There was a special Clasico debut in the Camp Nou last night but it belonged to Brazilian forward Neymar and not Gareth Bale.
The world’s most expensive footballer played an hour of the biggest game in European football but it was the other big La Liga summer signing who stole the show scoring in the first half as Barcelona beat Real Madrid.
As planned Bale was given an hour and with Barcelona defending deeper than usual to guard against his pace, he was limited to two diagonal first half runs that ended in shots over Victor Valdes’ bar.
When he was taken off in the second half his replacement Karim Benzema came the closest for Madrid with a shot that came back off the crossbar. In many ways Bale’s night got even worse at the end when homegrown youngster Jese scored what was a consolation goal for Real Madrid – it will not be lost on the club’s supporters that he cost nothing.
Both sides made a scrappy start with Fabregas’ shot striking Neymar on its way to goal going down as Barcelona’s first chance.
Both Bale and Fabregas started the game as false nines for their teams. Bale moved out to the right as the game wore on but this was an improvised team picked by Carlo Ancelotti in an attempt to play the world’s most expensive player; Cristiano Ronaldo and in-form Angel Di Maria… and the untried eleven was exposed.
Barça got into their stride first and Madrid looked shaky at the back with Pepe unsure playing alongside young Raphael Varane.
It was the Portuguese who played Barcelona on-side for the home-side’s first goal. Iniesta played the ball out to Neymar and although his shot was not the most powerful and brushed an outstretched Varane leg on its way to goal, it was enough to nestle into Diego Lopez' far corner.
The Brazilian had become the youngest scorer in a clasico since Leo Messi.
Iniesta then passed to Messi and the Argentinian could easily have doubled the lead but sent the shot just wide of Lopez’ far post.
Left-back Adriano was booked and that might have encouraged Bale who was now permanently fixed out on the right but the next time he tried to get past the Brazilian full-back it was the Barça man who came away with the ball.
Real Madrid had their best chance just before half time when Ronaldo crossed from the left and Khedira’s close range shot was saved by Valdes from point-blank range. The ball seemed to hit Adriano on the arm as it cannoned off the defender and Khedira persued the referee back up the pitch to claim a penalty.
On half-time Bale completed a difficult first 45 minutes by raising his foot in a challenge on Pique and was booked. He sought out the referee as the teams walked off the pitch for an explanation as Pique hobbled off. Bale will learn quickly that all raised-foot challenges in Spain are punished with a booking. Barcelona were still trying to play themselves out of danger and it almost cost them their lead.
Iniesta was caught by Khedira in possession. He played the ball to Modric who sent Ronaldo clear. But Real Madrid’s top scorer fired straight at Valdes, marking his last ever home league clasico with a superb performance.
On the hour Bale was replaced by Benzema as Neymar again went through for Barcelona only to be foiled by a Varane tackle.
The pre-match billing had been about Bale versus Neymar as much as it had been about Messi against Ronaldo – they will have many duels no doubt over the coming seasons, but the first one was clearly won by the Barcelona number 11.
He then set-up Alexis whose sublime lob over Diego Lopez made it 2-0 before being substituted to a standing ovation.
Madrid could look back on a clear shout for a penalty after a second half push on Ronaldo by Javier Mascherano and Real Madrid coach Ancelotti said: “It was penalty and the referee was close enough to see it.”
A small spot-kick controversy will not save him from the post-match inquest and the urgent need to turn his troupe of expensive signings – headed by Bale – into a team that can compete with Barça, now six points ahead of them.
Of Bale’s performance he agreed it will take time for him to forge an understanding with his teammates: “I think he needs to find how to combine with his teammates. Physically he was fine he just needs to look for more combinations. He needs to improve his movement and look for space but he was not bad in the one hour he played.”