Luis Suarez decisive as Barcelona beat Real Madrid to take control of La Liga
BARCELONA -- Goals from Jeremy Mathieu and Luis Suarez gave Barcelona what could be a title-deciding 2-1 win over Real Madrid in Sunday's Clasico. Here are three quick thoughts from the Camp Nou.
1. Suarez wins it for Barca
Barcelona's 80-million-euro summer signing repaid a large chunk of his transfer fee with the goal that won a potentially decisive La Liga Clasico to send his team four points clear in the title race.
Real Madrid had been the better team for long periods through the first 56 minutes at the Camp Nou, with the home crowd of 98,760 growing increasingly uncomfortable as Carlo Ancelotti's side recovered from going behind to Jeremy Mathieu's header, leveling through Cristiano Ronaldo and then beginning to dominate proceedings in midfield.
Suarez's goal changed all that. Dani Alves' excellent long pass caught Madrid centre-back Sergio Ramos out of position; the former Liverpool forward took one velvet touch to kill the ball and a second to expertly slide the ball past Iker Casillas and just inside the far corner.
It took three months for Suarez to make his blaugrana debut and another three months to really settle at the Camp Nou, but the 28-year-old has recently shown the confidence and killer instinct of his best Liverpool days. His first 20 games for Barça brought just six goals but he now has eight in his past nine games in all competitions, including the expertly taken brace at Manchester City in the Champions League, amid a feeling that he now feels at home in Catalonia.
Suarez also gave a proper centre-forward's display. Sometimes he would come deep for the ball and play with his back to goal, other times he'd spin behind the shoulder of the last defender. The first of those approaches lead to Barca's opener, as he was fouled by Pepe for the free kick that Lionel Messi hoisted in for Mathieu to nod beyond Casillas. The second tactic saw him take advantage of slack marking by Ramos to get clear on goal, where his expert finishing did the rest.
Suarez now joins a list of other Barca players to score in their first Camp Nou clasico, which includes Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Ronaldinho, Romario, Gary Lineker and Diego Maradona. Neymar also scored in his first home game against Madrid last season, and he really should have been on the scoresheet again here. His first-half miss from 3 yards, just before Ronaldo's equaliser, looked to be the game's pivotal moment until Suarez struck.
But after the Uruguayan had put Barca back in front, the Brazilian wore Madrid's defence down with a series of driving runs straight at goal, one of which almost brought a goal for the ages, when he beat three men in midfield but shot just over from 20 yards. His marker Dani Carvajal was lucky not to be red carded for stopping another Neymar mazy dribble. There were other misses closer to goal too, but he was withdrawn late on, the Camp Nou happy with what they had seen.
2. Messi edges personal battle with Ronaldo
La Liga duels between Barcelona and Real Madrid are often billed as personal battles between their respective superstars. But rarely over recent seasons have Barca's Lionel Messi and Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo gone into a Clasico with such contrasting media attention and such divergent trajectories of form. Before the match, the local prmedia ess narrative put the newly slim-line Argentine in the ascendancy and the troubled Portuguese, now into this 30s, on the decline.
The Argentine struck first when back-up defender Jeremy Mathieu, only in the team due to an injury to Sergio Busquets, got ahead of Ramos to nod in Messi's perfectly flighted set piece. It was the Argentine's 22nd assist of the season and seemed to confirm his superiority in all facets of the game at the moment.
Ronaldo, barracked throughout by the Camp Nou crowd, appeared unaffected as he equalised for Madrid by prodding past Claudio Bravo after Karim Benzema's superb back-heel had put him clear on goal. This was not the rampaging athlete of previous seasons, but the 30-year-old is still an expert finisher.
It was not all going Ronaldo's way, however; referee Antonio Miguel Mateu Lahoz booked him for diving and then ruled he had been fractionally offside when flicking on for Gareth Bale to score from close range what seemed for a moment to be Madrid's second goal. At that stage with Madrid looking in control, Messi was a peripheral figure, unable to get into the game. He did flicker to life though early in the second period, coming deep to pick up the ball and start to drive at the visiting defence. One such run brought a Luka Modric yellow card.
The Argentine eventually came into his own after Suarez had scored, his dribbles draining energy from Madrid's increasingly exhausted midfield. One trademark turn and then acceleration to the edge of the D brought a curling shot that flew just wide. Moments later, another driving run set up a chance for Neymar, who shot wide. Messi went himself late on, but was denied by Casillas at the near post.
In the end both Messi and Ronaldo were (for once) overshadowed by Suarez. But in their personal battle it was Leo on top Sunday night.
3. Madrid show character but fall behind in title race
Barcelona came into the game having won 18 of 19 games in all competitions, a run that saw them move a point clear at the top of the table as Real Madrid faltered through recent weeks. Madrid had struggled especially away from home in recent months, losing at Valencia, Athletic Bilbao and most painfully 4-0 at Atletico Madrid in the Spanish capital derbi. But here they showed a lot of the "character and personality," which Ancelotti had called for before the match, though it wasn't enough to prevent defeat.
Ancelotti's side started brightly, with Ronaldo shrugging off constant barracking to hit the bar, and they did not let their heads drop even after Jeremy Mathieu had headed Barca in front. Modric and Kroos were playing with assurance in midfield, holding the ball well and matching Barca in the battle for possession in midfield.
A key moment came just after halftime, when Claudio Bravo made an excellent save from a Benzema shot from 8 yards out after the Barca defence had been opened up by a smart passing move. It was quite strange seeing Barca mostly dangerous from set pieces while Madrid ripping them apart with intricate passing.
Once Suarez scored though, Barca took control. Isco's booking for a lazy trip on Neymar with half an hour to play was not a good sign. Real's midfield looked drained of energy, with Modric's recent injury absence and Kroos accumulated minutes this season taking their toll. In the end Madrid were lucky to lose just 2-1, with Casillas making a number of fine stops and Barca butchering more than a few chances on the break.
Ancelotti's side can take hope from how well they played for long stages, showing super spirit considering all the circumstances, but they faded badly in the second half. Barca were not at their best, but Luis Enrique's men are now heavy favourites to take this season's La Liga title.
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan