When the goal that finally settled this match was scored, Gerard Piqué was lying on the floor in one penalty area and Lucas Vázquez was bursting into the other to slip in the knife. Barcelona’s centre-back had been sent up front as an emergency striker on a mission to rescue his team, to do something, anything. Instead, he was left with his head in his hands, desperately appealing for a penalty that wasn’t and watching any last hope slipping away. Watching Madrid slip away too, their full-back running the length of the pitch in the 94th minute to make in 2-0.
As it turned out, there would be another goal, which was probably more than this game warranted, Sergio Agüero scoring in the 97th minute. But there were no celebrations, everyone knowing it was too late already and the image of Madrid’s second, decisive strike helped to define the 246th meeting between these teams who once were giants. The closer Barcelona came to the opposition’s area – if only very rarely their goal – the closer they came to being killed off, the counterattack proving Madrid’s most lethal weapon.
It was expertly exploited, Vinícius Júnior especially slicing through Barcelona, even if two unlikely men eventually won it for Madrid, which seemed to say something too. David Alaba scored the first, Lucas Vázquez the second. Ronald Koeman had become the first Barcelona manager to lose three consecutive clásicos since Patrick O’Connell, way back before the civil war. As for Carlo Ancelotti, he won this fixture for the first time. “It feels good,” he said, smiling, yet there was realism in his analysis and Madrid’s celebrations were not especially effusive, as if aware that bigger challenges than Barcelona will come.
There was certainly no sign of the “lion” Ancelotti had alluded to before the game, a reason for his team to embrace some fear. Koeman claimed Barcelona had played more, deserved more, and that defeat was “hard to take”, but it was harder still to accept that argument. At best, Barcelona were toothless: that chance that Piqué lamented was also only their second, or it would have been had it been a real chance. The first came to Sergiño Dest, who wasted a glorious opportunity in the first half with the score still 0-0.
After that, there had been nothing much. Agüero’s goal, swept in at the very end, was Barcelona’s first shot on target. “They actually had better chances than us,” Marc-André ter Stegen admitted. They had come via a simple and increasingly familiar route, too.
This soon settled into a pattern in which Madrid seemed to be willing to wait and it was quickly apparent why: the way out was so simple, so effective, that to close off that avenue of attack – that autopista, in fact – would have been a waste. Barcelona wanted to step forward but doing so looked a lot like falling into a trap. Almost every ball was sent beyond them and usually in search of Vinícius running at or behind Óscar Mingueza, whose afternoon lasted only 45 minutes. He was taken off at half-time. The damage done. He hadn’t enjoyed this.
Dest was handed a glorious chance on 24 minutes that might have changed everything but ended with his teammates slipping to their knees. Memphis Depay had got away, shrugged off Éder Militão and pulled a pass across the area. It fell behind Fati but at the feet of Dest. Ten yards out, he hit a side-footed shot way over the bar into the seats at the south end. Barcelona had needed that. By then, they had been warned about what was coming if they couldn’t get a grip of this – and of Vinícius in particular. Mingueza could not.
Vinícius had already made one chance, scampering in behind after just 11 minutes. Then he might have won a penalty, Mingueza slow to see the danger and then unable to evade it, reaching out a hand as Vinícius went between him and Eric García. Vinícius tumbled but the referee said no. Every ball, it seemed, was heading his way. Every time Madrid got it – Thibaut Courtois included – they shot forward in mostly straight lines. And when Vinícius next drew Mingueza in, it delivered the opener on the half-hour.
He found Rodrygo, the pitch opening again, and his countryman saw Alaba running from one area to the other. “What was I thinking?” Alaba said after. “About scoring.” Alone in the area, a superb shot flew beyond Ter Stegen. Another Vinícius break ended with Toni Kroos’s volley getting blocked. And while Alaba stepped in to deny Fati from close range there had been little of consequence from the home side. At half-time Mingueza was replaced by Philippe Coutinho and Barcelona stepped up, dominating possession and territory but Madrid didn’t mind.
It had been that way from the start and it would be that way until the end. Ancelotti’s side waited for the moment to strike once again, seemingly confident they would not get caught. Barcelona put 34 crosses in, but there were no saves and fewer nerves than an occasion and a scoreline like this should see. Which was when Piqué went forward and so, escaping to victory once more, did Madrid. “This game didn’t deserve a winner,” Ter Stegen said, but it had one.