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After 26 matches and 91 minutes of nerves and tension, a swipe of Franck Kessié’s boot virtually delivered the league for Barcelona. Barcelona had been hit by what appeared to be a late Marco Asensio winner that would have reopened the title race only to witness it get ruled out by VAR and the tightest of offsides. Then they had resisted, and now they were virtually champions. One last run, a Robert Lewandowski backheel and a delivery from Alejandro Balde left Kessié there to finish the move the match and probably the season.
As the ball hit the net, it gave Barcelona a 2-1 win in the clasico and took them 12 points clear at the top of the table with 12 games to go. They had suffered, they had been exposed, and they had felt the tension grow until the very end, but they had held on to eventually clinch a vital victory, this place erupting at the end of an enjoyable encounter, one that felt like a different world to the last time these two great rivals had met, shouts of celebration echoing around the passageways of this enormous stadium.
The last time, in the Copa del Rey a fortnight ago, Barcelona had had just 36% of possession, their lowest total going back 800 games. That had been forced, not sought, Xavi insisted, but a debate has surrounded their style all season. The coach was the defender of Barcelona’s footballing faith as a player, an ideologue of possession and passing who has insisted that at the Camp Nou it is not enough just to win. This year, though, it has been: enough at least to give them their lead at the top. They have won 1-0 nine times.
It’s not the way they want it but if they did so again here, it would be “fantastic, wonderful” Xavi said. A final score of 2-1 was just as stressful, just as tight, but it would turn out even better. This time Barcelona took far more of the ball and more of the territory too – Frenkie De Jong impressed, which was even more important given Sergio Busquets’ tendency to give the ball away, but the hope of taking a 1-0 win was gone fast so they would have to do it the hard way. Barcelona had conceded only eight goals in La Liga, three of them from Madrid; it took eight minutes for them to concede another, and it was a fluke own goal – the first La Liga has seen in a clasico this century.
Moved to right-back, Ronald Araujo had been charged with controlling Vinícius Júnior, as he had done so successfully in previous meetings. Instead, his night started by accidentally aiding him, deflecting the Brazilian’s cross into the net at the near post. It was the first goal Barcelona had let in from open play here all season.
If Marc-André ter Stegen had been unable to react in time, moving a little slow to the spinning ball, Thibaut Courtois was having a better evening at the other end. He had made two saves inside five minutes: the first from Lewandowski’s long-range shot, the second from Raphinha’s header. Soon after, the same two men had the ball deep in the Real area within a minute, only to find the space closed, and then Andreas Christensen headed wide.
That had come from Raphinha’s inswinging cross. So much of what Barcelona did would do so. Maybe too much of what they did, in fact, although the Brazilian had been active, wanting to carrying towards the Real box. The visitors were prepared to wait deep, a midfield four in support, Karim Benzema and Vinícius left up front. In the absence of Pedri, with Gavi unable to really get into the game, Barcelona lacked the subtlety to find space around the area, still less penetrate it. And so the crosses came.
Christensen and Araujo had headers wide. Next Raphinha came inside to hit a shot that Courtois pushed over. By half-time they had taken nine shots, the last of them with the final touch of the half to at last bring them reward. It took three goes. Lewandowski speared a ball across the face of the area; Raphinha swung and missed it entirely but the move was kept alive; Araujo delivering. The first shot from Raphinha was blocked but the ball fell to Sergi Roberto, a surprise inclusion in the starting XI. Calm in a crowd, he side-footed into the net.
Nacho had to stretch to prevent Roberto’s ball reaching Raphinha as Barcelona tried to take possession again at the restart. And yet there was still an indecision in dangerous areas, an openness through the middle and a tendency to give it away where it was least opportune. Nor was it getting much easier to find a way through on the edge of the Real area where Lewandowski turned and fired wide, the ball deflecting off the heel of Éder Militão. De Jong almost caught Real from the corner but struck over.
This was on edge, a game that felt like it could fall either way and that would continue the longer it went on. Barcelona knew that a draw would probably do but looked for the win; Real knew that a drawdefinitely would not do. The fact that Barcelona didn’t seem keen to settle for that may even have been good news for them, the game opening up. Rodrygo was introduced on the hour, employed as a No 10. Another ball given away by Busquets immediately gave him a great sight of goal but the Brazilian shot over. Although Vinícius couldn’t find the pass, or the finish, he was getting up and running a little more often now.
Real were struggling to create but Barcelona were not breathing easily and the chance to do so was denied them when Lewandowski badly sliced an acrobatic volley over from six yards after Busquets’ neat clipped ball. The cheers that greeted Vinícius’s shot over soon after spoke of relief. Again, Real had gone right through the middle of the pitch; still Barcelona sought the goal that would give them some security. Gavi and Balde then created an opportunity for Roberto and Raphinha to combine, Courtois pushing away the latter’s shot. Lewandowski then turned a shot into the sidenetting.
The nerves could be felt in a Jules Koundé pass that gifted Benzema the ball and the unexpectedly weak shot that followed and even more so, in the long, long wait with 10 minutes to go, when it seemed that Real had got the winner. Rodrygo and Vinicius began the break, Carvajal crossed and Asensio turned it in first time.
When at last Ricardo De Burgos Bengoetxea blew his whistle, drew a screen and ruled it out for offside, the roar was huge. An even bigger one would follow soon after.
Barça 12 points clear in title race after Kessié’s late winner against Real Madrid
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