Gareth Bale leapt to reach a cross from Cristiano Ronaldo, headed the ball down into the net and raced into the corner of the Camp Nou celebrating the goal that he thought has won the clásico, only to find that 20 metres away the referee Alejandro Hernández Hernández was standing with his arm up.
There were 10 minutes to go but if Bale thought the chance had gone, five minutes later another one arrived. This time, Bale curled a right-footed cross to the far post and Ronaldo finished superbly. A clásico that was no classic ended with Barcelona’s first defeat in 40 games.
Ultimately, it may matter little, since with seven games to go Barcelona remain seven points clear of their rivals and six ahead of Atlético. But the boost for a Madrid side that many thought doomed to defeat will be huge, their delighted players embracing at the final whistle, while Barcelona will be concerned at the way they fell apart in the final 15 minutes. Barcelona lacked a touch of freshness and maybe a touch a fitness, three days from their Champions League quarter-final first leg against Atlético here; for much of the night, Madrid’s play was far from impressive and the goal came late but it had been coming.
Barcelona’s 10-point lead and the proximity of the Champions League quarter-finals might have left this feeling like a little less of an occasion than normal as the game approached but the clásico is always the clásico and both teams began with their strongest sides. There was added importance in the symbolism, too: this was the first game Barcelona had played since the death of Johan Cruyff, a homage to the man who revolutionised this club not once but twice and forever. It was hard not to be moved as a pre-match video in his honour closed with a cascade of players offering him thanks. A huge mosaic covered the stands and read: “Gracies,Johan.” In the 14th minute, everyone in the stadium stood to applaud.
It was still 0-0 but it shouldn’t have been. Luis Suárez had missed a wonderful opportunity five minutes earlier, the ball somehow slipping off his heel and between his legs after Neymar, running into a long ball on the right, had laid it across to him just six yards out and with an open goal.
Immediately after the applause, Bravo was out quickly to smother a cut back from Gareth Bale. It was almost the first time Madrid had got out of their half; their start had been timid. Barcelona dominated possession while Madrid waited and if the home side did not always move the ball swiftly, they did open up a couple of opportunities. Iniesta had a shot blocked, Rakitic’s effort was pushed away by Navas, and Neymar struck over.
Then Barcelona broke forward, Messi turned inside from the left and Sergio Ramos stuck out a leg and brought him down. The only doubt was whether or not he was inside the penalty area but the referee did not even give a foul. The white hankies came out in protest.
They were still waving when Ronaldo’s shot was palmed away by Claudio Bravo and the game shifted a little; twenty-five minutes had gone and Barcelona’s dominance had been overwhelming until then, but now Madrid took a step forward. And when they did, there was a threat, Bale heading into the space beyond Jordi Alba and Ronaldo willing to run at Dani Alves.
Ronaldo struck a free-kick over after Javier Mascherano had brought down Bale – who had just hit a shot over the bar and who, it was curious to note, was also given the responsibility of launching long throws into the Barcelona area. This was a different game now, although in truth it wasn’t a particularly good one. Three minutes before half-time, Karim Benzema turned and hit a good chance high. Just before, Alves had thumped over and just after Rakitic struck wide. Alves’s chance had come after some lovely footwork from Andrés Iniesta, but that was an isolated moment of real quality.
Early in the second half, Messi curled over before Gerard Piqué blocked Benzema’s shot and then Modric’s effort from the edge of the area was back-heeled by Bale straight into Bravo. Still this game lacked fluidity but then Suárez bundled his way up the line, winning a ball that never really seemed to be his. Neymar joined him, and then Messi, whose clipped shot was tipped away by Navas for the first of three corners in a row. The third ended with Piqué dashing ahead of Pepe and heading in the opener.
The goal looked like it might end this. Barcelona kept the ball and Madrid watched them. Watching Madrid, it was hard to discern a clear plan, or an identity. At one point Kroos turned to gesture at his team-mates; he looked a little lost and his body language spoke almost of resignation. But even if Madrid do not have a plan, they do have players and good ones. And when they did step forward, they tended to find space opening up.
The most decisive of those dashes forward was led by Modric and Marcelo, the Brazilian sprinting up the left and travelling across the edge of the area, rolling the ball under his foot. He found Kroos, whose blocked shot looped into the area near the six yard box and Benzema leapt and, falling backwards, volleyed in the equaliser.
The game still didn’t really burst into life, as if not losing was what mattered most. But, then, it did. And it was Madrid who resuscitated, suddenly running forward in numbers. Chances fell, Piqué admitting that Madrid had deserved it. Bale thought he had won it, then Ronaldo hit the bar. Soon afterwards, Bale’s cross reached the Portuguese, he controlled on his chest, stepped away from Alves and struck the ball through Bravo’s legs to score a goal that no one had scored against Barcelona in six months: the winner.
Originally posted on Guardian