For a while Luis Suárez must have thought this would be the perfect debut, but the feeling would prove a fleeting one. When the fixtures came out with the biggest game in club football scheduled 18 hours after the end of his ban, he had described it as “destiny” and three minutes into his Barcelona career he provided the pass that enabled Neymar to give them to the lead. After 87 minutes, though, he watched from the bench as the referee brought an end to what was a comfortable Real Madrid victory.
The Uruguayan became the first Barcelona player to make his debut against Real Madrid since Steve Archibald 30 years ago. Unlike the Scot he did not score. Nor did he emerge victorious. Goals from Cristiano Ronaldo, Pepe and Karim Benzema gave Madrid a victory that puts them a point behind their rivals.
The big news arrived before most of the fans: Suárez was to start the match. Four months and a day since he bit Giorgio Chiellini at the World Cup, he was back. Behind him, there was a familiar, if unexpected, look about the Barcelona midfield: Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets. Just like old times? Perhaps. It did take a minute and 11 seconds before Madrid even touched the ball; the impression did not last long but by the time the game changed Barcelona had the lead.
Suárez made an instant impact. Three minutes and two seconds had gone when he drifted in from the right and slotted the ball across to Neymar on the edge of the area. He cut inside away from the challenge of Dani Carvajal and Pepe, heading along the line of the penalty area and struck a low shot into the far corner.
Suárez then provided an assist for Messi. The delivery from the right was perfect, low and into the path of the Argentinian on the edge of the six-yard box but Iker Casillas blocked the shot.
Madrid had exerted pressure after the goal with Karim Benzema hitting the bar with a header and then thumping the follow-up over from close range, but the impetus went and it was Barcelona’s turn again. Carvajal had to react quick to snuff out Neymar after Messi’s superb run and pass from the right. Four minutes after that, Messi’s cross from the other side so nearly reached Suárez at the far post, but Pepe headed away.
Barcelona then paid for not taking those opportunities. Gerard Piqué slid in and handled Marcelo’s cross. Cristiano Ronaldo scored the penalty. It was the first goal Barcelona have conceded this season – Claudio Bravo had finally been beaten after 776 minutes.
The penalty, Ronaldo’s 16th goal in the league, also meant that this became the 17th consecutive clásico in which both teams had scored. It was little surprise, either; more goals seemed likely in an open match that had settled into a curious pattern.
Both sides appeared almost satisfied to let the other team attack, as if waiting patiently for them to finish the move before having a go themselves. There was little pressure applied and few tackles made. Barcelona were fractionally quicker to close down but the urge to recover the ball swiftly appeared absent. They also had more of the ball, if only because the attacks they launched tended to be more elaborated, while Madrid were quicker to reach the other area. In the space in between, players advanced largely unchecked.
Madrid had made chances and early in the second half they took the lead. The origin was more familiar: the pace and precision of a counterattack. It seemed to set up a different approach in the second half: now the challenges were made sooner, with the intent to spring forward at speed. Winning possession, Benzema led the move from deep, riding a weak challenge from Alves and heading towards the Barcelona area before nudging the ball into the path of Ronaldo. Piqué slid in to block the shot and from the resulting corner Toni Kroos swung the ball high and long. Pepe, all alone as Alves tumbled to the floor a few metres away, headed in.
Another goal came quickly and Luis Enrique must shoulder some of the blame. They say do not make changes when you are defending a set play. Do not make changes when you are attacking one either. As so often, Madrid were lethal from their opponent’s corner.
Xavi was lined up to take a Barcelona corner but 60 yards up the touchline, his number was up. He was replaced by Rakitic whose first touch was an awful corner, cleared towards the touchline. Iniesta went to tidy up but the result was a horrible mess. Isco closed him down, sprinting into space behind as Mascherano and Iniesta bumped into each other as if to the sound of a drum roll and cymbal crash. The pack was up and running again, from one area to the other in seconds. Isco to Ronaldo to James to Benzema, a neat finish and it was 3-1.
Jeremy Mathieu had previously drawn a save from Casillas but there appeared little Barcelona could do now. They attacked but created little. The more they attacked, the more easily Madrid did, surging from deep, Barcelona unable to block their path. At times Mascherano looked like a man trying to stop the tide. Sometimes he did, more often Madrid’s final pass brought the breaks to a premature end.
Suárez was withdrawn with just over 20 minutes to go and a few moments later Iniesta departed too. A debut that had begun so well would end in defeat.