Just when Barcelona thought there was a little life left in this game and in them too, Rodrygo slipped in the knife. Down 2-1 and heading into the last minute chasing an equaliser that had seemed so implausible for so long, Xavi Hernández’s team were caught again, complicit in their own demise as they had been all afternoon. First-half goals from Karim Benzema and Fede Valverde had looked to have ended this early, Madrid easing to victory, until a Ferran Torres strike five minutes from time gave the Catalans a chance only for an Eric García tackle to take it away.
His trip on Rodrygo had to be revised by the VAR but the referee, Sánchez Martínez, pointed to the spot from where the Brazilian brought the clásico to a close. It had finished with a Real Madrid victory, which was no real surprise; the surprise was that it reached the point where that was in doubt. The closing minutes here at least saw a rebellion from a Barcelona team that had long looked defeated. It also saw nerves from home fans who had spent much of this match sitting comfortably.
Madrid never seemed in a hurry but were ahead early. Toni Kroos strode from deep. Not sprinting, exactly, but quick enough – not least because his pursuer was Sergio Busquets. Following from behind, unable to get in front, Barcelona’s captain hung on to Kroos, dragging at him, trying to pull him to the ground before he released Vinícius Júnior. He failed. Vinícius was free, into a huge space behind Sergi Roberto. All the way into the area, he went, clean through, where Marc André ter Stegen was out quick, spreading himself wide, to make the save, the ball running free. Four Barcelona defenders were arriving; Karim Benzema beat them all.
It looked easy, and not for the last time. At that stage, Barcelona weren’t able to get the ball as often as they would like – as often, you suspected, as Madrid would have liked them to get it, either, the plan to draw them in and then run past.
When they started to, it didn’t seem to carry much of a threat either. One long move on 20 minutes offered a portrait. Barcelona kept possession, playing the ball around but doing so a little timidly, with no real intent. Madrid dropped in and waited. They walked even. Barcelona progressed to a point, and then turned round and went back again. Madrid were looking at them go again, standing there as if asking: is that all you’ve got?
Yeah, pretty much, it would seem. A neat move on the right, Pedri finding Raphinha, ended with Robert Lewandowski sliding in at the far post and somehow putting the ball over the bar from a yard. Not long after, a swift pass from the Pole set Roberto away. But mostly the ball was moved slowly and to no real end. Pedri would turn and see no one moving, spaces that should have been occupied, a teammate running into them, simply lying there vacant. There was no cleverness, no incision, no vision. Just vulnerability.
If Barcelona were closer to Madrid’s goal, that was right where Madrid wanted them. And so the second came. It began with neat footwork from Benzema and continued with a clipped ball forward. García leaped to clear – presumably that was the intention – but only sent it looping on towards his goal. Vinícius was, per the plan, running into the space behind while the rest were running to join him. He rolled it under his studs to Aurélien Tchouaméni, who laid it out to Ferland Mendy. Mendy pulled it back to Fede Valverde, who was on the edge of the area but with no one there to bother him.
From there, he could treat this shot like a penalty, taking his time, choosing his corner and side-footing hard and low past Ter Stegen.
Almost from the kickoff Frenkie de Jong ran all the way through, denied by Andriy Lunin, but if that might have awoken Barcelona, and much as Lewandowski ran and offered himself and asked for the ball, he grew ever more frustrated. Madrid, meanwhile, had grown comfortable, aware that they didn’t really need very much more. They could have done without the linesman’s flag going up when Benzema thought he had made it three, though. Again, it had been quite simple: Vinícius’s diagonal into space leaving the Frenchman free to come inside and bend into the corner.
If there was a flaw from Madrid, perhaps it was that they didn’t move in for more against an opponent, a rival, that is not their equal and could have suffered more damage. Still, they enjoyed the olés as they played the ball around on the hour, and perhaps that might have hurt Barcelona more. Kroos had controlled early on; Luka Modric was gliding now, superior to those around him. As the game went on, the overriding feeling though was of a team that thought it had already won this and just wanted it to come to a close now, with no damage done.
And that may have been the risk. For Barcelona, Ousmane Dembélé kept running, but mostly into trouble. And when Lewandowski just about reached across to head goalwards, all he got were ironic oohs from the Bernabéu as Lunin made a simple catch. Not long after he had a free-kick that might have made a game of this with 20 minutes to go, but struck his shot straight into the wall. He then thought he should have had a penalty when Dani Carvajal bundled him over in the area, but the referee said no.
There was something now, Tchouaméni stepping in to stop the Pole soon after and Ansu Fati striking wide. His introduction, like that of Gavi and Torres, at least brought some reaction, some rebellion. Gavi, in particular. His challenge – and he alone seemed to make them – set Fati away on the left, dashing past Valverde and into the box. His pass evaded Lewandowski but Torres was there for a finish that few expected but ultimately there was a winner that everyone had.