BARCELONA, Spain — Three quick thoughts from the Camp Nou as Saturday evening’s La Liga Clasico finishes with a 2-1 Real Madrid victory over Barcelona.
1. Ronaldo and Madrid throw open the title race
Cristiano Ronaldo got a shock late winner as Real Madrid came from behind to win Saturday’s La Liga Clasico at the Camp Nou.
Before the game was a tribute to recently deceased former Barca player and coach Johan Cruyff, with a spine-tingling atmosphere as the action began.
Things seemed to be going to plan for the party when Gerard Pique headed Barca ahead early in the second half, but Madrid turned it around with goals from Karim Benzema and Ronaldo, and ended Barca’s 39-game unbeaten run, even after Sergio Ramos was deservedly sent off late on.
Madrid looked very rocky at the back through the early stages, and Barca’s clearest chance to capitalise on their dominance came when Pepe totally misjudged a route one down the middle of the pitch and Neymar provided Luis Suarez with an open goal only for the Uruguayan to mis-kick completely.
Ramos was also looking shaky. He was very lucky when referee Alejandro Hernandez Hernandez, just 33 and in his first Clasico, declined to show a second yellow card to the Madrid’s centre-back after Lionel Messi was clearly tripped on the edge of the Madrid area.
As the game went on, things became more even, with Ronaldo having a snapshot saved by Bravo, but even into the second half a Ramos sending-off seemed more likely than a goal for anyone. Just when people started to check the records for the last goalless Clasico (November 2002), Pique muscled away from marker Pepe to head in Ivan Rakitic’s corner to the net. The celebration was frenzied from a player who is not popular with Madrid fans or pundits, but is widely adored all around the Camp Nou.
Barca seemed likely to stroll to victory, but then good work from Luka Modric and Marcelo freed Toni Kroos, whose cross was deflected up and Benzema acrobatically volleyed the equaliser. Bale then saw what seemed like a perfectly good back post header ruled out for a push. Suddenly Madrid were pressing for a winner, with Ronaldo clipping the crossbar from 20 yards.
Ramos then finally did get his marching orders for an ugly foul on Suarez; the Andalusian’s 21st career red card, 16th in La Liga and fourth against Barca. Almost incredibly, Madrid kept coming. Ronaldo reached Bale’s superb right foot cross, taking it down calmly on his chest and slotting the ball low to the net.
Barca have only won La Liga once when they’ve lost the home Clasico, and that was in 1928-29. They still have a six-point lead over second placed Atletico Madrid, and seven over Madrid in third. But with seven games still to play, we have a La Liga title race again.
2. Zidane wins first Clasico as coach
The past five Madrid managers have lost their first Clasico in charge, including Rafa Benitez’s 4-0 humbling at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu 4-0 under back in November. Zinedine Zidane’s first XI in the fixture featured three changes from that day; the most noticeable being holding midfielder Casemiro starting and €80 million playmaker James Rodriguez on the bench.
Casemiro’s inclusion was billed as a rejection of the galactico ethos imposed by Madrid president Florentino Perez. And the Brazilian definitely did not look a superstar here as he was regularly outsmarted by Andres Iniesta and Messi, while also looking very uncomfortable on the ball.
Los Blancos were, however, showing character to stay in the game, and even after going behind they hit back. It was also noticeable that the move saw Kroos, freed from his usual deep role by Zidane’s tactics, pop up in the opposition area to claim the assist.
Saturday was the fourth time that Ronaldo, Bale and Benzema all started versus Barca. Madrid had lost the first three under Carlo Ancelotti and Benitez. The Welshman generally played a hardworking up and down role here, working hard in defence, and then playing a key role in the late rally which saw them win the game. He really should have had the winner himself with a fine back-post header strangely ruled out, then provided an excellent assist for Ronaldo’s winner.
Galactico coach Zidane has been widely questioned since being appointed in January. But in just his first Clasico on the bench, he became the third man in history [following Alfredo Di Stefano and Vicente Del Bosque] to win for Madrid at the Camp Nou as both player and manager.
3. Tributes paid to Cruyff
Fans around the stadium held up a “Gracies Johan” mosaic before kickoff, which also saw a minute’s silence in honour of the Dutchman, who died from cancer on Mar. 24, almost impeccably observed by the 99,264 present.
All eight of the most recent Barca club presidents were in attendance, in a rare show of unity among the Blaugrana family, with Cruyff’s son Jordi also in the VIP seats.
Current Barcelona coach Luis Enrique spoke last week about Cruyff’s legacy of attacking, winning football, and the Catalan side lined up in their usual 4-3-3 shape from the start even if, as usual, they played a more direct style than some previous Camp Nou sides.
Perhaps closest to Cruyff’s famous insouciant style was the way in which Sergio Busquets gave a superb performance in deep midfield, reading the play cleverly and then calmly keeping possession. This included a nutmeg on Benzema and flipping ball over Kroos when those options were the best ways to get out of danger. Not bad for a “holding” midfielder.
The game’s opening goal, when it came, had a lot to do with how Luis Enrique has made Barca’s style more streetwise and practical. From Rakitic’s corner, Suarez played a role as a screen and Pique was able to get clear to head unstoppably to the net.
Less impressive was the way Barca were unable to protect their lead, especially when they had a man advantage late on. This result will probably not really matter in the La Liga title race but it has raised doubts about what had seemed an unstoppable march to a historic “double Treble” for Luis Enrique’s team.