Luis Suárez scored a brilliant second-half goal to give Barcelona a 2-1 win over Real Madrid in El Clásico at the Camp Nou and deliver a sizable blow in the Liga title race. The Uruguayan brilliantly took a long Dani Alves pass into his stride before beating Iker Casillas with a low shot to put Barcelona in front for a second time 11 minutes after the half-time interval. Earlier Jeremy Mathieu’s headed opener had been cancelled out by Cristiano Ronaldo’s poked finish from Karim Benzema’s exquisite assist to leave the contest and the championship in the balance.
It was a see-sawing, thrillingly open contest between these two great rivals, which at various stages appeared could go either way. As it was, Suárez’s contribution, five months after he made an ineffective debut in a 3-1 victory for Real Madrid in the first Clásico of the season, could be crucial in the destination of the Spanish title. The win takes Barcelona four points clear of Madrid at the top of La Liga with 10 games remaining, and while the Catalans’ remaining fixtures are tougher on paper than their chief rivals, it is a commanding position in which they now find themselves.
And it is one which they could barely have dreamed of just a few weeks ago. The lead had recently been four points in Madrid’s favor, until a reversal in form for both teams. Such was their contrasting displays of late, that there had been talk, played down by Barcelona coach Luis Enrique, of an emphatic Barcelona win to rival their 6-2 and 5-0 victories under Pep Guardiola.
With neither side able to control the flow for long spells, the contest was a whole lot closer than that. While early on Barcelona continued where they left off against Manchester City in midweek, the return of Luka Modric and Toni Kroos together in midfield helped Real Madrid emphatically turn the tide late in the first half and draw level. But Barcelona slowly wrested back the momentum, and it was the home side’s famed front three that dominated the second-half story. Suárez was the pick of the lot and his fine goal proved the contest’s final turning point. Only some profligacy from Neymar and fine saves from Iker Casillas prevented the result being a more emphatic one.
Barcelona had finished on top, and started there, too. Yet illustrating the quality and vulnerabilities of both teams, Madrid could have struck first. After some fine play from Marcelo and Karim Benzema, Ronaldo fired against the Barcelona crossbar from close range. Messi had gone close, too, before he supplied a brilliant ball for his side to go in front 19 minutes in. Sergio Ramos was the man caught out, as towering center-back Mathieu got in front of him and headed down into the net to become an unlikely first goal-scorer in a match with so much attacking talent.
The attacking focus of both teams was certainly in evidence for the remainder of the first half. Neymar should have put Barcelona 2-0 to the good, but shot straight at Casillas after Suárez’s ball found him free in front of goal. And almost immediately the hosts were caught out at the back. Modric played a pass into Benzema, who superbly back-heeled the ball into the path of Ronaldo to stretch and beat Claudio Bravo.
Madrid ran all over Barcelona for the remainder of the half. Only the assistant referee’s admirably correct offside flag, a poor miss from Gareth Bale and some last-gasp defending from Gerard Pique meant that the match remained tied at halftime. Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti, on whom the pressure will now doubtless increase once more, will have wished that the break hadn’t of come.
Yet, while the interval helped quell Madrid’s tidal wave of pressure, they still created a further chance early in the second half to go in front. Bravo’s save from Benzema was crucial and Suárez’s goal did the rest. The movement of the former Liverpool striker had caused Madrid’s defense problems all evening and on 56 minutes they had no answer. The perfection of Alves’ pass was matched only by the brilliant first-touch from Suárez, while the swift finish was assured.
Barcelona showed they had learned their lessons from the first half. This time they were more circumspect in their approach. The slight shift of Messi more centrally was important, giving Barcelona more control as the midfield as a whole now came closer together. The space that Madrid found at will late in the first half had disappeared, all the while Barcelona still had the quality in attack to cause problems on the break for opponents who faded badly.
It was Enrique’s men that were fresher by far in the closing stages, and the score more likely to become 3-1 than 2-2. Messi went agonizingly close after a trademark run, while Neymar was wasteful for a second time in a week and Casillas had to be at his best on more than one occasion. Madrid came close only once to forcing an equalizer, but Bravo saved superbly to deny Benzema’s deflected strike and secure a potentially pivotal three points.