Bernabeu, Madrid – There was to be no white Christmas as the huge banner unfurled at the south end of the ground had predicted. Los Blancos were left with a blue Christmas at the end of the Clasico – it was the handful of Barcelona fans positioned high inside the Bernabeu who were full of Christmas cheer having just witnessed a victory with profound consequences. Ernesto Valverde insisted that the league is not yet won and Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane said the same, but goals from Luis Suarez, Leo Messi, and Aleix Vidal carried la Blaugrana 14 points ahead of their eternal rivals.
When these two sides last met in the Spanish Super Cup in August, Gerard Pique said that for the first time he felt inferior to Madrid. Now, twenty-five games on with Barcelona have failed to lose one of them – the superiority is definitely theirs again. Saturday’s Clasico defeat was described as one ‘that hurts’ by Zidane. “People can think the league is over but I don’t think so and I don’t think the opposition coach thinks so either.”
The Madrid morning sun had barely lifted the overnight frost when Sergio Ramos began to parade the newest member of the Real Madrid trophy cabinet, the Club World Cup, to the Bernabeu crowd. The early kick-off was set by La Liga to attract as wide a global TV audience as possible – newspaper Mundo Deportivo estimated there would be 650-million viewers with the majority of those based in Asia.
The match ended with the ball in Real’s net; it had started with the ball in Barcelona’s when Cristiano Ronaldo’s header went in off the bar only for the linesman’s flag to be raised for offside. Following that Ronaldo produced a wild air-shot by the penalty spot that some say summed up his season thus far. Ten minutes had gone and with Mateo Kovacic, a surprise starter with the instruction of preventing Sergio Busquets from bringing the ball out and Messi from finding time or space the visitors had barely had possession.
Valverde admitted that his side “struggled to overcome that pressure,” yet with an 11-point lead over their hosts, they were not in any hurry. “It’s when you think you’re on top that Madrid hit you.” And so it proved: Thomas Vermaelen brought down Luka Modric as he broke through, Ronaldo shot against Sergi Roberto, and another Ronaldo attempt hit goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen’s foot. Karim Benzema then hit the post from Marcelo’s cross.
Paulinho had two of Barcelona’s best chances – Messi clipped a superb ball into the midfielder’s run and his excellent shot was saved by Keylor Navas after half an hour before Navas saved a near-post header. Messi’s 45th-minute free-kick thudded against Ronaldo’s head. There was a growing sense of the visitors taking control as they departed for half-time and when they reappeared, they asserted themselves even more.
In the 54th minute Busquets – deep in his own area – turned, stepped away from Toni Kroos and found Ivan Rakitic. Space opened up in front of the Croatian, who was one of Barcelona’s star performers on the day, and he laid the ball to Sergi Roberto, who crossed for Suarez to score. Messi playing a crucial role once more by dragging Madrid defenders to one side in order to create space for Rakitic’s run.
Gareth Bale and Marco Asensio were both standing on the touchline preparing to make an entrance when Barcelona doubled their lead. Messi put Suarez clear, Navas saved the first shot but Messi collected the rebound and returned it to Suarez, whose second effort came off the woodwork to Paulinho. From his header, Carvajal made a neat one-handed save. Paulinho bundled the ball over the line, but referee Sanchez Martinez blew, pulled out a red card and pointed to the spot. Carvajal ran off the pitch – unusually for when a player is sent off – and Messi thumped in the penalty.
Bale and Asensio entered in a final attempt to break Catalan control. Messi drew another save from Navas, who also saved from Nelson Samedo. Twice more Navas denied Messi but Real had not given up. Ter Stegen made a fantastic save from Bale, then blocked a Sergio Ramos effort. There was still time, but it was Barcelona who used it effectively. Messi – the man of the match with his effort, quality, and decisive touch – evaded Marcelo and crossed for Aleix Vidal to score having only been on the pitch for less than a minute.
When all was said and done, it was a comfortable victory for la Blaugrana. Los Blancos were left feeling blue. The Clasico was over, and maybe the league, too.
Los Otros Puntos
- After quite a worrying start to the season, it is now fair to say that Eibar are in dreamland – following on from their home win against Valencia; Takashi Inui scored twice to extend the Basque’s unbeaten La Liga run to six games with a 4-1 win against Girona. Eibar went ahead inside a minute when Inui cut in from the left and fired low into the near corner. It was 2-0 just nine minutes later after Charles headed in full-back Jose Angel’s cross from the left. David Timor curled in a 30-yard free-kick after 26 minutes to reduce the deficit but Inui’s second of the match just after the break put Eibar back in charge. Joan Jordan rounded off a crushing home victory in stoppage time by converting Ruben Pena’s cross from close range.
- One of the biggest days of the year in Galicia saw Celta Vigo return to winning ways after three matches without a victory as they beat Deportivo in the derby. Daniel Wass gave Celta the lead after four minutes and Iago Aspas struck either side of the break to render Florin Andone’s strike a mere consolation. Celta who have been impressive at times this season and easy on the eye find themselves in mid-table whilst Deportivo have a difficult few months on the horizon as they’re in the relegation zone.
- The fans at a tense Mendizzoroza didn’t know whether to cover their eyes or cheer when Alaves met Malaga in a match that pitted two of the bottom three against each other in a must-win game. Munir scored on the hour mark for Alaves – a volley in from Ruben Duarte’s flick-on – just ten minutes after missing an open goal from inside the six-yard box. Relief was awash come the final whistle as the victory took the hosts up to 17th.
- Atletico Madrid’s unbeaten La Liga run – stretching back to the defeat against Villarreal in April – came to an end at the hands of former manager Quique Sanches Flores and his Espanyol side. Sergio Garcia scored his first goal of the season just two minutes from time to earn the Catalan’s their first win in four outings.
- Valencia missed the chance to climb above Atletico Madrid into second place by falling to a 1-0 loss at home to local rivals Villarreal. Carlos Bacca’s 24th-minute strike proved the difference as Valencia’s Simone Zaza was sent off for two yellow cards in three second-half minutes. Villarreal’s Manu Trigueros was also dismissed for two bookable offences leaving both sides finishing with 10 men.
- Eyebrows were raised and hearts saddened on Friday evening – just six days after returning to the dugout after treatment for prostate cancer, Eduardo Berizzo was sacked as manager of Sevilla. The team’s “poor run of results” was the reason given even though they were 5th in the league and in the knockout round of the Champions League – hmmm.
Levante 0–0 Leganes
Getafe 2–0 Las Palmas
Real Sociedad 3–1 Sevilla
Eibar 4–1 Girona
Alaves 1–0 Malaga
Real Betis 0–2 Athletic Bilbao
Espanyol 1–0 Atletico Madrid
Real Madrid 0–3 Barcelona
Valencia 0–1 Villarreal
Deportivo 1–3 Celta Vigo
El Jugador de la Semana: Leo Messi (Barcelona)