Real Madrid made light of their ongoing struggles on the pitch as they outplayed bitter rivals Barcelona 3-1 at Camp Nou with goals from Federico Valverde, skipper Sergio Ramos and Croatian veteran Luka Modric in the seaason’s first El Clasico on Saturday. Having lost back-to-back games against Cadiz and Shakhtar Donesk, Zindedine’s Zidane Real put in a much-improved display to hand Barcelona their second straight La Liga defeat.

Ronald Koeman, for whom it was the first Clasico as Barca head coach, started Ansu Fati leaving both Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembele on the bench. Fati impressed, scoring Barca’s only goal and also helped create a few chances.

It wasn’t enough as Barcelona stayed winless in their third straight league game, having lost to Getafe and drawn against Sevilla before that. Koeman later vented his frustration at VAR, over a game-changing moment on the hour mark when defending champions Real were awarded a penalty for a foul on Ramos. “I don’t understand VAR, every decision goes against Barcelona,” he said.

Zidane, on the other hand, insisted the win was not about shutting up critics after Real’s recent struggles. “We created enough opportunities. We could’ve scored four or five goals,” he said.

It didn’t take long for fireworks in the first Clasico behind closed doors after the Covid-19 outbreak. With less than five minutes on the clock, full-back Nacho passed to Karim Benzema in the middle of the opposition half. The Frenchman spotted a run by Uruguayan midfielder Valverde and promptly slipped the ball to him near the edge of the box, leaving Barcelona centre-back Gerard Pique stranded in between.

Valverde shot into the top corner across the goal to give Real the lead. Three minutes later, Barca pulled level. Dropping deeper after the goal, Lionel Messi made an immediate impact. Finding the ball near the left flank in the middle, he lobbed it to Jordi Alba who had sneaked into the final third without being noticed by potential markers Marco Asensio and Nacho. Fati tapped Alba’s cut-back past Thibaut Courtois.

Just as the tempo of the game seemed to have calmed, both sides came close to scoring again in the 23rd minute. Barca keeper Neto, one of the club’s three Clasico debutants alongside Pedri and Sergino Dest, initiated a counter that found Messi at the other end. The Argentine star received the ball and spun past a helpless Ramos to get a sight of goal. However, Messi’s shot at the near post was saved by Courtois. Seconds later, Toni Kroos found Benzema at the other end of the pitch but the forward’s shot was met with a fine save by Neto.

Early in the second half, it was Barca who looked more likely to score. The Catalans had a golden chance to go ahead in the 54th minute when Fati, who had shot wide just a couple of minutes before, put a pinpoint cross in for Philippe Coutinho. Only for the Brazilian to head wide.

The game turned on its head five minutes later when Ramos was seen appealing vigorously for a penalty after going down inside Barca’s box during a corner-kick. Replays showed Clement Lenglet pulling the Real skipper’s shirt. The referee, after a VAR check, pointed to the spot.

Ramos himself stepped up to take the penalty and scored past Neto’s right. It was the Spaniard’s 100th goal for Real Madrid in all competitions, an impressive return for a centre-back.

Koeman didn’t react immediately and waited until the last 10 minutes to ring in changes. He introduced Antoine Griezmann, Trincao, Ousmane Dembele and Martin Brathwaite. It didn’t work.

Instead, it was Real who took advantage of space in Barcelona’s middle and back third to add to the home team’s misery. In the 85th minute, Neto produced three quick saves – a double attempt from Kroos and a left-footed volley from Ramos – to keep the hosts in the game. Five minutes later, Real put the game beyond Barca’s reach.

With Vinicius Jr chasing a through ball, Neto rushed out to avert danger. His clearance found substitute Rodrygo, who passed to fellow substitute Modric to score.

There was little Barca could do to salvage the game after that. That Messi received a booking for dissent in stoppage time summed up a frustrating evening for him and the team.

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