x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Advantage to Neymar in clash of debutants as Barcelona wins clasico 2-1

Neymar deserved to shine on a night that was almost entirely positive for Barca.

Neymar starred in his first clasico for Barcelona as the hosts defeated rivals Real Madrid 2-1 at Camp Nou. Emilio Morenatti / AP Photo
Neymar starred in his first clasico for Barcelona as the hosts defeated rivals Real Madrid 2-1 at Camp Nou. Emilio Morenatti / AP Photo

The 226th clasico between Barcelona and Real Madrid was 17 minutes and 14 seconds old when a huge flag for Catalan independence was unfurled by fans behind one goal.

Above it, a second flag was dropped down from the third tier with the slogan, “It’s normal to want a normal country”.

The year 1714 is symbolic to Catalans; it is when Barcelona fell to a Franco-Spanish army in the Spanish war of Succession.

Hundreds of fans behind the banner had their view obscured when Barca’s Andres Iniesta received the ball. Sergio Ramos, playing in an advanced midfield role, failed to cut him out, as did Raphael Varane, Madrid’s French centre-back.

Iniesta passed to Neymar and the Brazilian, playing in his first clasico since his a €57 million (Dh289m) summer signing from Santos, looked up, put the ball between Pepe’s legs and placed his shot past goalkeeper Diego Lopez into the bottom right corner.

The fans behind the flag, sat in seats which cost over €100 and a lot more than that on the black market, missed the lot.

Barcelona deserved their lead, and Neymar to score. Only Iniesta, his provider, performed better than him on a pitch stuffed with some of the biggest talents in world football.

Neymar has eased into life at Camp Nou without the expected fuss. He has been publicly respectful of his teammates and earned their respect on the pitch for his selfless intelligence.

Lionel Messi has failed to gel with former strike partners, but Neymar’s relationship with Messi, while still in its infancy, holds promise.

Neymar’s fortunes contrast with those of Madrid’s Gareth Bale. By dominating in the middle as they often do, Barcelona strangled Madrid’s dangerous front men.

Bale, starting only his second Madrid game since his world record transfer to Spain, tried hard, but what can a player do if he cannot get the ball?

Playing as a “false nine” and flanked by Cristiano Ronaldo and Angel Di Maria, the Welshman started as current scapegoat Karim Benzema began on the bench.

Bale was one of four first-half bookings after kicking Gerard Pique, a decision he remonstrated with the referee all the way to the tunnel as the teams left for half time. Bale fumed, Neymar fizzed.

Madrid got it wrong tactically as Ramos’s Spanish international teammates Sergio Busquets, Iniesta and Xavi dominated in midfield, while his supposed defensive midfield foil was the ineffective Sami Khedira.

Ramos lasted ten minutes into the second half before he was replaced by Asier Illaramendi. Madrid immediately looked sharper and Ronaldo produced a fine save from Victor Valdes. That came just before Bale was substituted after a frustrating hour, the Welshman again a peripheral figure.

Bale had been a cover star alongside Neymar on the cover of Madrid daily Marca under the heading “Priceless”.

The price of both players was widely reported, yet one departed the field in a sorry state after failing to have an impact on the type of game he was bought to change, the other to rapturous applause.

It helped Neymar, of course, that Alexis Sanchez had just put Barcelona 2-0 up with the most delightful chip from the edge of the area in the 78th minute.

Sanchez, with five goals in seven league matches, is thriving after a difficult second season last term. He has needed time to settle and he got it. Bale will need the same.

The Welshman needs to be 100 per cent fit if he is going to excel in Iberia. Was he last night? Or was he picked at the behest of a president who wants to see his costly investment pay off as soon as possible?

Neymar, the player they said was too fancy, too individual, too elaborate for top-level European football, has been a worthy, if expensive, addition to Barcelona’s team. His shots are deceivingly powerful, his movement chimes with the worker bees around him.

“Today I’ve fulfilled a dream, playing in a clasico,” he said. “It was very special.”

Bale? It is not happening for him yet, but it will.