Just as Real Madrid were threatening, then came the sucker punch. Alexis Sanchez provided it with a most delightful chip from outside the box. Raphael Varane was outsmarted, Diego Lopez was, one might say, out of position. Maybe. But not to take anything away from Alexis’ arguably finest moment as a Barca player. Though his goal – his third in a Clasico – proved the winner, the night was not his. It belonged to the man who provided him with the assist – Neymar.
Speaking after the match, Gerardo Martino claimed: “I think Neymar has played better games, but the significance of his goal raises his performance. But I believe he’s played better matches.” In some ways, you can see the Argentine’s point. Neymar, overall, was not at his best. But by scoring one and setting up the other to ultimately decide a game of this magnitude, well, who cares about what else he did or did not do. He won the game.
It seems for the first time in a long while that neither Cristiano Ronaldo nor Lionel Messi had a major say in how this one went. Recent Clasicos have been very much about the battle between these two. This Clasico was still about them, but, it was also about Gareth Bale and Neymar – the two biggest signings of the summer. Along with the first meeting between Carlo Ancelotti and Martino on the sidelines, Saturday marked the beginning of a new era in the rivalry between Spain’s two greatest clubs. And Neymar made it his.
It took hardly 20 minutes for the Brazilian to open the scoring. Through a wall of defenders in the penalty area, Neymar somehow threaded the ball through and into the bottom corner. Lopez never saw it.
Then in the second half with Real Madrid on the ascendancy and threatening to pull level, a swift counter attack and a perfectly timed through ball by Neymar saw the hosts double their advantage. And it would prove a decisive advantage.
While Neymar has not exactly exploded on to the scene since his much-heralded arrival, his figures so far suggest he has fitted in seamlessly with his new surroundings. In nine games played in La Liga – two as a substitute – he has scored three goals and has six assists. No Barca player, other than Messi of course, has helped create or score more.
How Bale’s fortunes at his new club contrast. Hampered by fitness issues, the world’s most expensive player ever has hardly been seen this season. This was the case at the Camp Nou, even though he did play for an hour at least before being hooked off. The Welshman’s time will come eventually, hopefully. But for now, Barcelona will revel in the knowledge that it was Neymar – the match-winner – and not Bale that Florentino Perez wanted to sign first. So double-delight then for them.
On Sunday night it was also double-delight for former Barcelona striker David Villa, who ended his eight-match dry spell. A goal each from Diego Costa, Gabi and Oliver Torres – who scored just 14 seconds into his first starting appearance – rounded out a fine 5-0 trouncing of Real Betis to keep El Cholo’s side within a point of the Catalans.
Another former Barcelona player and B team Coach, Luis Enrique, was also on the right side of another goal-scoring exhibition. His Celta Vigo side pulled themselves out of the relegation places with a highly impressive 5-0 thrashing away to Malaga. Enrique’s side might just have finally hit some form. And it is just in time too - their next opponents are Barcelona.