Vinicius Jr and Mariano Diaz struck second-half goals as Real Madrid beat Barcelona 2-0 in El Clasico to go top of LaLiga in a tense Santiago Bernabeu contest.
In the 244th official Clasico, it was almost neck-and-neck in the head-to-head records, with Barcelona on 96 wins and Real Madrid one behind on 95.
But in the recent meetings between the two behemoths of Spanish football, there had rarely there been such a critical meeting, with Barca two points clear at the top of LaLiga. It was make or break as far as Los Blancos were concerned.
Real coach Zinedine Zidane made the unexpected decision to recall the experienced Marcelo at left-back and start Vinicius Jr in front of him, while Gareth Bale was on the bench.
In his first Clasico as Barca boss, Quique Setien opted to stick with his tried and tested method of a central midfield quartet, with Lionel Messi and Antoine Griezmann leading the line.
As both sides attempted to settle in the game in wet and windy conditions, it was Real who had the first crack at goal, with Karim Benzema volleying over on his 500th Real Madrid appearance.
Antoine Griezmann showed superb movement to create a chance for himself in the box, getting on the end of Jordi Alba’s cross but somehow blazed over from all of 12 yards – blaming a bobble in the turf for the miss.
Having spent long periods waiting for the ball, Barca had two chances later in the half. Arthur broke the offside trap to bear down on goal against Courtois but the Belgian stood tall and pushed away his effort. Two minutes later, Messi broke clear down the middle after a delightful lofted pass from Sergio Busquets but again, Courtois was equal to it.
After the break, Real looked rejuvenated and began to crank up the pressure with Isco’s brilliant curling effort appearing destined for the top corner only for an incredible fingertip save from Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
It was Isco again who had the chance to put Real in front and this time he did beat ter Stegen – but not Gerard Pique, who hacked away his header off the line.
Then it was Benzema’s turn to have his chance on goal, but the Frenchman somehow volleyed over from Dani Carvajal’s clipped ball. Real were having so many chances that it felt inevitable they would be punished.
Indeed, substitute Martin Braithwaite nearly made them pay within seconds of coming on but the ever-reliable Courtois stopped him with a vital save.
But finally, the moment arrived. Toni Kroos slid a defence-splitting pass into Vinicius Junior’s path and with the aid of a deflection, he squeezed his side-footed effort past ter Stegen.
Barca tried to hit back immediately when Messi got in behind Varane but a fine challenge from Marcelo stopped the Argentinian.
Real made sure of the points and the bragging rights when substitute Mariano struck home in stoppage time to end a four-game losing against Barca at the Bernabeu and to go a point clear at the summit.
Source: The London Evening Standard