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So much for El Clasico being a snoozer without fans.
In Saturday’s much-anticipated first meeting of the season between Spanish titans Barcelona and Real Madrid — the first Clasico played without spectators in attendance in rivalry’s 118-year history because of the coronavirus pandemic — it took less than five minutes for the match to pop off.
Real Madrid’s Federico Valverde scored an early opener, and the visitors added second-half goals form Sergio Ramos and Luka Modrić to cancel out 17-year-old Ansu Fati’s equalizer and seal a deserved 3-1 win.
Even without supporters in attendance at the 99,000-seat Nou Camp, Europe’s largest stadium, it was a one of the most entertaining Clasicos in recent memory.
Valverde’s strike set the tone. It came after Karim Benzema had sent him in alone on Baca keeper Neto with a clever through-ball:
Before the match, Barcelona manger Ronaldo Koeman had lamented the lack of the usual home-field advantage. And the hosts, in falling behind off the hop, sure looked like they would struggle without what Koeman called Barca’s “12th man.”
The feeling didn’t last long, though. Fati, who made Koeman’s starting lineup at the expense of World Cup-winning French forward Antoine Griezmann, pulled the Blaugrana level about a seconds after the restart.
Billed as Lionel Messi’s eventual replacement, Fati finished off a sequence that started with Messi’s exquisite over-the-top pass from the midfield:
The game could’ve settled down at that point. It didn’t. The teams traded fouls and chances. A penalty shout was ignored after Messi went tumbling in Madrid’s 18-yard box. Barca’s teenage right back Sergiño Dest — the first American to appear in a Clasico — defended Real winger Vinícius Júnior superbly, and showed some flair going forward, too.
In hindsight, the urgency shown by both teams made sense. Each was coming off a loss in its last La Liga match, the first time that had happened ahead of the Clasico since 2003. Real’s sense of desperation was downright visceral, though, following an embarrassing midweek home loss to Shakhtar Donetsk in its 2020-21 Champions League opener.
And it showed. While the teams combined for 25 shots, Real Madrid was clearly the hungrier, and better, team. There’s no disputing that, no matter how you might feel about the controversial VAR decision that sent Ramos to the penalty spot, from where he cooly stroked home what turned out to be the winner:
And there was certainly no argument after Modric came off the bench to twist the dagger in Barcelona in the final minute of regular time:
It was a needed and morale-boosting victory for Real, one that propelled the defending Spanish champs back to the top of La Liga’s standings. For Barcelona, it’s unadulterated misery, nothing less. The pressure on Koeman is already beginning to mount, as is Messi’s ongoing frustration with the direction of the club he led to four European titles over the course of his otherworldly career.
Barca now sits 10th in the table, with a huge Champions League test at Cristiano Ronaldo’s Juventus looming next week.
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