Today, at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium, in Madrid, Spain, Spanish Football giants Real Madrid defeated visiting archrivals FC Barcelona 3-1, in El Clasico, with goals from Cristiano Ronaldo (penalty, 36’), Pepe (off a corner, 50’) and Karim Benzema (off a pretty counter attack, 61’).
The match, with six yellow cards (4 for Barca, 2 for Real), was tame by the fouling standards of past Clasicos and the flow of play benefited. Each half required but a couple of minutes of added time, another testament to the fluidity of the match.
The game began on a high note for Barcelona when Neymar made run on goal from his left wing position and got by Danni Carvajal and Pepe, dribbling along the border of the box, to shoot straight at goal from just inside the half-moon. He placed the ball with pace to Iker Casillas’ lower left side for the opening score at the fourth minute. Golazo!
But the Merengues were the stronger side today and after a few minutes of Catalan inspiration it was Madrid who seemed to create the better chances for the remainder of the match, despite the 58%-42% possession deficit.
Luka Modric, with a perfect passing game, James Rodriguez with equally inspired play-making, and Karim Benzema with stellar play, despite his usual handful of sure-goal chance misses, were the difference makers. Lionel Messi had a quiet game as he did not seem to find the flow of the game and his free kicks were uncharacteristically way off target. Neymar had only moments of brilliance, and Luis Suarez, whose change-of-attacking-front pass led to Neymar’s goal, did not take a shot on goal in his 60 minutes of playing time, from the opening whistle. Similarly, though Ronaldo was more active and influential than Messi in this match, he was nonetheless relatively quiet by his standards, save his penalty shot, which was perfect.
The referee got many calls right and kept the game from turning into a battle, as so many other Clasicos have done. But, he also missed a few key plays including a tackle by Gerard Pique on Benzema, a foul by Sergio Busquets (yes, he played the full game today) on Ronaldo, and a grab and drop foul by Marcelo on Neymar.
For this match, both clubs went with their strongest line ups and only Gareth Bale’s absence was felt. With him Real would have had a different and stronger attack, but as it was the added midfield presence (a 4-4-2 with Toni Kroos, James, Modric, and Isco, backing Ronaldo and Benzema) was key to Madrid’s victory. The added bodies nullified much of Barca’s midfield passing while providing the needed creativity to send Benzema and Ronaldo into advantageous spaces. Barca played the ideal six of Neymar, Messi, and Suarez, backed by Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and Busquets, but they did not play a collectively inspired game. Their play-making seemed sluggish and repetitive and Madrid seemed to always find a way to disrupt any real build up. Pepe and Sergio Ramos seemed the stronger central defensive duo, snuffing all but the opening chance while Pique and Mascherano did not complement each other. Pique did have, save his hand ball that led to a penalty, a decent game but his loss of speed and pace have robbed him of first string quality.
In the end the better team won and Madrid ended with 21 points, one point behind Barca (22) on the La Liga table. Only Sevilla, with a game in hand and 19 points, can come into that mix. The battle between the marquee superstars took a back-seat to the myriad individual duels throughout the pitch—Carvajal-Neymar, Pepe-Messi, Busquets-everyone, Iniesta-Isco, Suarez-Marcelo—and it was the play of Casillas on some brilliant saves, and the Madrid trio mentioned above, who earned the refocused limelight.
This was not a scintillating Clasico but a good one and a far cry from the ones where violence played so prominent a role. Hopefully we are on to a new plane where the showcase game is such for the playing.