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El Clasico: Ronaldo, Real Madrid end Barcelona's unbeaten run

Real Madrid restored confidence and momentum after winning 2-1 at Barcelona in the latest edition of El Clasico, writes Liviu Bird.

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On an emotional day at Camp Nou that served as a tribute to the great Johan Cruyff, Barcelona’s unbeaten run ended at 39 matches with a 2-1 loss against Real Madrid. Barça’s lead at the top of La Liga shrank to six points, and the gap ahead of Real also went down to seven as a result.

Despite dominating possession, Barça couldn’t score in the first half. Madrid’s chippy defense frustrated the home team, as center back Sergio Ramos in particular showed no shyness in conceding fouls if it looked like he might be beaten one-on-one. The Barça players frequently looked toward referee Alejandro Hernández with their arms outstretched, begging for a whistle.

Real repelled attack after attack, looking to break forward on the counter. It took until the 56th minute, and on a corner kick, no less, for Barça to finally take the lead. Gerard Piqué curled his run toward the near post and gained enough separation from his marker, Pepe, to nod the ball down and in from Ivan Rakitić’s service.

The lead didn’t last long, though, as Madrid equalized six minutes later. Marcelo dribbled across the face of the Barcelona penalty area and avoided tackles to find Toni Kroos on the right side of the box. His deflected cross on the ground looped up for Karim Benzema to finish with an overhead kick on the opposite side of Barça goalscorer Piqué in the 62nd minute.

Real Madrid was denied a potential winner just 10 minutes before the end of the game as Gareth Bale was called for a foul. The Welsh winger rose over Jordi Alba to head a cross at the back post past Claudio Bravo, but Hernández’s whistle blew despite what looked like a legal challenge.

Justice would be served, though, as Cristiano Ronaldo silenced the stadium with a well-taken 85th-minute goal. On another break down the field, Bale crossed from the right all the way to Ronaldo on the far edge of the six-yard box. He took it down on his chest, going by Dani Alves in the process, and slotted the shot underneath Bravo and in.

Here are three thoughts–inspired by Cruyff quotes–on the occasion of the latest Clásico, the world’s most-anticipated club matchup:

Gràcies, Johan: A stunted, but still moving, tribute to Cruyff

“Quality without results is pointless. Results without quality is boring.”

From the first kick, Barcelona dominated possession and moved the ball around at will, much like Cruyff would have wanted. His fingerprints will forever be on this club and this team, as he represented the second of three major innovative periods in Barça history, the eras of Rinus Michels and Pep Guardiola bookending it.

Watch: Barcelona fans pay tribute to Johan Cruyff

The only unfortunate moment of the night came in the prematch moment of silence, as several fans decided not to respect it, eliciting a shake of the head from Ronaldo as he paid his respects. But spurred on by the memory of Cruyff and a desire to memorialize him correctly, Barcelona swarmed all over Real both in possession and out, its high-pressure system leaving no space for Los Galácticos to play comfortably.

Of course, every manager between and after the great architects of Michels, Cruyff and Guardiola have tweaked the Barça identity to suit their particular set of players. Luis Enrique has instilled a bit more of a direct style at times, getting the ball forward to Neymar, Luis Suárez and Lionel Messi as early as possible. The first obvious manifestation of this on Saturday came in the 10th minute, as Bravo played a goal kick straight through to Neymar, whose square pass found Suárez wide open in front of a gaping net.

The Uruguayan shockingly saw the ball pass through his legs—“a Donald Trump haircut of a finish,” as beIN Sports commentator Ray Hudson so evocatively put it—foreshadowing the difficulties Barça would have in front of goal all game. While the way his club went about its game should have Cruyff smiling down, nine days after his untimely death, the lack of a result will leave Enrique’s men pondering their fortunes ahead of a return to Champions League play against Atletico Madrid on Tuesday.

Composed Madrid defense proves difficult to break down

“If you have the ball, you must make the field as big as possible, and if you don’t have the ball, you must make it as small as possible.”

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It always seemed likely that Real Madrid would play on the counterattack at Camp Nou. With the players it has on the front line and the speed and power of Ronaldo, Benzema and Bale, Real has a way of enticing opponents to throw numbers forward before going the other way in an instant.

For that to be effective, though, the back line must hold strong.

Barcelona, Real Madrid fortunes a result of differing philosophies

In the face of Barcelona’s front three and the others in support, that’s a tricky proposition even when receiving gifts such as Suárez’s 10th-minute whiffed finish (Benzema missed one of his own on the opposite end, but that was a much more difficult chance). Madrid held on throughout with a combination of its courage in one-on-one situations and a bit of luck, as well as the backstopping ability of goalkeeper Keylor Navas.

Manager Zinedine Zidane also deserves credit for starting Casemiro in between the defensive and midfield lines in a 4-1-4-1 defensive shape. Kroos and Luka Modrić played just ahead of him, dropping deeper as Barcelona advanced, as did the front three to a further extent than usual to keep the field as compact as possible.

Ramos in particular seemed to be holding on by a thread at moments, picking up a yellow card for dissent after what he thought was (but wasn’t really) a foul on Suárez’s early chance. Later in the half, he took down Messi on the edge of the penalty area while only getting the tip of his toe on the ball, fortunate not to receive his second caution in quick succession.

Against high-powered attacks such as Barça’s, defending is often a nebulous concept. Quite often, breaking up the Blaugrana attacks required simply conceding the foul and defending the resulting set piece, as Ramos so often did. He eventually saw his second yellow in the 83rd minute, and it always seemed to be coming with the reckless way he approached this match.

Real can use result in high-powered Clásico as momentum

“Football must always be played in an attractive way. You must play offensively; it must be a show.”

Both times this season, El Clásico has followed a FIFA international break, which has perhaps taken some sting out of the match. Players looked a bit sluggish coming off their travels, the South American players and Costa Rica’s Navas making two trips across the Atlantic Ocean in quick succession.

It didn’t seem to affect Navas as much as it did the others, as he pulled off a couple of otherworldly saves, the most impressive of which came on Messi in the second half as he chipped a ball toward the far post. Navas extended to his left and got the fingertips of his top hand on the ball, deflecting it wide.

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Still, there was no denying that Madrid had clear intentions of its own on the attack. Real got more confident and took more chances as the game went on, with Ronaldo staying higher with Benzema to create more of a 4-4-2 during stretches of the second half. With numbers lingering forward, Real had more outlets to play its explosive counterattacking game.

More than ruining Barça’s tribute to Cruyff, Madrid also threw some cold water on Barça’s hopes for the near future while boosting its own.

Barcelona’s upcoming Champions League matchup against second-placed Atlético Madrid will likely elicit a bit more second-guessing than Real’s against Bundesliga mid-table side Wolfsburg, which is coming off a 3-0 loss to Bayer Leverkusen.

If Madrid makes a run at its 11th Champions League, this could be the result that proves to be the catalyst. Barça, so long a favorite in both league and continental competitions, looks more vulnerable than it has in some time after this match. Of course, a loss will do that when you go one day short of six months without one and nearly two months without failing to win.

Barcelona could simply bounce back on Tuesday with a win. But if we see a Clásico matchup in the Champions League, which is the only possibility for another rematch this season, this is the result everybody will be talking about—not the 4-0 win back in November.