Last night’s El Clasico was the third of the season. Even without the hyperbolic talents of one Cristiano Ronaldo, football fans worldwide were hoping for a classic to match Barcelona’s 4-3 victory last month. King Juan Carlos was in Valencia for the occasion, and two footballing superpowers lined out in the cauldron of the Mestalla to fight it out for the Copa Del Rey, or the Kings Cup.
Ultimately however, El Clasico take three was a pre-dominantly drab affair lit up intermittently by the sheer talent of the players on display. There were no hatricks, no sendings off, and little of the drama we have come to expect when these two rivals meet.
Football supporters were left to dine on tidbits of the extraordinary. A Xavi turn here, a Benzema flick there. Barcelona look disjointed at this moment in time and Real Madrid were content to play on the break. And it was Carlo Ancelotti’s game-plan that proved decisive. A quick counter in the 11th minute, supplemented by clever one-touch play from Bale and Benzema, released the marginally onside Angel Di Maria whose low strike could only be palmed into the bottom corner by Pinto.
Young Barcelona defender Marc Bartra scored an equaliser on his El Clasico debut, losing his marker Pepe to head past the helpless Casillas midway through the second half. Yet it was Gareth Bale who was to have the final say in the Copa Del Rey final.
Even with an impressive 19 goals and 13 assists to his name this season, the Welshman has come in for criticism at times from the Madrid faithful. The accusation levelled against him was that he didn’t turn up in the big games. With a trophy at stake and such illustrious opponents opposite, Bale answered his critics last night.
Barcelona had pinned Madrid back in their own box, but some careless play allowed Los Blanco’s to break out out with the ball. Bale gathered on the left wing and passed the ball into space beyond Bartra. It’s something that every football follower has seen the former Spurs winger do, but that doesn’t make it any easier to stop. Bartra bodychecked Bale, who bounced off the field of play and kept on running. It may have been a less direct route than he would have liked, but he still had enough pace to burn Bartra and he finished calmly through the legs of Pinto.
The white half of the Mestalla erupted, and from his vantage point in the stands, the injured Ronaldo smiled a smile of approval.
Neymar had a chance to level things at the death, but one on one with Casillas he managed to hit the post when it seemed easier to score.
That miss summed up the Brazilian’s night. None of Barcelona’s starting forward three made much of an impact over the 90 minutes. Messi looked uninterested, Fabregas didn’t have the pace to threaten the Madrid defence, and nothing went right for Neymar. He lost possession far too easily, his movement rarely gave Barcelona’s midfield an option, and his shooting rarely troubled Casillas.
During a game in which footballing afficionados couldn’t compare the gifts of Messi and Ronaldo, it was only natural to focus on the lead supporting actors of Neymar and Bale. On the basis of last night’s performance the €100m Spurs commanded for Bale was a savvy investment for Madrid, while Neymar has much to do to prove he is worth whatever it was that Barcelona spent on him.