Bravo 6; Alves 5.5, Piqué 5, Mascherano 7, Mathieu 6.5; Xavi 6 (Rakitic m60, 6), Busquets 5, Iniesta 5.5 (Sergi Roberto m72, 6); Suarez 6 (Pedro m69, 5.5), Messi 5.5, Neymar 6.
Goals: m4 Neymar 0-1, m35 Ronaldo (pen) 1-1, m50 Pepe 2-1, m61 Benzema 3-1.
Yellow cards: m9 Messi, m14 Neymar, m34 Piqué, m38 Iniesta, m74 Carvajal, m94 Ronaldo.