Barcelona // Barcelona moved six points clear of Real Madrid at the top of Spain’s Primera Liga after beating their great rivals 2-1 in the 226th clasico on Saturday.
Neymar Junior, playing against Madrid for the first time since his €57 million (Dh289m) close-season signing from Santos, put the Catalans ahead on 19 minutes and Alexis Sanchez made it two twelve minutes before time.
Neymar’s opener came when he received the ball from Andres Iniesta, who had managed to cut out three opponents alone. The Brazilian put the ball between Pepe’s legs and placed his shot past keeper Diego Lopez into the bottom right corner.
The game, which kicked off at 6pm local time so that more fans in Asia and the Middle East could watch, began with 98,000 fans held up placards to spell out a Catalan flag and a “FORCA TITO!” message of support to Barca’s former manager, Vilanova, who is undergoing treatment for cancer.
It was a first clasico for his replacement Gerardo Martino, plus his Madrid counterpart Carlo Ancelotti. With Jose Mourinho, who was at his petulant, snarling worst – or best – around clasico matches, now departed, the mood around the game was calmer than for any clasico in recent seasons, though the first half saw four bookings, the last when Gareth Bale kicked Gerard Pique.
Bale’s frustration was understandable as he was a peripheral figure, in theory playing as a central forward between Cristiano Ronaldo and Angel di Maria. Madrid’s dangerous front men didn’t get the service they required as Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta dominated in the middle against their Spanish international teammate Sergio Ramos, who was played in a more advanced role alongside the equally ineffective Sami Khedira.
It didn’t work as Barca enjoyed 60 per cent of possession.
Ramos lasted ten minutes into the second half before he was replaced by Asier Illarramendi, at €30m, another expensive recent acquisition who hasn’t enjoyed a good start to his time at the Bernabeu.
Madrid looked sharper, immediately counter–attacking as Luka Modric set up Ronaldo, whose shot produced a fine save from the soon to be departing Victor Valdes. The keeper, so often barracked for his decision to leave at the end of the season, is now finally appreciated by his own fans who don’t want him to go.
Ronaldo’s effort came just before Bale was substituted after a frustrating hour, the Welshman again a peripheral figure, this time replaced by Karim Benzema. The French striker came closest to scoring for Madrid, his 71st-minute shot from outside the area pining against the crossbar as visitors looked more dangerous.
They left themselves exposed and when Alexis Sanchez ran onto a 78th-minute ball from Messi, controlled it, turned Raphael Varane and then chipped Lopez with the most delightful goal of the season so far, win was assured.
Jese’s 90th minute consolation for Madrid made for a nervy end. It came after Ronaldo stormed out of defence and ran 50 yards before passing to the young Madrid striker, who finished past Valdes from 20 yards. Too little, too late. Madrid could have gone level with Barcelona, now there’s a six-point gap between the pair.
Man of the match –Andres Iniesta
Set up Barcelona’s first with a pass which cut out three opponents, the highlight of an excellent performance. He’s a good shout for the 2013 Ballon d’Or.
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