Goals from Jeremy Mathieu and Luis Suárez earned Barça a tense 2-1 win over Real Madrid in front of 98,760 fans at Camp Nou tonight. Mathieu headed in Leo Messi’s free-kick in the 19th minute to put the Catalans ahead but the goal was cancelled out by Cristiano Ronaldo after half an hour. The Clásico was decided by Suárez’s strike in the 56th minute and Barça now move four points clear at the top of La Liga with ten games to play.
It might have been very different as Madrid had the better of the game for much of the first hour. Barça had begun well, winning back the ball very quickly, and creating the first opening in the third minute but Isco managed to prevent Rakitic from converting Iniesta’s cross. Then after ten minutes of total Barça control Madrid came inches from taking the lead when Ronaldo volleyed Benzema’s cross against the crossbar.
Barça looked shocked by the realisation of how quickly Madrid could create a golden chance and Ronaldo’s crossbar was quickly followed by Isco shooting narrowly wide and Ramos heading Kroos’s centre off target. Barça responded with Messi heading wide from Neymar’s cross then in the 19th minute Suárez was fouled by Pepe on the left, Messi curled in the free-kick and Mathieu got in front of Ramos to glance a header across Casillas and inside the far post.
The goal didn’t help Barça to settle and from here until half-time Madrid had their best spell of the game with Modric and Isco taking control of the midfield. Marcelo was finding plenty of opportunities to get forward and in the 26th minute he cut inside past two before firing a shot that was well blocked by Mathieu. Five minutes later Modric played the ball forward to Benzema who played a clever backheel into the danger area and Ronaldo arrived before Alves to stab the ball past Bravo.
Barça began to look very nervous after the equalizer and Madrid could easily have taken advantage. Piqué had to make an excellent tackle to thwart Bale, then Bale had the ball in the net only to see the goal ruled out as Ronaldo was offside when Benzema crossed. Bravo needed to be alert to tip over Ronaldo’s powerful drive from the left, then when Barça failed to clear the corner there was relief around Camp Nou when Bale pulled his shot wide from eight yards.
Barça survived to half-time, and with the score level there was the feeling that anything could happen in the second half – culés certainly won’t have been as confident as before the game started. Madrid then had the first chance after the restart when Isco and Ronaldo combined to set up Benzema and Bravo needed to make a good stop before Mathieu cleared the danger.
There was little seen from Barça’s attacking trio. Neymar tried his tricks with little luck, Messi was quiet on the right and Suárez was getting little change from Pepe. Then in the 56th minute there seemed little danger as Alves advanced out of defence on the right, but Alves spotted a splendid pass and for once Pepe gave Suárez a yard headstart in the chase, Suárez controlled the ball splendidly as it bounced and then just before Pepe arrived Suárez shot low into the far corner, Casillas conveniently falling over backwards in the wrong direction.
Marcelo had a shot deflected wide and Ronaldo sent a header wide but then after the game passed the hour mark Madrid began to fade. Whether the visitors lacked character to fight back at this point or whether they were tired out after their tremendous effort to press Barça in the first half is not clear, but it was strange as they had no midweek game like Barça. Yet the final thirty minutes were dominated by Barça and the score might have been much bigger if the chances were taken.
Neymar made a sensational 50-yard run but shot high and wide from the edge of Madrid’s penalty area. Messi made a diagonal run in from the right before shooting narrowly past the far post. Then Messi set up Neymar who sliced the chance wide, and another good combination between Messi and Neymar ended when the Argentinian couldn’t squeeze a shot past a sea of defenders.
Madrid managed just one chance in the last half hour when Benzema cut past Alves in the 78th minute but Bravo made a good save after the Frenchman’s shot took a deflection off Piqué. Busquets and Xavi were brought on to maintain the control and there were more chances for Barça in the final minutes. Suárez shoit wide of the far post then Alba went clean through only for Casillas to block his shot. Finally Casillas needed to save again from Messi after a neat exchange of passes with Alba.
La Liga is by no means over but the result today is a big blow to Madrid’s chances and they will be more affected, knowing they had the opportunities to have won. For Barça the performance wasn’t great but knowing that a month ago we expected to go into this game four points behind our rivals the fact that we now go four points clear will keep us smiling for the next two weeks before our next game at Celta on April 5. More than the performance we can be delighted with another set-piece goal, the work-rate shown and the resiliance seen in defence where Piqué was outstanding.
There was a time not long ago when Barça would always dominate the general play of a game but occasionally we let ourselves down with our effectiveness in both penalty areas. This is perhaps the biggest change under Luis Enrique as we now don’t always control the situation as well but we are proving to be more effective than ever. That’s 18 wins in the last 19 games and some silverware is looking more and more likely at the end of the season.
Barça: Bravo 7.5; Alves 6.5, Piqué 8.5, Mathieu 7.5, Alba 7; Rakitic 6.5 (Busquets, m76, 7), Mascherano 6, Iniesta 6.5 (Xavi m80, 7); Messi 7, Suárez 7.5, Neymar 6.5 (Rafinha m85).
Madrid: Casillas; Carvajal, Pepe (Varane m73), Ramos, Marcelo; Modric (Lucas Silva m88), Kroos, Isco (Jese m80); Bale, Benzema, Ronaldo.
Goals: m19 Mathieu 1-0, m31 Ronaldo 1-1, m56 Suárez 2-1.
Yellow cards: m21 Pepe, m28 Suárez, m37 Alba, m45 Ramos, m48 Carvajal, m52 Modric, m62 Mascherano, m64 Isco, m65 Iniesta, m71 Alves