Cristiano Ronaldo suffered defeat on his long—awaited return to La Liga action after two months out with a recurrence of an ankle injury.
Barcelona 's big—money summer signing Zlatan Ibrahimovic found the net with a crisp strike early in the second—half to win three points for the Catalan club, as they swapped places with Real Madrid to return to the summit of La Liga.
After Sergi Busquet's red card had reduced the home team to ten players, a late spell of pressure from an organized and technically gifted Madrid got the home crowd on the edge of their seats. But a combination of the vociferous local support and the Blaugranas' ability to stay calm and retain possession left the visitors frustrated and pointless.
With last season's goal fests fresh in the memory and Madrid's outrageous recruitment drive, football fans the world over were expecting an epic encounter.
In truth, the game was high on quality, but low on real chances and controversy.
Pep Guardiola received a major boost before the game when his superstar forward Leo Messi passed a late fitness test.
The Argentine took up his place on the right side of a three—man attack, alongside Andres Iniesta and the bain of the Irish, Thierry Henry.
For the visitors, lone striker Gonzalo Higuain was ably supported by €150 million duo Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo.
4—3—3 against 4—2—3—1.
One criticism leveled against Real Madrid in recent years has been that the team is sloppy on defense and suffers from individual errors and lapses of concentration.
Despite the club spending heavily to bolster its attack, Pellegrini has always maintained that the balance of the team was crucial to its success.
This different attitude was evident from tonight's match as Lassana Diarra and Xabi Alonso produced assured performances in nullifying Henry and Messi for most of the match.
And after the Madrid defence had managed to soak up some early pressure, Ronaldo, Kaka and Higuain began to excel in the link—up play and ability to counter—attack at pace. In fact, Ronaldo was twice denied by home goalkeeper Victor Valdes after 20 minutes as 'els merengues' threatened to take the lead. Puyol, inspirational as captain and impeccable in defence, lunged moments later to block Marcelo’s goal—bound effort.
Going in at half—time, Pellegrini was certainly the more contented of the two managers.
Guardiola would need to find a way through a well—organized Madrid defense, who had closed down space well in the opening period and managed to silence the majority of the 98,000 fans who had crammed into Barca's soon—to—be—revamped concrete cauldron in the North—West of the city.
Looking to the bench for winning solutions, it was a tale of two strikers; the imposing figure of Swedish talisman Zlatan ‘Ibra’ Ibrahimovic for the home team, and the precocious talent of French youngster Karim Benzema.
There was no surprise when Guardiola brought off Henry, ineffective and sluggish, after 51 minutes.
Four minutes later, ‘Ibra’ met Dani Alves’ superb center with a sweet left—foot volley past Iker Casillas.
Just as Barcelona looked to consolidate their lead, local player Busquets inexplicably handled the ball in the midfield and was dismissed or his second bookable offence within the space of 12 minutes. Guardiola was not amused!
Moments later, Ronaldo headed Marcelo’s cross over the bar, the last contribution of note from the Portuguese forward.
Benzema replaced ‘CR9’ with 25 minutes remaining. Ronaldo, although targeted by the home crowd, produced a tidy and accomplished display.
Real looked to force the issue with 15 minutes remaining, Raul replacing full—back Alvaro Arbeloa.
Thereafter the game opened up, as Messi and Benzema both came close to scoring a goal.
Lassana Diarra lashed out at Xavi to even up the numbers, consequently easing the pressure on the home defense.
As the referee blew the whistle for full—time, the camera shot to a very contented Puyol, for whom a clean sheet and three points was a just reward for his commanding performance at the heart of his side’s defense.
Barca back to the summit of the league, but as Iker Casillas pointed out in his post—match interview, this was a ‘missed opportunity’ for Real Madrid who, despite conceding territory and possession for much of the match, had enough chances to return south with a result.
Real’s Director General Jorge Valdano was visibly disappointed, but encouraged by his team’s composure and ‘maturity’ in such a context, words which will not provide much comfort for the club’s supporters.
FULL TIME: F C Barcelona 1 (0) – Real Madrid 0 (0)
GOALS: Ibrahimovic 55’
SENT OFF: Busquets 62’ Diarra 88’
POSSESION: FCB 57—43 RM
SHOTS ON TARGET: FCB 3—2 RM
CORNERS: FCB 6—6 RM
FOULS: FCB 17—25 RM
MAN OF THE MATCH: Carles Puyol
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