Bale trumps Neymar in far from classic El Clasico cup final

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.

El Clasico: Messi hat-trick re-ignites Barca title challenge

Messi the difference in Bernabeu encounter

The latest instalment of El Clasico was preceded with a minute’s silence for Adolfo Suarez, the Prime Minister who united Spain after the reign of General Franco. Once the formalities were over, the only thing uniting Real Madrid and Barcelona was their desire to strike a blow to the other’s title hopes.
This game began at the pace we’ve come to expect in meeting of these two sides. Neymar had the first shot in anger in the third minute, and following a half-hearted Ronaldo penalty appeal, Iniesta drew first blood for Barcelona. A well-timed ball from Messi found the Spanish midfielder in plenty of space and he blasted a left footed shot across Diego Lopez and in off the woodwork.
That goal provoked Madrid and they responded swiftly. While all talk before the match was about Ronaldo and Messi, Bale and Neymar, it was Angel Di Maria who was running the show. He teed up Benzema in the 12th minute but the Frenchman squandered the opportunity, blasting over from close range. A few minutes later however the centre forward made no such mistake. Di Maria the provider again, Benzema rose highest to power a header past a despairing Valdes. The keeper got a hand to it, but it served only to place the ball in the top corner.
Di Maria and Madrid had their tails up, and three minutes later they took the lead. Di Maria was giving Dani Alves a torrid time down the left, and it was his cross again that found Benzema on the edge of the six yard box. A good first touch was followed by a smart volley with his right foot. The Barcelona players looked stricken as Ancelotti lost his usual composure celebrating on the sidelines.
With the combination of Di Maria and Benzema proving so effective, Barcelona would have been well advised to shackle them. The problem with that being that leaves space for messrs Bale and Ronaldo. So it was no surprise when Di Maria once more found space on the left flank to put in a cross. The ball eventually found its way to Benzema who shifted it onto his left and aimed for the bottom corner. Only a last-ditch block on the line from Gerard Pique prevented the French striker from completing a perfect hatrick.
It was all Madrid for large periods of the first half. When in possession, Barcelona faced a white wall near impossible to break down. Five minutes before half time however, Messi found a way through. His pass to Neymar inside the box deflected back into his path and he made no mistake, finishing low to Diego Lopez’ left. As Messi celebrated becoming the all time top scorer in El Clasico (19), Pepe and Fabregas rubbed noses and proceeded to fall to the floor. Both were awarded yellow cards for their efforts. There was still just time for Benzema to flash another header wide before the teams trudged down the tunnel. The 400 million people watching had time to draw their collective breath.
The second half didn’t spark to life until the 53rd minute. A jinking run from Ronaldo was ended abruptly with a trip from Dani Alves just outside the box. Incredibly however, the referee Undiano Mallenco pointed to the spot, despite the protests from the Barcelona players. Unconcerned with the Barca players’ feelings, Ronaldo dispatched the penalty to give Madrid a one goal lead that was to last just ten minutes.
As Ronaldo had scored the penalty, it was Messi’s turn to influence the game once more. His slide-rule pass to Neymar was inch perfect and the Brazilian went down in the box following minimal contact from Sergio Ramos. The Spanish centre-half was duly shown the 19th red card of his career. It was his third in an El Clasico, and the 13th shown in the past 14 meetings between these two sides. Messi made no mistake with the spot-kick.
Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti sacrificed Benzema for compatriot Rafael Varane as he looked to protect the draw which would leave his side four points ahead of their bitter rivals. Zinedine Zidane was on hand to console Benzema as he came off without attaining his hat-trick.
Gerard Martino also made a change, taking off a disappointing Neymar and replacing him with Pedro. Calls had been made for Pedro’s inclusion from the start, given Neymar’s recent run of poor form as opposed to the Spaniard’s 14 goals and 8 assists this season.
The game died down again following Messi’s penalty, with both sides fighting hard for possession in the middle of the park but failing to make any significant breakthroughs. Dani Alves struck the base of the left post in the 73rd minute but the rebound failed to find any players in blue and red. Martino brought on Alexis Sanchez another player who had cause to be disappointed not to start the game. The Chilean had 17 goals and 7 assists before this weekend. Cesc Fabregas made way after an underwhelming performance.
It was neither Sanchez nor Pedro who were to make the vital contribution to the game however. Andres Iniesta, who had been lively all evening, found himself near the left by-line being marked by Carvajo and Alonso. As he tried to drift through the non-existent space between them, he found contact and went down. The referee pointed to the spot once more amidst howls of protests from the Bernabeu faithful. Messi blasted the penalty high into the roof of the net to secure his 26th career hat-trick. He scored his first against the same opponents way back in 2007.
The game ended scrappily as Madrid struggled to reclaim the ball from their opponents. Martino may have introduced a Plan B to this Barcelona side’s armoury, with crosses and diagonal balls not uncommon in games, yet this was all Plan A. Patient build up play, supporting the player on the ball. Alonso, Ronaldo and Modric received yellow cards for kicking the shadows they chased in the closing stages.
85,454 people in the Bernabeu to witness the latest in a long line of classic El Clasicos. When the final whistle blew, all that could be heard was the jubilant singing of the travelling Barcelona supporters.
Celebrating too will be Atletico Madrid. This result leaves them top of La Liga following their 2-0 victory away to Real Betis earlier this evening. Level on points with their bitter city rivals, they have a better head to head record. Barcelona’s victory brings them to within a point of the Madrid sides. Real Madrid must finish clear points ahead of both sides to claim the championship.
The last La Liga El Clasico of the season is by no means the last time these two magnificent sides will meet. They lock horns once more in the Copa Del Rey final on April 16th, and there is still the possibility that they will meet in the semi-finals or final of the Champions League. After matches like this one, we can only hope.

El Clasico: Messi v Ronaldo not the only show in town

An intriguing encounter in store tonight
El Clasico. There’s no more intriguing game in the football calendar. Leaving aside the political context, Real Madrid and Barcelona is never a boring spectacle. For the past few years it has been the Ronaldo and Messi show. That duel still takes centre stage, but this season there’s a wonderful supporting act in Bale and Neymar.
In the last El Clasico at the Camp Nou in October, the home side ran out 2-1 winners following goals from Neymar and Sanchez. That goal helped endear Neymar to the Barcelona support following his high profile summer move from Santos. Unusually however, the Brazilian’s transfer has come under even more scrutiny in the interim. It has emerged that the Catalan side paid far more than originally estimated to secure his services.
Off the field problems aside, Neymar has struggled for consistency when playing for the Blaugrana. His best spell coincided with Lionel Messi’s absence due to injury. Since Messi’s return this year, Neymar has found it difficult to be as effective. Could it be that Neymar needs to be the main man in attack in order to reach his full potential? Can he and Messi form a long-term beneficial partnership up front? Games against teams in the lower half of La Liga can only tell us so much. Real Madrid in the Bernabeu  will give a real indicator as to how the two South American stars can play together.
Messi himself has cut a frustrated figure at times this season. Gerardo Martino’s time at the helm has seen a slight shift away from the tiki taka football cultivated to devastating effect under Pep Guardiola and Tito Vilanova.  This season has seen an emphasis in some games on diagonal balls and crosses, as opposed to patient build up play with the ball and urgent pressing without it. Martino is clearly trying to formulate a Plan B that Barcelona can switch to when opponents are difficult to break down. However these tactics need a genuine number 9 who can hold up the ball and get on the end of crosses. Messi is many many things, but an old style centre forward he ain’t. Noises from the Camp Nou suggest that Martino will move on in the summer, most likely to take over the Argentina national side. If he does, expect to see an advocate of Tiki Taka hired in his place. Messi is the one player who Barcelona don’t want to upset. He was the star of Barca’s 7 goal dismantling of Osasuna last week and will likely need to reproduce those goal scoring exploits at the Bernabeu. 
Since defeat at the hands of their bitter rivals in October, Real Madrid haven’t lost a game. This extra-ordinary run has been facilitated by a cohesive unit who are as potent in attack as they are  solid in defence. Ronaldo has been in his usual superlative form, and has been adequately supported by the player who usurped him as the most expensive footballer on the planet, Gareth Bale. Bale played in the last El Clasico while still not clearly fully fit (he didn’t have a pre-season), but since then he has been in flying form, weighing in with 14 goals and 17 assists as Madrid marched to the top of La Liga and into the Champions League quarter finals. His former team-mate at Spurs, Luka Modric, has been imperious in the midfield, with short odds on him being voted player of the season in La Liga.
Also in good form has been Karim Benzema, with Zinedine Zidane’s move from upstairs to the coaching team being credited for improving the French striker’s performances. The number 9 is a doubt for tonight, and Jese Rodriguez is certainly out. If Benzema doesn’t recover in time, Arsenal target Alvaro Morata may see game time. An extremely talented youngster, he has yet to  prove his worth to a dubious Carlo Ancelotti.

With Barcelona’s difficulties at the back (set to be compounded at the end of the season with Carlos Puyol’s retirement) it is difficult to see past Real Madrid for tonight’s game. However, if Messi and Neymar manage to combine to good effect, there’s always a chance Barcelona could sneak a result. A win for Real is a disaster both for Barcelona and neutral observers, as it would leave the Catalans 7 points adrift entering the home stretch of the season. A draw would suit Atletico Madrid as well as anyone, as they travel to Real Betis beforehand and could be level with their city rivals at the summit before El Clasico brings the footballing world to a standstill.