Liga - Barca take top spot with Clasico victory

Sat, 10 Dec 21:36:00 2011

Barcelona reasserted their dominance over great rivals Real Madrid to emerge as 3-1 victors from the first Clasico of the Liga season despite going a goal down inside 23 seconds at the Bernabeu.

FOOTBALL Barcelona celebrate scoring against Real Madrid in a Liga match at the Bernabeu on Dec. 10 - 0

Madrid approached on a 10-match winning streak in the league and with the opportunity to open up a six-point lead over Barca having played a game less than the reigning champions; they were on course to do so inside a minute as Karim Benzema exploited a horrendous error from Barca keeper Victor Valdes to put his team in front.

Jose Mourinho's side played with admirable intensity and were noticeably closer to Barca than in the largely one-sided matches between the two sides last season, but Lionel Messi made another decisive contribution on 30 minutes when playing in Alexis Sanchez for the equaliser.

The Catalans had lost only once in their last 11 games against their historic enemies from Madrid in all competitions and ensured that record would be protected on 53 minutes when Xavi added a second, although his finish required a huge deflection off Marcelo to beat Iker Casillas.

A constant sub-text to these encounters is the personal duel between Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo but the darling of Madrid lost his tussle comprehensively when committing a glaring miss from a header. Within 60 seconds Cesc Fabregas had added a third with a diving header, taking Barca level on points with Madrid but top of the table.

Barcelona knew that defeat at the Bernabeu would leave them with a chasm of points to make up, and that potentially disastrous scenario loomed horribly large after just 23 seconds.

Valdes, such a consistently brilliant goalkeeper for Barca in recent seasons, played a inexcusably sloppy pass straight to Angel Di Maria. The ball was knocked into the path of Mesut Ozil, and after the German playmaker's initial shot was blocked by Sergio Busquets, Benzema was on hand to smash the ball home on the volley from close range.

Barcelona wanted a quick response to the early setback and almost had it through Messi. He won the ball from Sergio Ramos after the Madrid defender slipped on the slick Bernabeu turf after seven minutes and drove forward 15 yards before forcing Casillas into a fantastic low save to his right.

But Madrid continued to apply unrelenting pressure on Barca in a display of frightening intensity, even if their physical prowess came as little surprise given the way they have taken a stranglehold on La Liga this season. That Barca were rattled was evident as Valdes again produced a poor clearance. However, Xabi Alonso could not direct his long-rage effort into the back of the net.

Barca were unable to implement their traditional passing game when being asphyxiated by the relentless white shirts surrounding them and though Xavi tested Casillas with a decent free-kick, it was Madrid who looked the more likely to score and Ronaldo should have made it 2-0 when skewing his shot off target following a cut-back from Benzema after 26 minutes.

In the Mourinho era, clashes between these two sides have yielded eight red cards in seven encounters and a nasty edge began to emerge. Alonso was booked for a messy challenge on Messi while Sanchez saw yellow for hacking down Di Maria. Even Messi became involved, unusually being booked for dissent before pushing his luck with a poor tackle on Alonso.

However, the Argentinian displayed the more accomplished and devastating side of his game on 30 minutes when creating the Barcelona equaliser. Messi rode a challenge before threading a sumptuous pass through for Sanchez, who took a couple of touches before slotting the ball expertly past Casillas and into the far corner.

If Madrid were on top in the first half, then Barcelona emerged a more impressive force after the break. Though Ronaldo threatened with two free-kicks, Barca enjoyed far more touches of the ball as they settled into a dangerous rhythm.

Their second goal, which arrived on 53 minutes, was fortunate in the extreme. A loose ball bounced into the path of Xavi 20 yards from goal and though the midfielder's technique was perfect as he hit a downwards volley, it was a huge deflection off Marcelo that sent the ball squirming and spinning just out of the reach of the wrong-footed Casillas.

Madrid needed something to change the momentum of the tie and on 65 minutes they thought they had it. Alonso supplied a wonderful cross from the left to find Ronaldo unmarked and in space. The forward had the Barca goal at his mercy but somehow directed his header wide of the post. The exasperation was palpable for a player who continually suffers in the shadow of Messi.

Inside 60 seconds, Ronaldo and Madrid were punished by a third goal. Dani Alves, a model of perpetual motion down the right flank, delivered a wonderful cross to the back post where Fabregas was waiting to head home for his 10th goal for Barcelona following his long-awaited move from Arsenal over the summer.

Benzema and Kaka enjoyed chances for Madrid but the club from the Spanish capital could not claw a goal back and ensure a nervy conclusion for the Catalans. After all the talk about a new Madrid and a new approach from Mourinho, it was Barca who ended the night on top of the Liga table once again.

Tom Adams on Twitter @tomEurosport / Eurosport

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