Real Madrid spoiled what could be Lionel Messi’s final El Clasico at the Camp Nou, beating its bitter rival Barcelona 3-1.
The away side took the lead inside the opening five minutes, a penetrating run from Karim Benzema splitting the Barcelona defense before he could slip the ball through to the driving Fede Valverde to smash home.
It didn’t take long for Barcelona to level however, with Messi perhaps unsurprisingly at the heart of it. His incisive through-ball to Jordi Alba split the Madrid defense allowing the left-back to lay the ball on a plate for 17-year-old Ansu Fati.
The away side retook the lead midway through the second half from the penalty spot as captain Sergio Ramos nonchalantly converted before a late Luka Modric goal wrapped up the three points.
The defeat is Barcelona’s second in a row, while Real Madrid got back to winning ways.
“We played a perfect game. It’s three points, nothing more,” Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane said afterwards.
“We’ve faced a lot of criticism over the past few days. We have to remain calm and play the way we want to play. I’m happy for the players. It was a team victory today. I’m proud of my side.”
To and fro
During the opening stages of an extraordinary season, Barcelona and Real Madrid have shown signs of fallibility.
Both of the Spanish giants lost their last outings in the Spanish league, while Real Madrid was stunned at home on Wednesday by an under-manned Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League.
But travelling to an empty Camp Nou, the reigning Spanish La Liga champions showed no hint of nerves in the early stages of El Clasico, the fiery and fierce rivalry between the two.
French striker Benzema, driving through the wide-open Barcelona defense in the opening minutes, was able to pick out a completely unmarked Valverde who had darted between players into the box to get the scoring started.
But as they showed on Wednesday against Shakhtar Donetsk, Real struggled to keep the opposition at bay and like he has been so often before, it was Messi at the heart of Barcelona’s excellent attacking.
His delightfully weighted pass just three minutes later from the halfway line fell almost perfectly into the stride of a galloping Alba who was able to square for Fati to emphatically finish.
In scoring, Fati became the youngest player to score in El Clasico in all competitions in the 21st century at the age of 17 years and 359 days.
While no more goals followed in the first half, both sides put on a show for the fans watching at home, with no spectators allowed into the Camp Nou because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
It was more of the same after the break until a careless tug of Ramos’ jersey from Barcelona defender Clement Lenglet was caught by the video assistant referee (VAR). After awarding the penalty, Ramos duly stepped up to put the Madrid side ahead once again.
Ramos became the first Real player to score a penalty in El Clasico in the league since Ruud van Nistelrooy in March 2007.
“We couldn’t allow ourselves to get bogged down in that bad run,” Ramos said afterwards. “It was a sh*t week but we put the criticism to one side. It’s always good to win away at a direct rival. Two games is a crisis at Real Madrid but we have to carry on doing things our way.”
And although they huffed and puffed, Barcelona could not find a way back into the game and Modric’s jabbed finish finally sealed the game in the dying moments.
“I think we played well,” Barcelona manager Ronald Koeman said after the game. “I think we created good opportunities to score. Some parts of the game we were the better team and it’s difficult to understand because we did not deserve to lose the game today.”
An unhappy end
Having spent the whole of his professional career at Barcelona, it is hard to imagine Messi would have envisioned the end of his time at the Catalan club being this messy.
The 33-year-old announced that he wanted to leave the club in August and has admitted he had wanted to leave “all year.”
He claimed a clause in his contract meant he could do so for free, but in the end the Argentine was forced to stay as Barcelona disagreed and wasn’t willing to reduce its €700 million ($897 million) release clause.
Messi said his love for the club meant he had no intention of disputing the club’s decision in court and dragging out a legal dispute.
And with the chances of him staying on after this season looking increasingly unlikely, there is a chance that today’s El Clasico could be the final one at Camp Nou for the diminutive Argentine.
Without the opportunity to appear at home in front of Barcelona fans, it will be a disappointing final appearance in El Clasico for Messi after the success he has brought the club in his 20 years there.
The Argentine has helped Barcelona win 10 league titles and four Champions League trophies, as well as winning six Ballon d’Or’s himself.