x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

No classic but still top billing

An enthralling if not always thrilling match at the Camp Nou showed Real Madrid, for all their quality, that surpassing Barcelona is the ultimate challenge.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic celebrates after scoring the goal that settled El Classico.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic celebrates after scoring the goal that settled El Classico.

The first El Clasico to be screened in cinemas around Spain, the game between Barcelona and Real Madrid lived up to its Hollywood style billing. It was not filled with goals and will not linger in the memory like the 6-2 massacre in the Bernabeu last season. Everybody expected a tighter affair after Real Madrid spent ?254 million (Dh1.4bn) in the summer and that's exactly what happened.

The enmity between the clubs is fierce, but between the players there is a respect which was evident as the eight Spanish internationals hugged each other in the tunnel before the game. They then walked into the bright lights of the Camp Nou, but such were the piercing screams from 98,000 crowd where the away support numbered a mere 500, you could not hear the Real team announced. They were the lucky ones - thousands were locked outside in the unseasonable rain, unable or unwilling to pay the ?400 asked by touts.

The loudest screams of derision were reserved for Cristiano Ronaldo, the world's most expensive player who was starting his first game in two months after an ankle injury. The last time he came up against Lionel Messi - the player likely to succeed him as the World Player of the Year - was in May's Champions League final. Ronaldo, as is the norm for anyone wearing white in Catalonia, was not popular, but the near silence which accompanied his every move was a great compliment, showing the fear of the damage his speed, strength and footwork could incur.

When Ronaldo skipped past Carles Puyol early on, it looked as if it would set the template for the game ahead. Not so. Ronaldo missing a chance after Kaka had cut through the Barca defence on 19 minutes to set him up symbolised Real's night more accurately. As for Puyol, Barca's warrior-like defender was just that, a candidate for man of the match in what became a game of attrition. Real played with a confidence not present against Barcelona last season, Xabi Alonso and Lass Diarra often cynical in their approach to shackle Barca's creative passing game. It worked.

Messi remained imperious in a central role, while Xavi, so confident before the match, shot over from distance in a first half in which both sides gave as good as they got. Real looked sharper after the break, Higuain central to one attack which ran the length of the field before finally being smothered by Valdes. And while Ronaldo's pace continued to trouble Barca, it was a spectacular strike from another expensive summer signing which opened the scoring. It came when Barca substitute Zlatan Ibrahimovic volleyed in a deep cross from Dani Alves just four minutes after his 52nd-minute introduction.

"I've played in big derby games before, but this has to be the biggest, a real career highlight," the Swede said later. "It was difficult to come on during a game of such intensity, but Alves played a great ball for me." It was more difficult for Barca when Sergio Busquets received a second yellow card in the 62nd minute for a needless handball which saw a rare flash of anger from Guardiola towards his own player.

Half an hour for Barca's ten men against the league leaders wasn't going to be easy, but Real's profligacy continued with Ronaldo heading over the bar in 66th minute, before he was substituted with a look of obvious disappointment. Barca were diminished and yet galvanised and the unmarked Pique should have scored from Iniesta's free kick rather than nod wide from eight metres. "We didn't just wait; we continued trying to get behind them and always faced them head on," said coach Pep Guardiola.

"We deserved at least a draw," added the Real coach, Manuel Pellegrini, noting that the game could have finished 3-3. He was right, with Seydou Keita shooting wide for Barca and both Kaka and the previously forlorn Karim Benzema coming close typical of the chances. A reverse pass from Alves for Messi brought another super save from Iker Casillas. Alves has been hugely effective for Barca in recent weeks and is playing more as an outside right than a full-back. As the clock ticked down, Diarra was sent off for a second yellow card, which was no surprise given the robustness of his approach.

The whistle brought celebrations from a Barcelona side who leapfrogged Real back to the top of the table position which they have occupied for almost all Pep Guardiola's 15 month reign. Barca remain unbeaten this season in the league, while it was Madrid's second loss. "It was my first clasico and there was a great atmosphere," midfielder Xabi Alonso told The National, "but I can't say that I enjoyed it because we lost. We had good chances to score first, but it wasn't to be. I still think that we deserved something from the game, but we'll get there. We are continuing to improve."

Those watching in the cinemas of Real hope that their team does improve enough to finish above Barcelona this season - it will not be easy. @Email:amitten@thenational.ae