Limiting one’s thoughts on Real Madrid vs. Barcelona to three is a bit like having to pick three favorite forkfuls from a tasting menu at a five-star restaurant, or being forced to choose only three Curb Your Enthusiasm episodes to take to a desert island. The most talent-packed, hyperbolic fixture in soccer defies quick summary -- perhaps because unlike many of world sport’s heavyweight clashes, this game rarely disappoints. Over the last ten years, El Clasico has averaged almost 3.5 goals a game, and this season the firepower has been upped even further by Barcelona’s capture of Luis Suarez, and Real Madrid’s signings of Toni Kroos and James Rodriguez. Nonetheless, here are three out of possibly hundreds of thoughts on Real’s gripping 3-1 win at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu this afternoon.
1. Barcelona are top of the league – but Real have the swagger.
For a while early on it looked as though Barcelona might have the edge. Real’s lack of a traditional hard-tackling defensive midfielder, coupled with the occasional reluctance of Kroos, Isco, Luka Modric and Co. to track back, allowed the visitors acres of space in front of the home defense. Messi pulled the strings from a slightly deeper position than last year, while the Keith Moon of soccer, Luis Suarez, romped up and down the right side.
And then there was Neymar. After last year’s debut season in Europe the 22-year-old is a tougher, beefier and harder-working player than the skinny kid who arrived from Santos – while still showing plenty of the jeitinho and maverick talent that marked him out as special in the first place. There was a generous glimpse of that ability as he shimmied across the Madrid back line and hit a crisp shot past Iker Casillas to put Barcelona ahead in only the third minute.
Catalan confidence did not last long, however. Real’s furious response to that goal, with Karim Benzema thundering a header off the bar, showed how important this game was to Carlo Ancelotti’s team -- a loss here would have put Los Merengues seven points behind their rivals.
Messi and Benzema missed good chances as the game settled into a pattern -- intricacy on the fringes of both penalty areas coupled with a lack of a cutting edge when it mattered. That changed in the 35th minute when Pique’s dangling hand blocked a low Marcelo cross in the area and Ronaldo slotted home the resulting penalty for a remarkable 16th goal of this young La Liga season. From that moment on, Barcelona struggled to hold onto the ball and to pressure Real’s attacking players, having no match for the power and speed of Isco, Ronaldo, Rodriguez, Benzema and the rest on the counter-attack.
The home side’s offensive swagger was best captured in the sweeping move that led to the third goal – Isco, who made a strong argument for being man of the match, robbed Dani Alves on the left, the ball was switched from Ronaldo and then to Rodriguez, who played in Benzema for a thumping finish. The second half could have become a rout as Madrid poured through the wide-open prairies of the Barcelona rearguard.
2. Time to praise Benzema
Like the replacing of the superb Angel Di Maria -- who would be a superstar in 99% of the teams in the world -- with James Rodriguez, the criticism of Karim Benzema for not being quite as much of a superstar as the other superstars in this Madrid team can be seen as a rather depressing statement on galactico culture and the arms race between La Liga’s Big Two.
Today’s performance showed how important Benzema is to Real, as did the standing ovation he received from the crowd after being substituted. As the Madrid evening darkened, Suarez and Neymar were reduced to mere fireflies, flickering here and there without troubling the home defense. Benzema, however, was a brute -- tracking back, breaking forward and timing his runs to perfection. The Frenchman was always available -- most notably when he slammed home his team’s euphoric third goal. Not since the 1981 soccer-crossed-with-prisoner-of-war-camp flick Victory, which brought together Pele, Sylvester Stallone, Michael Caine and Max Von Sydow, has there been a team as star-studded as Barcelona or Real Madrid. Yet even in such glamorous company, Benzema stood out.
3. Bad Day For Barça
Barcelona’s failure to add a second goal during a bright opening period ultimately proved fatal. Neymar’s early goal was arguably counter-productive for the visitors -- spreading an unjustified cockiness among Luis Enrique’s troops and tweaking the tail of a bad-tempered Madrid lion. The first-half moment when Messi failed to convert a Luis Suarez cross, allowing Casillas to save, proved vital. Twelve minutes later Ronaldo equalized and the home side never looked back.
The Suarez-Neymar-Messi triumvirate will surely click sooner rather than later (arguments over the trio’s place among the world’s – and history’s – great forward lines will run and run) but it did not sparkle today, with Suarez off the pace following his long lay-off, Neymar wasteful, and Messi ineffective. At the same time, the waning influence of Xavi and Iniesta in midfield was exposed by young bucks Rodriguez and Isco as well as the powerful Kroos. Perhaps it was the passing of time -- this Barcelona team had an average age of 29, making it the most veteran side to play in the Clasico since 1988 -- or perhaps it was over-confidence brought on by a seven-point lead and that early goal, but Madrid’s desire and work rate put Barcelona to shame today.