BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — With Lionel Messi no longer around to save the day, Barcelona slumped to another painful loss on Sunday when it fell 2-1 to its fiercest rival at a packed Camp Nou.
Real Madrid didn’t need a stellar performance by Karim Benzema to give coach Carlo Ancelotti his first win at this stadium. It was enough to let Barcelona flail against its defense while defenders David Alaba and Lucas Váquez chose when they could inflict damage by scoring goals in each half.
The win by Ancelotti’s side will deepen the crisis at Barcelona, which has lost all its matches against major rivals this season.
The victory moved Madrid to the top of the Spanish league, level on points with Sevilla and Real Sociedad. Sociedad can reclaim the lead when it faces defending champion Atlético Madrid later Sunday.
The defeat was another blow to Barcelona which has struggled since its financial troubles kept it from re-signing Messi and other players. Ronald Koeman’s team was left in eighth place at five points adrift.
This was the first “clásico” without Messi and Madrid’s long-time captain Sergio Ramos, former rivals who are now teammates at Paris Saint-Germain. The two between them took part in 45 editions of Spain’s top rivalry. In that time Messi led Barcelona to 19 wins while scoring a record 26 goals for the fixture.
The difference that Messi’s absence makes was clear in the 25th minute when an attractive team buildup left Dest all alone in the area. The American, whose natural position is right back, had been drafted by Koeman into a winger position on the right side where Messi had once tormented opponents.
But when a pass from Memphis Depay rolled on by Ansu Fati reached Dest just outside the six-yard box, with goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois at his mercy, Dest sent his shot sailing high over the crossbar, drawing a collective groan from Camp Nou.
Seven minutes later centerback Alaba turned goal-scorer with a wonderful curling shot from the left side of the area that the outstretched Marc-Andre ter Stegen could not stop.
“We had a very clear chance for the 1-0, and instead of that they scored the 0-1. From there on it was very difficult, and we know how dangerous they are on the counterattack,” Koeman said. “It was such a clear chance. You have to put it in.”
Vázquez added a second goal in stoppage time on a counterattack with Barcelona desperately thrown forward in search of an equalizer.
Sergio Agüero pulled one back for Barcelona on a cross from Dest in the final seconds.
Barcelona’s fans reveled in the first match against Madrid since health restrictions for the pandemic were completely lifted to allow full capacity in the 99,000-seat Camp Nou. Face masks were mandatory, but they did not stop the stadium from once again rocking with drums, chants and the occasional jeers from Barcelona fans which grew in the final minutes when frustration set in after witnessing another letdown by their team.
Barcelona’s squad from before the pandemic has undergone a major overhaul because of the club’s financial troubles. Where Messi once linked up with Antoine Griezmann on the right flank, Barcelona’s homegrown youngsters Gavi Páez and Óscar Mingueza now team up with Dest.
Madrid, meanwhile, maintains its core of veteran champions led by Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Benzema.
But it fell to Ramos’ replacement to give Madrid the lead.
Alaba robbed the ball from Depay outside his area and charged forward as part of a quick attack. Two passes later, Alaba looked like a striker when he took aim from an angle and curled a superb strike around Ter Stegen. It was the former Bayern Munich player’s first goal for Madrid.
“Shooting well from deep is a talent (Alaba) has,” said Ancelotti. “He found space and executed very well. … My goal was to get more from our attack, but we are able to hang in there and not suffer even when we don’t have the ball.”
Vázquez added his goal when he was quicker to a rebound than Eric García, as he slid a foot past the Spain defender to tuck the ball into the net.
The goal by substitute Agüero, playing in his third match since joining Barcelona from Manchester City, came far too late to spark a comeback. It is Barcelona’s only goal in defeats to Bayern Munich, Benfica, Atlético and Madrid this campaign.