Real Madrid came from behind to take the spoils from a thrilling first Clasico of the season with a 3-1 win over Barcelona at the Bernabeu. After a penalty from Cristiano Ronaldo canceled out a brilliant early goal by Neymar to level the score at halftime, Madrid punished Barcelona’s errant defending through a Pepe header and then a crisp Karim Benzema strike to cap a typically lightning counter-attack.
A Barcelona side that had dropped just two points and had yet to concede a goal under Luis Enrique in La Liga, discovered that the European champions presented a vastly different proposition to anything they have encountered thus far. The Catalans remain top, but now with a first defeat on their record and their fierce rivals just a point behind. Not even a promising debut from Luis Suarez that got off to the perfect start when he set up Neymar to score after just four minutes was enough to hold off Madrid’s continued attacking assault. Carlo Ancelotti’s side have now scored an extraordinary 38 goals in eight matches, and, after Gerard Pique’s careless handball, Ronaldo was given the chance to just as remarkably get his 19th goal of the season.
Both sides has looked vulnerable at the back in a breathless first half that could have contained far more goals at both ends and lived up to the unprecedented value of the talent on show. But once Pepe headed in a corner there only looked one winner. Madrid’s incredible pace and fluidity on the break, even without Gareth Bale, was allowed to run riot against a Barcelona team raggedly pushing forward. Benzema’s goal was the embodiment of what Madrid do best, and for all Barcelona’s possession, more ruthless finishing from the hosts may well have seen an even more decisive result.
By the end Madrid had added diligent team defending to their devastating attacking, but the contest between the historic rivals began very differently. On the day his four-month ban for his infamous bite at the 2014 World Cup ended, Suarez was thrown straight into the starting lineup. Despite having played just a handful of friendlies in that time, the summer signing from Liverpool was as sharp as anyone on the pitch early on and was crucial in the opening goal.
With Marcelo out of the picture, Madrid’s defense shifted across and never recovered its footing. Without any midfield cover, Suarez’s precise cross-field pass picked out Neymar in space to allow the Brazilian to display his ever-growing confidence by cutting inside past Pepe and side-footing a brilliantly precise shot into the corner of the net for an 11th goal in as many games this season.
But Madrid came storming back. As was the case when the sides met at the Bernabeu last season, it was down the left where Madrid did the damage. With Suarez in the side and playing more central alongside Neymar and with Messi in behind, Barcelona were vulnerable down the flanks, especially the right. Dani Alves was giving a torrid time by his fellow Brazilian Marcelo as well as Ronaldo. Marcelo’s cross only just avoided Benzema in the middle, before Ronaldo’s ball in found its target and Madrid’s French striker narrowly missed his, heading against the bar and then blasting a follow up against the post.
While under intense pressure, Barcelona will be ruing a golden chance they spurned to double their advantage. Suarez again found space down the right and delivered a perfect cross that looked certain to be stuck away by Messi in the middle of the box. Instead, Iker Casillas somehow got enough in the way to take the ball wide of the goal.
It proved a crucial contribution for the much-maligned veteran and just over 10 minutes later Madrid were level. The home side had already had two optimistic penalty appeals turned down when Marcelo again surged down the left and his cutback from the byline was stopped by the outstretched arm of Pique as he tried to maintain his footing falling to the ground. It perhaps wasn’t intentional, but the defender, who continues to struggle for form, could have few complaints. Ronaldo sent Claudio Bravo the wrong way from the spot and then for the first time in the contest there was a chance for those involved and those watching around the world to catch their breath.
At halftime there was still the feeling that the match could go either way. Five minutes into the period, though, Madrid were in front and they never looked back. Barcelona’s defending was found wanting as they complained in vain for a foul when one of their players went down to allow Pepe to head Toni Kroos’s corner powerfuly into the net.
The game was now going exactly to Madrid’s liking. The side third in La Liga at the start of play showed impressive organization to prevent Barcelona from having a single chance of note to in the second half. Suarez’s debut lasted 69 minutes and Andres Iniesta was forced off soon after as Barcelona worryingly offered little spark or penetration to accompany their control of the ball.
Meanwhile, Real Madrid could exploit their opponents’ over-desperation to get back on level terms. The goal that sealed the win was remarkably similar in its foundations to Gareth Bale’s winner in last season’s Copa del Rey final, highlighting Barcelona’s continued problems defending in transition. From a Barcelona corner, this time it was the excellent Isco who wriggled free on the halfway. While he didn’t have the pace of Bale to go it alone, he found James Rodriguez, who cleverly laid it on to Benzema running in behind to drill a shot into the far corner and cap a beautiful move and a performance that will fuel talk that there is no limit to what this Madrid team can achieve this season.