Ramos keeps Real Madrid unbeaten as Barcelona suffer late in El Clasico
BARCELONA, Spain -- Three quick points from Barcelona 1-1 Real Madrid in La Liga on Saturday afternoon.
1. Ramos keeps Madrid unbeaten
Saturday's 1-1 draw in El Clasico was hardly a classic, but for a long time Luis Suarez's header early in the second half looked enough for Barcelona to cut Real Madrid's six-point lead at the top of the table. It seemed to halt a feeling that Luis Enrique's men have lost their mojo, but Sergio Ramos denied them with a 90th-minute header.
Zinedine Zidane's Madrid side never really got going and were set to suffer their first defeat in 33 matches. But up popped Ramos, who rose above everyone to head in Luka Modric's free kick. Ramos has a history of crucial goals, and this one kept his team clear at the top and well-set for their first title since 2012.
The game began feistily, and the visitors wanted a penalty early on when Lucas Vazquez was felled by Javier Mascherano inside the area. The home crowd soon screamed handball as Ramos blocked a Sergi Roberto cross. Of the two, the Madrid spot-kick claim was the more convincing, but both were waved away.
That was the height of the excitement during the opening 45 minutes. But seven minutes into the second half came the breakthrough. Raphael Varane gave away a needless free kick down the left wing; Neymar clipped it in and Suarez got away from both Varane and Mateo Kovacic to nod the ball in from just 6 yards.
It was the seventh consecutive Clasico in which Barca opened the scoring, though they have not always held onto their leads. Neymar and Lionel Messi both should have made it 2-0, but they each missed from close range after the Madrid defence had been opened up.
In the end, Madrid made Barcelona pay for their profligacy. Substitute Arda Turan made a silly foul, Modric floated in the cross and Ramos did what he does best.
2. Messi vs. Ronaldo falls flat
The contest was billed as Lionel Messi vs. Cristiano Ronaldo, but both were on the fringes. Ronaldo had three attempts on goal, all on target, without really worrying goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen. Messi played deeper but at times had all 10 outfield opponents between him and Keylor Navas when on the ball.
The backup cast was also badly missing in the first half. Suarez's best moment was using his low centre of gravity to hold off Ramos under a high ball, while Neymar was only noticed for a frustrated kick at Vazquez that earned a yellow card.
But soon after the break, the South American pair combined for the goal, with Neymar's well-flighted free kick excellently converted by Suarez. The Uruguayan has been going through a rough patch recently, just one goal in five before Saturday afternoon, but he does love the big occasion. He has now scored four goals in five Clasicos since he joined from Liverpool in summer 2014.
3. Modric wins playmaker battle
The standout players from the opening 45 minutes were holding midfielders Modric and Sergio Busquets. Injuries meant Modric played deeper than he usually prefers, but he provided a masterclass. He made at least 10 interceptions in the first half, often snuffing out danger just when it seemed Barca were threatening, and he also completed 36 of his 37 passes.
On the other side, Busquets also had his most effective game in a long time. He was helped perhaps by Madrid's 4-3-3 shape, meaning he did not have any direct opponent marking him. He was often free to start moves and able to mop up in defence, too.
The Camp Nou wanted Andres Iniesta and they got him soon after the opening goal, as the again-fit playmaker returned from six weeks out with a knee injury. In contrast, Madrid's bench looked bare. Holding midfielder Casemiro entered the fray, with Isco leaving, and Modric pushed farther forward.
Iniesta quickly took control of proceedings, linking seamlessly with Busquets to ensure Barca built quality passing moves. He almost scored himself when his goalbound effort was deflected into the side netting.
It seemed Modric's performance was going to be in vain, with Madrid's attacks often petering out and Ter Stegen not having a save of note to make.
That was until Modric stood over the free kick with normal time almost up. His delivery was perfect, and Ramos nodded in the 100th La Liga goal of Zidane's time in charge -- and easily the most important.
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan