There will never be enough words to describe the spectacle that is El Clasico.
The biggest footballing event on the planet had the whole world buzzing, and that is exactly what was at stake; two teams would go head to head in a gladiator match that defies all odds, and deliver the most awaited 90 minutes of football this year.
As Barcelona hosted the first Clasico of the season, there was a tense atmosphere leading up to the match, as the opposition sat pretty on top of the table with a massive 6 point lead. Andres Iniesta remained on the bench, with Andre Gomes taking his place alongside the remaining gala members. Having started an experimental line-up that involved Kovacic and Isco in midfield, alongside Lucas Vázquez upfront, who replaced Gareth Bale in Madrid’s front-line, the odds had slightly tipped in Barça’s favour.
Could the Catalans make the most of it?
Some early chaos filled moments meant that neither team got into a steady mode of play, as both teams pressed high, and struggled to string passes together. With challenges flying off everywhere, and continuous turn of possession, it took quite some time for the teams to switch to their traditional styles of play.
Madrid looked to exploit Barça’s lack of height in the back-line with quick transitions and long balls, while Barça dominated possession, settling into a steady rhythm that seemed more natural to the home-side. Arguably the best opening spell that Barça has enjoyed in the past few weeks, Barça’s passing looked better than it has all season, with Andre Gomes filling the middle of the park, allowing Lionel Messi to stay on the right, and pin Marcelo to the back-line.
4 minutes in, Vázquez was brought down in the penalty area, as Mascherano’s shins blocked him from making a dangerous run. While the call should have gone in favour of the away side, the referee did not look impressed.
Barça made the first attack of the game as some quick passing broke open Madrid’s defence. Neymar lost his footing while receiving the ball on the unusually slippery turf, but somehow managed to put a lobbed ball into the box that fell to Sergi Roberto whose shot ricocheted off of Varane and went out for a corner. While this was the first play to threaten the opposition, it was unfortunately not very productive for the home side.
18 minutes in, Lionel Messi was fouled right outside the box by Luka Modric, on his preferred right corner of the box. As Messi and Neymar stood over the free-kick, there was no question as to who would take it; Lionel Messi aimed his shot at the top right corner, but Keylor Navas was untroubled as the ball shot straight at him.
Moments later, another great counter attack from Barça allowed Neymar to get past his marker, and move into acres of space. His pace allowed him to break free and find Luis Suárez, who had Messi hovering alongside him in support. Suárez however, turned and took a swift shot in one smooth motion, but his angle was off and the ball was deflected with ease.
After an extended spell of play with neither team making any dangerous attacks, Cristiano Ronaldo broke free on the counter at 37 minutes and strode past his marker with ease, but Gerard Piqué was on hand, to make a last ditch tackle and keep the Blaugrana in control.
As the second half wore on, Barça’s dominance in possession began to loosen up as their press began to wear off. Madrid were exceptional in trying to make the most of this new found luxury as they continued to get past the Barça defense time and again with ease, leading to a dangerous spell of play, before the end of first half.
As Barça headed down the tunnel, there probably wasn’t much that Luis Enrique could tell his men, apart from maybe asking them to keep pushing for a goal, and work harder without the ball. The midfield had looked organised, and while this wasn’t vintage Barça, it was working. Despite the late onslaught from Madrid, Barça had dominated the half tactically, and it seemed like the mojo was finally coming back to the Camp Nou.
As expected, there were no changes when the two teams stepped back onto the field. Barcelona kicked off the second half with some early passes through the middle. Soon, the ball would find Lionel Messi, who dribbled across Madrid’s defensive wall before finding Luis Suárez whose cross deflected and went behind for a corner.
Barcelona continued to threaten Real Madrid’s goal as Neymar, who had looked like a man on a mission to regain some of his lost form, put pressure on Los Blancos’ back-line. Varane went toe to toe with the Brazilian before fouling him outside the box on the left flank at a steep angle; it had to be a set piece delivery. Neymar stepped up and sent in a teasing ball across the penalty area, as Luis Suárez beat Carvajal before burying his header past Keylor Navas, into the back of the net.
Despite not having had pivotal impact all evening, Luis Suárez continued to display his hunger (pun not intended) as he put Barça ahead in a moment of instinctive clinicality. If things had remained as they were, Barça would have been happy campers, having reduced the point deficit to 3.
Could the Blaugrana hold on?
Andres Iniesta would make his comeback in the 57th minute as he came on for Ivan Rakitic, who had failed to step things up a notch all game.
The captain looked right at home, as Lionel Messi dropped deep, and Sergio Busquets moved in closer to provide support. Between the three of them, and Andre Gomes, for the first time this season, there were distinct passing triangles all over the pitch and it seemed like things could only get better for Barça as the game progressed.
Intending to add some steel to his midfield, Zinadine Zidane replaced Isco with the hard-tackling Casemiro, as Kovacic slipped in next to Modric.
In the 67th minute, Barça almost nearly doubled their lead, as Neymar beat his marker in the box to find the ball at the perfect spot for a smash into the top corner. As fate would have it, the Brazilian sniper missed by a wild margin, as his shot rocketed into the stands leaving behind stunned spectators.
As time wore on, Real Madrid’s first defeat loomed on the horizon and it seemed like the men in white were still reeling from the shock of having conceded. Madrid continued to throw bodies into the final third, hoping to force errors through their high-press.
With three minutes on the clock, Real Madrid got awarded a free-kick 30 yards away. Arda Turan, who had just come on for Andre Gomes, marked Sergio Ramos in the box. Luka Modric delivered a luscious cross into Ter Stegen’s zone and before Barça could realise that they had failed to mark the Spaniard who is infamous for scoring crucial goals in the dying moments of a game, Ramos was already celebrating with his teammates, having put the ball behind the German, for a late equaliser.
The clock ran out without any hassle, and as the referee blew his whistle, disappointment filled the Camp Nou.
The first Clasico of the season was a stalemate.
While there isn’t much to say about the way the game ended, it certainly looked more positive than anything that Barça had mustered in their previous outings and if the Blaugrana can use the performance as a stepping stone, there is still a chance that Barca close off the points gap, and push the title run to the wire.
Barcelona: Ter Stegen; Roberto, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba; Busquets, Rakitic (Iniesta), Gomes (Arda); Messi, Suárez, Neymar (Denis)
Goal: Suárez (53')
Real Madrid: Navas; Carvajal, Ramos, Varane, Marcelo; Modric, Kovacic (Mariano); Vázquez, Isco (Casemiro), Ronaldo; Benzema (Asensio)
Goal: Ramos (90')