Sergio Ramos did it again. The clásico was heading into its last minute and Real Madrid were facing the end of a 32-game unbeaten run when the man who scored the 94th-minute equaliser in the Champions League final leapt to head in another Luka Modric delivery to score another dramatic equaliser. It may prove a huge moment. As the ball hit the net, Madrid’s players raced to the scorer celebrating: a game that had appeared to have slipped away, Barcelona leading 1-0 through Luis Suárez’s header but unable to add to it, was rescued. The draw leaves Madrid six points clear at the top of the league.
For Barcelona, this was a missed opportunity; they will feel that the gap should be just three. Even after Ramos’s goal, it might have been: in the last minute, Casemiro cleared off the line. For Madrid, even defeat would have left them top; the draw means the advantage remains significant – they have not been this far clear since 2012. “They can afford the luxury of losing, we can’t,” Gerard Piqué had admitted.
For much of the first half, though, it appeared that like neither side felt that luxury. Neither seemed prepared to take a decisive step forward, or really commit players. For a game with so many good players on the pitch, this was sluggish, disjointed, lacking continuity; at times, it felt maybe even a little fearful. A draw would at least delay judgment, they knew. Rarely did the ball move with pace or precision.
Barcelona did not exercise control, a familiar problem of late. A team defined by their midfield has not had one. Sergio Busquets was improved but Ivan Rakitic to the right only rarely got hold of the ball and on the other side André Gomes was absent again. For the most part, Lionel Messi, Neymar and Suárez were some way from them. Madrid were comfortable with that being the case; if anyone had the need to seek a victory, it was not them, and yet the few opportunities that fell came Madrid’s way – particularly on their left, where Sergi Roberto was. Or, as often, where he was not. Instead, there was space into which to run, even if there was occasionally a reluctance to do so.
One player who did run stood out: Lucas Vázquez. He appealed for a penalty after just two minutes when he ran through and tumbled under challenge from Javier Mascherano. He it was too who clipped a neat ball to Karim Benzema, whose shot was blocked, and who controlled on the chest, cut inside and found Cristiano Ronaldo for the best opportunity of the half. Ronaldo went past Piqué and slipped the ball through Mascherano’s legs but, stretching and with Jordi Alba closing in, could only toe-poke the ball into Marc-André Ter Stegen’s hands.
At the end of the half, Benzema progressed – again in the space behind Sergi Roberto – and his cross was almost turned in by Piqué. From the corner, Raphaël Varane’s header was stopped on the line by Ter Stegen. That was Madrid’s seventh attempt, their fourth on target. Barcelona had taken just four shots, only one of them on target. Suárez had seen the best opportunity blocked, while there had been a shout for a handball by Dani Carvajal, although the ball appeared to hit his chest. This was not the way it was supposed to be: you have to go back 39 clásicos to find the last 0-0 draw.
Barcelona were crying out for Andrés Iniesta but soon the urgency was reduced. Luis Enrique had said Iniesta was fully fit, almost two months after suffering a knee ligament injury at Valencia, but he had decided not to risk him from the start. The risk, it seemed, is leaving him out, yet by the time they roared him on to the pitch they had already taken the lead without him.
The noise first rose in the first part of the second half, hope emerging: Messi had just found Suárez inside the area, while at the other end of the stadium, Iniesta had begun to jog up the line. Then, three minutes later, it really erupted, when Barcelona took the lead. Neymar’s free-kick, earned when Varane pushed him over on the left, was struck hard into the six-yard box, bending slightly inwards. Suárez backed away from Vázquez and, in front of Varane, headed home. This was a different game now, the ball becoming Barcelona’s. Indeed, Zinedine Zidane’s reaction, despite trailing, was to send on Casemiro for Isco.
If it was protection he sought, he did not immediately get it. Messi, still playing deep, focused more on starting moves than finishing them, found Iniesta who ran at Madrid. He slipped the ball to Neymar who, with a swivel of his hips, slipped past Carvajal. From eight yards, the goal at his mercy, he hit the shot hard beyond Keylor Navas and over the bar. Next, Iniesta hit the side netting and soon after that Messi and Neymar combined to create another opportunity. In 10 minutes, Barcelona had done more than in the previous 60; within 15 Iniesta, running at 100%, had completed more passes than Suárez. Barcelona’s share of possession had gone from 52% to 58%.
But this was not over yet, and there were nerves still when Messi struck wide from Iniesta’s neat pass nine minutes from time. Those nerves were worse when Marcelo crossed to Ronaldo, whose header from a tight angle was blocked at the post by Alba. And then, when Arda Turan, on as a substitute, gave away a free-kick on the left, which Modric took. It was time, Ramos time.