MADRID: Real Madrid won the Clasico and might have saved their season as they ended their slump in the best way possible on Sunday, by beating Barcelona 2-0 and returning to the top of La Liga.
Vinicius Junior’s deflected finish and a stoppage-time goal from Mariano Diaz decided a frenzied contest at the Santiago Bernabeu, where Real were given life after a Champions League defeat by Manchester City had left them on the brink of crisis.
Instead, an affirming victory sends them one point clear at the top of the table and shifts focus back to Quique Setien’s Barcelona, who were outfought and, at times, outplayed, even if they had chances too.
Lionel Messi’s rasping shot was denied by Thibaut Courtois in the first half but it was the Argentinian’s opposing captain Sergio Ramos who was thrashing his arms in celebration after the final whistle.
His reaction was an indication of the importance of this victory, not only for the effect it has on the standings but on the dynamic of the title race, which had seemed to switch firmly in favour of Barca.
Cristiano Ronaldo was watching from an executive box and Real could have done with him during a period in which they had won only one of their last five games.
Zinedine Zidane said on Saturday this match would not decide who lifted the trophy in May but a Barca win and a five-point gap might well have been difficult to close.
Yet from the start, Barcelona seemed keener to kill the game than win it, playing for time in the hope of keeping the contest tight, when they might have been better off attacking their opponents’ fragility.
Home advantage has certainly meant little in this fixture given Barca had won their last four league meetings here, with Ramos admitting last week that Real’s players have begun to feel anxiety inside their own stadium.
There was more tension than creativity in the early stages as Fede Valverde crashed into Arthur Melo before fellow Spain fullbacks Dani Carvajal and Jordi Alba were both booked after a disagreement.
Real had the better of the play and regularly broke at speed through Vinicius down the left but constantly they failed to make the final pass, with Isco once left with his head in his hands after Marcelo opted not to pull back.
Courtois rock solid
Barcelona played for time, their passing slow and their lack of urgency to restart obvious. At one point Messi bent to do up his shoelaces and respotted the ball before taking a corner.
But the visitors also created chances as Antoine Griezmann drove over from Alba’s cutback and then Real had Courtois to thank for two excellent saves.
First, Arthur held off Toni Kroos to go clear but his finish was blocked by Courtois’ foot and then the Belgian palmed away Messi’s shot after he had skipped in behind Real’s defence.
Ramos was lucky to get away with an error that allowed Nelson Semedo to break past him while Alba risked a second yellow when he checked Valverde but referee Mateu Lahoz was unmoved.
Barcelona were sloppy after halftime and Real should have capitalised. Instead, Isco’s header beat Marc-Andre ter Stegen but not Gerard Pique on the line and Karim Benzema volleyed over after a sloppy pass from Arturo Vidal.
Vidal was replaced by Martin Braithwaite, Barca’s emergency signing, and he sprinted in behind Marcelo twice in his first minute.
But Real remained in the ascendancy and in the 71st minute they took the lead. Benzema came short and pointed right to encourage Vinicius to run in behind. Kroos found him and Vinicius’ shot deflected off the sliding Pique to beat ter Stegen at his near post.
The game opened up as Barcelona chased an equaliser. Marcelo celebrated when Messi’s surge through was stopped by Raphael Varane. Pique headed Messi’s cross over at the near post. Messi picked up a yellow card for a frustrated slide on Casemiro.
In injury time, ter Stegen ventured up for a late freekick but it was Real that struck again. Mariano sped past Nelson Semedo and finished from the angle.