For the second time in a matter of days Barcelona emerged victorious at the Santiago Bernabeu, this time winning by the smallest of margins with Ivan Rakitić scoring the only goal of the match. The highly entertaining match was much more close-fought than the one on Wednesday as both teams played an up tempo game, but Rakitić’s marker was enough to decide the winner and bring Barcelona in the lead on the head-to-head record for the first time since 1931.
Both sides made a couple changes in their lineup compared to the Wednesday’s Copa del Rey. Ernesto Valverde moved Sergi Roberto from midfield to the right back while Arthur took Roberto’s spot in midfield, leaving Nelson Semedo on the bench. For Real Madrid Gereth Bale slotted in on the right wing while Thibaut Courtois took his place in goal as the La Liga goalkeeper.
The hosts would quickly threaten after Sergio Busquets conceded a dangerous free kick, but Bale sent the kick high and wide. Barcelona also didn’t waste time to attack – unlike in the Copa – but their first chance after a Messi through ball in the 5th minute was thwarted by a Raphael Varane clearance. After a few minutes of midfield battles Barcelona threatened again, but once again Varane was in perfect position to prevent a Luis Suarez chance.
The first shot on goal, however, came on the other end, in the 13th minute. First, Clement Lenglet had the wind knocked out of him after a block of Varane’s shot but the rebound fell to Luka Modrić who fired on goal, but Marc-Andre ter Stegen made the save. A couple minute later Barcelona replied on the other end, but Courtois excellently saved Suarez’s try, but even had he scored VAR would’ve disallowed it for offside – as did the linesman with a raised flag after the play.
In the 19th minute Suarez and Lionel Messi played a stunning one-two, but the Argentine, even though he managed to chip the goalkeeper, couldn’t find the back of the net as the ball went wide of the far post. Barcelona were showing much more first half life and energy than on Wednesday and were arguably the better side on the pitch – something one would struggle to say for most of Wednesday’s El Clasico.
But Real Madrid remained very dangerous on the counter attack especially when Vinicius was left streaking down the left wing where usually Gerard Pique was left in coverage as Roberto was playing higher up the pitch. The Brazilian created an excellent chance for Modric in the 23rd minute, but the Croatian’s shot was excellently blocked by Pique – though ter Stegen appeared to have it all the way regardless.
25 minutes in Barcelona played a rare attack down the right side and immediately the Catalans took the lead. Roberto and Rakitić played a perfect one-two with Roberto supplying Rakitić. Not known for his speed, the Croatian turned on the burners to get to the ball first and chip it over Courtois and the defender to put Barcelona in the lead.
The hosts looked to reply quickly and pressed Barcelona deep in their area. Their attacks were relentless, but the Barcelona defense stood tall with Pique making numerous excellent plays in coverage. But Real’s attacks continued, and corner kicks and half-chances were following in quick succession. Barcelona needed about six minutes to finally retake control of the ball and quickly created a half chance of their own, but Messi just couldn’t get to Rakitić’s through ball inside the area.
In the 37th minute Messi would have a chance from a well-placed free kick, but missed the target. Two minutes later Barcelona were in action again. Rakitić turned supplier again, this time finding Suarez in space who fired on goal from outside of the area, but saw his shot excellently saved by Courtois. Messi was first to the rebound, but Courtois was able to make another stop on the diving try by the Argentine.
The dying minutes of the first half were controlled by the home side, but all they could create was a headed shot by Modrić which whistled over the crossbar. The very last minutes brought more drama as Sergio Ramos hit Messi to the head with a flailing arm, but the play went unpunished as Ramos somehow ended the half without a single yellow card despite two dirty plays to his first half resume. The halftime whistle came shortly thereafter with the involved duo exchanging pleasantries near midfield before the two sides went down the tunnel for the break.
No personnel changes were made during the break as the hosts came storming out of the gate. Their press was relentless and Barcelona struggled to take possession of the ball. The early minutes were dominated by Real and Karim Benzema was left with a one-on-one with ter Stegen but somehow missed the net altogether. But even had the Frenchman scored the goal would’ve been ruled out for offside.
With Barcelona having trouble taking control of the ball the fact that Messi was clearly having some trouble with his right groin muscle wasn’t an encouraging sign. The fast paced, up-tempo game also wasn’t ideal for the struggling Messi who rarely went on a full-on sprint in the second half.
The first manager to look to his bench was Santiago Solari who almost shocking brought on Fede Valverde in place of Toni Kroos in the 56th minute. Just seconds later Vinicius was in action again, but his right-footed attempt was saved by ter Stegen in unorthodox fashion. The very next minute Messi found Dembele on the left wing, but the young Frenchman’s first-time shot was well saved. A minute later Alba looked to add to his assist total from the left wing but Dani Carvajal made a crucial redirection to send the ball out of reach off Dembele who was ready and waiting in the middle.
The back and forth action continued as in the 60th minute Rakitić made a critical mistake in possession deep inside the Barcelona area. Vinicius was gifted the opportunity but even though he made his way past Pique he couldn’t get his shot past Lenglet who made a brilliant block – one of four in the match. In the 62nd minute Solari made his second substitution, bringing on Marco Asensio in place of the largely unnoticed Bale.
When in possession Barcelona tried to calm the pace of the game down as all the back on forth action wasn’t much to their liking and played to Real’s strengths. Still, the hosts remained dangerous on the counter attack, with most of their attacks coming down the left wing but together Roberto and Pique handled the threat named Vinicius very well.
With Real focused on chasing the result, Barcelona at times were able to attack against a shorthanded defense, but the hosts were very quick to return. In the 70th minute, after a substantial time controlling the ball, Messi sent Dembele through the left side, but his shot missed the far post by a couple feet. Suarez was presenting himself as an option on the far side as well, but Dembele didn’t notice him, focusing all the way on the shot.
Real brought on another attacking option in the 75th minute in Isco and took of Casemiro. While this would lead to more space for Barcelona in attack, the fact that Valverde took off Arthur and replaced him with Arturo Vidal minutes earlier left Barcelona without their best midfield passer. As the substitutions continued Dembele made way for Philippe Coutinho in the 78th minute. Dembele might not have been as influential as he was on Wednesday, but the youngster again delivered a strong performance.
After a more or less flawless game, Pique made a rather stupid decision to carry the ball all they way across ter Stegen’s goal after having numerous options chances to clear before giving up a corner kick. Real would threaten again from the set-piece, but once again the Catalan defense defused the danger. All the while Real were attacking, Barcelona remained dangerous on the counter attack, but like ter Stegen, Courtois too remained mostly untested. Ter Stegen, however, would have to make a save on Benzema’s out-of-the-box attempt moments later. Barcelona were hanging on amid relentless attacks from Real who were piling on, but defensively Barcelona played excellently. Pique, Lenglet, Alba and Vidal made numerous crucial plays in defense in the final moments of the game.
Three minutes were added on and in the second minute Nelson Semedo replaced Busquets on the pitch for the final sub of the match. Moments later Messi found Coutinho inside the area, but the Brazilian was just offside before Courtois made an excellent save. The very next minute Vidal found Messi on the edge of the area, who fired just inches wide of the post. The fourth minute of added time went by before all of Barcelona’s tremendous work and effort was finally rewarded with the final whistle for their third El Clasico win of the season.
The final score left Real Madrid a staggering twelve points behind Barcelona in the standing with only twelve left to play. Atletico Madrid will look to hold serve tomorrow at the Anoeta against Real Sociedad while Barcelona will get a rare midweek off, as the Catalan Super Cup on Wednesday will surely feature a completely reworked starting eleven. La Liga will return for Barcelona on Saturday when the Catalans take on Rayo Vallecano.