El Clasico: the biggest game in world football (according to some, anyway).
Sunday afternoon’s clash between Barcelona and Real Madrid was, however, a sombre affair compared to the star-studded, herculean and blockbuster occasions of years gone by.
It wasn’t so long ago that we witnessed immense encounters between the attacking tridents of Lionel Messi – Luis Suarez – Neymar, and Cristiano Ronaldo – Karim Benzema – Gareth Bale. On Sunday, only one of those names featured at Camp Nou – a signal of the transitional period of both of these gargantuan clubs.
And, led by the combination of a trusted old guard and exuberant youthfulness, a lot was made about match-ups between the two sides – particularly the battle between two prodigal players.
On Ronald Koeman’s side, there was the heir to Messi’s iconic number 10 shirt, while on Carlo Ancelotti’s there was a wonderkid finally finding his feet in the striking white of Real Madrid.
Ansu Fati vs Vinicius Jr: a comparison regularly made in La Liga, and one that was played out as Los Blancos earned a steady 2-1 victory over La Blaugrana at Camp Nou.
With both sides taking a largely cautious approach to the tie, neither player set the famous grass of Camp Nou alight, although it’s clear which one came out the happier.
Apart from his side’s victory, Vinicius could come away from Sunday’s affair content within himself, having run his opposite numbers in blue and red absolutely ragged. His 87-minute stint on the field was riddled with jinking runs, breath-taking accelerations, confusing changes of direction and beautifully arrogant moments of skill.
He was, without a doubt, his side’s most threatening presence – that’s saying a lot considering he lined up next to Ballon d’Or hopeful Benzema.
In truth, the Frenchman was uncharacteristically quiet, marshalled and stifled by Barcelona’s alert and uncompromising central enforcers Gerard Pique and Sergio Busquets.
Instead, it was a via the wings that Real found their most profitable avenue of success, allowing Vinicius the freedom to express himself against a helpless Oscar Mingueza, and later Sergino Dest.
His stand out moment arrived early into proceedings. Picking the ball up on the touchline, Vinicius was immediately met by Mingueza and Dest. With barely any room around him, the 21-year-old feinted to dribble back towards his own goal before sharply turning and dragging the ball back through Mingueza’s legs to leave the Spaniard in bewilderment and surge towards the penalty area.
He would eventually evade one more challenge before cutting across the seemingly traumatised Mingueza and going down with slight contact. The referee subsequently waved away appeals although, as is so often remarked, you’ve seen them given.
That moment of sheer electricity and brilliance was soon followed by a crucial contribution to his side’s opening strike. Receiving the ball inside his own half from David Alaba, the Brazilian skipped past Mingueza effortlessly before releasing an inch-perfect cross-field ball – while off balance and on his weaker foot – to Rodrygo, who in turn returned to the Austrian to emphatically find the net.
A moment that evidenced the visible development of his game. As well as the blistering pace and frightening footwork that he’s so regularly using as a clinical weapon this term, Vinicius’ composure and awareness has come on leaps and bounds. His improved decision-making is now making him a very special player.
The youngster was largely untouchable to his opposition on Sunday, both physically and mentally. In comparison, Fati endured a tough afternoon.
The 18-year-old had virtually no success in what he attempted and, while never letting his attitude slip, was easily read and stifled by a defence who have had their troubles this term. A lack of inventiveness in clutch moments and vision of the bigger picture on such a large occasion showed Fati’s youth – the opposite could be said about Vinicius.
Admittedly, the Real Madrid man is three years older than his media-hyped ‘nemesis’. Nevertheless, his rapidly developing and blossoming game was once more on show in El Clasico – and held the significant superiority over Fati and Barça.