The Argentine was strangely out of sorts as Barcelona slumped to a 2-0 defeat at the Santiago Bernabeu that saw the hosts move above them in the table
Vinicius Junior and Mariano Diaz’s goals earned them a 2-0 Clasico victory which took them a point clear of their bitter rivals at the top of the Liga table and gave them the better head-to-head record, which could be crucial in such a tight title race.
Certainly, there is little to choose between the two teams, as Sunday’s game showed. This entertaining, end-to-end battle at the Santiago Bernabeu between two clearly flawed teams could have gone either way.
Usually when that’s the case, Lionel Messi is the deciding factor, but the Argentine didn’t look himself, turning in a strangely lethargic, almost lifeless display.
There have been persistent stories that he’s not fully fit and is carrying a thigh problem, one which is obviously not serious enough to stop him from playing – but might just be throwing him off his perfectly calibrated best.
There was one moment which emphasised that clearly. With Madrid ahead, Frenkie de Jong burst downfield, piling past Madrid players and feeding Messi with a perfect through ball.
Nearly 80,000 in the stadium and hundreds of millions around the world held their breath, expecting the Argentine star to race clear and fire home, as he has done so many times in the past.
But Messi was tracked by Marcelo, Zinedine Zidane’s surprise pick ahead of Ferland Mendy. Perhaps the coach was looking for the attacking upside rather than worrying about the left-back’s defensive deficiencies but the Brazilian put one in the eyes of his doubters.
Marcelo stayed alongside Messi and helped dispossess him before celebrating wildly, as if he had scored a goal. This was worth more, and he knew it.
Casemiro played poorly that day but stood up huge in the second half here, helping to break down Barcelona attacks as they tried to fight back into the game.
Toni Kroos, who was dropped for the City loss, helped Madrid perform at a much higher level in this clash, showing up big despite his disappointment at not starting in midweek.
Isco continued his revival and was afforded a standing ovation by the Bernabeu as he departed, only denied a goal himself by one excellent Marc-Andre ter Stegen save and Gerard Pique’s goalline clearance.
The Barcelona defender had excelled, blocking everything, intercepting everything, serving a one-man wall which Madrid were unable to knock down, until he threw it all away for Vinicius’s goal.
Nelson Semedo, who had also impressed, was caught out of position with Vinicius in behind, and Pique bizarrely elected against closing down the Brazilian teenager until it was far too late.
Maybe he was afraid of getting too tight and being beaten by a bust of speed, or being drawn into a foul, but he should have done more to get close to the winger before he shot.
In the end, he was punished for his hesitation as Vinicius’s effort deflected off Pique and into the Barcelona net, leaving Ter Stegen with no chance.
At 19 years and 233 days old, Vinicius became the youngest player to score in the Clasico in the 21st century. He was one of the few players that offered something against City too, setting up Isco’s goal.
Madrid deserved the lead for their pressure after the break, having seen Isco go close twice and then Karim Benzema volley narrowly over, while Ter Stegen made a good stop to keep Sergio Ramos at bay.
Barcelona had the bulk of the chances in the first half, with Antoine Griezmann, Arthur and Messi all with clear-cut opportunities. Promising for the Catalans, but nothing tangible and Madrid were always dangerous on the counter.
They took advantage of Barcelona’s desperation and tiredness at the end, with substitute Mariano – on his first league appearance of the season – racing away from Samuel Umtiti to double the hosts’ advantage in injury time.
This was how deep Madrid had to go, with Eden Hazard injured, Karim Benzema and Luka Jovic badly out of form, and Gareth Bale not trusted.
Mariano killed the game – but breathed life back into the title race.