On a cold, blustery Sunday night—and despite it being the first Clasico to be visited by rain in a decade—Real Madrid‘s fans were in ecstasy at the final whistle, with many in the upper tiers of the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium happily discarding their white waterproof ponchos so they could launch them on to the pitch below.
Real Madrid beat Barcelona 2-0—thanks to a pair of goals that found their purchase more by chance than skill—to secure a first home win against their eternal rivals since 2014. It was a match high on drama but low on quality, played by two clubs who, as Ramon Besa in El Pais described, are “prisoners of veteran teams.”
Marca, Spain’s biggest-selling sports newspaper, splashed a photo of a maniacal-looking Sergio Ramos, hair tossed and climbing on to the shoulders of Dani Carvajal and Vinicius Junior—after the Brazilian had opened the scoring midway through the second half—on its cover page with the heading: “And the Bernabeu goes a bit crazy.”
Nineteen-year-old Vinicius Junior—who overtook Lionel Messi as the youngest scorer in the Clasico this century—was singled out for his performance by the press. He was the only player, for example, to receive nine stars in Diario Sport‘s player ratings.
It was thrilling for him—his “greatest night as a Madridista,” he announced—and vindication. He so often walks a tightrope between “genius and ridicule,” as Francisco Cabezas wrote in El Mundo. Last night’s goal was only his fourth in 36 league games for Real Madrid.
More than the goal, however, Vinicius Junior was applauded for his energy, his fearlessness and his infectious spirit, and above all for not being Gareth Bale. The Welsh star, who was once the most expensive footballer in history, spent the night as an unused substitute and was dismissed by Diario AS’s Luis Nieto as a “hologram player.“
Vinicius Junior’s goal—which took a fortuitous deflection from Gerard Pique, who was roundly whistled at whenever he touched the ball, as is customary during his appearances at the Bernabeu—came after a dozen minutes of sustained Real Madrid pressure.
The white wave of attacks on Marc-Andre ter Stegen’s goal began close to the hour mark when the German goalkeeper was forced into parrying a curling shot from Isco—who marked his 300th official appearance for Real Madrid with a fine performance—just around the post.
Thibaut Courtois, Ter Stegen’s counterpart, has endured renewed criticism over the last week for some soft goals he let in during defeats to Levante and Manchester City. However, the former Chelsea keeper was immense. He joined Vinicius Junior as the only players to receive a four-star rating from Mundo Deportivo, who said Courtois “closed the shutters” on several Barcelona attacks.
Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane can also feel a measure of redemption. After a pre-match run of three games without a win, he has been lambasted for his tinkering, especially for dropping Toni Kroos for the 2-1 defeat to Manchester City in the UEFA Champions League on Wednesday.
This time Zidane got it right, returning Kroos to the team’s midfield, choosing Vinicius Junior over Bale and riskily bringing back Marcelo into the starting XI for strategic reasons. The aging wing-back has been a liability in defence over the last couple of seasons, but he chipped in with a last-ditch tackle to prevent Lionel Messi from scoring late in the second half and celebrated as if he’d scored a goal himself.
“Zidane redoubled the dose of pepper on Real Madrid’s left side with the inclusion of Marcelo instead of Ferland Mendy, a more defensive alternative,” wrote Orfeo Suarez in El Mundo. “He wanted to provoke chaos on the left with two unclassifiable players.”
Zidane also made an unlikely hero out of Mariano, a striker who has been in the wilderness. Zidane surprisingly preferred him to Luka Jovic—who at this rate will go down as one of the most expensive mistakes in Real Madrid’s history—in the matchday squad.
Forced to give over his No 7 jersey to Eden Hazard at the start of the season, the Dominican-Spanish striker has yet to start a game this season. Before he entered the fray against Barcelona in injury time, he’d only played 44 minutes of football. (Incidentally, Hazard missed the game because of an ankle injury that will be operated on in Dallas on Thursday, as Marca‘s Hugo Cerezo and Jose Felix Diaz reported.)
On Sunday, Mariano made every second count. Like Cinderella’s late, decisive arrival at the ball, as alluded to by Nieto in his Diario AS match report, Mariano showed great ambition in bearing down on goal from a difficult angle with his first touch on the ball, and he profited from a miscued shot that caught Ter Stegen unawares at his front post to round off the night’s scoring.
Cristiano Ronaldo, who wore the No. 7 jersey with unrivalled distinction at the club, was a surprise visitor to the Bernabeu—his first visit back to the stadium since he left for Turin in the summer of 2018.
Taking advantage of the suspended Juventus vs. Inter Milan game, which was called off because of coronavirus fears, his presence in a private box was commented upon widely by the press. It provoked “an outbreak of longing and melancholy” in Diario AS columnist Elias Israel, who added: “A Clasico without CR isn’t what it used to be…Real Madrid doesn’t have a player [anymore] to fill the stage”.
Both of Catalonia’s sports newspapers, Diario Sport and Mundo Deportivo, ran with editorial lines that argued “Barca deserved more,” to quote the headline on Santi Nolla’s lead article in Mundo Deportivo, chiefly because they squandered several goal-scoring chances in the first half before being overrun in the second period.
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Diario Sport even scored Barcelona’s players better than Real Madrid’s, 68 points to 62. The Madrid-based Marca saw things the other way around, scoring it 25 to 10 for the starting XIs in Real Madrid’s favour, which was fair enough given Los Blancos’ dominance was reflected in stats like corner kicks (8 to 2) and shots on goal (13 to 9).
Besa lamented the torpor that is bedevilling this Barcelona team: “They have no wings to dribble or disorientate [the opposition], full-backs that are flaky and their football is like a spin cycle, waiting to jell with Messi or synchronise with the [aimlessly floating Antoine] Griezmann.
The performance of Griezmann—whose inability to dribble is at odds with the type of tiki-taka football his coach Quique Setien is trying to evangelise—was savaged: neither Diario AS nor Marca gave him a star in its player ratings. Marca‘s pen portrait made fun of him for ballooning a first-half goal chance “into the clouds.”
Messi—who had previously scored 15 goals in 21 games at the Bernabeu, which the Spanish media had been calling “Messi’s garden” over the weekend—put in a quiet shift. He was labouring “half-injured,” which caused him to uncharacteristically cough up two chances when put clean through on goal.
Barcelona’s team is noticeably ageing. They look jaded, which was epitomised by the sight of a half-fit Jordi Alba—who was once famed for his speed—being outrun by Real Madrid’s Fede Valverde. Five of Barca’s starting XI against Real Madrid are in their thirties, excluding Ivan Rakitic—who came on as a second-half substitute—and the injured Luis Suarez.
They are worryingly fragile away from the Camp Nou, too, as they’ve now dropped more points than they’ve won on the road—18 collected from a possible 39 points. It’s advantage Real Madrid. Their win pulls them a point clear of Barca (and crucially with a better head-to-head record) at the top of the table.
There is a way to go yet, though, with more twists and turns to come. With 12 games remaining, and neither side convincing, both sides will inevitably drop more points in a contest that former Real Madrid player and manager Jorde Valdano accurately described on Ondo Cero as “a race between two lame men.”
Follow Richard on Twitter: @Richard_Fitz