FROM STEVE BRENNER IN MIAMI
They said this wouldn’t be a normal friendly and so it proved.
With a full-house of 66,014 in the stands and Lionel Messi, Neymar, Gareth Bale and Luka Modric on the pitch, El Clasico Miami was an event to remember.
Meaningless? Maybe. Meaningful? Absolutely. This wasn’t the kind of exhibition game many predicted.
Lionel Messi opened the scoring for Barcelona after four minutes when his shot was deflected past Keylor Navas
Ivan Rakitic made it 2-0 just a few minutes later when his driven right-footed effort beat Navas down to his right side
Mateo Kovacic pulled a goal back for Real Madrid when his right-footed strike beat Barcelona goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen
Marco Asensio took the ball past Barcelona full back Jordi Alba before equalising for Real Madrid
Gerard Pique put Barcelona 3-2 up when he volleyed home Neymar’s dangerous cross from the left side of the pitch
Messi was on fire, opening the scoring early on and predictably proving a thorn in the side for a Real team who fell two down following a cracking finish from Ivan Rakitic to cap a breathless first six minutes.
Real were all at sea yet, soon enough, their class told. Bale began to sparkle, Modric started to weave some magic.
And by the end of a compelling 45 minutes, Mateo Kovacic and the excellent Marco Asensio had pulled Zinedine Zidane’s men level.
The second half wasn’t too shabby either, even if the high-octane pace dipped somewhat.
Gerard Pique restored Barca’s lead just after the break, steering in a classy Neymar free-kick on what must have been a funny old night for the 25 year-old at the end of a whirlwind week of training ground bust-ups and incessant transfer uncertainty.
The Brazilian, to his credit, put in a decent 72 minute shift and even recovered from an early injury to send the fans home happy.
He belied the look of a man unhappy with his lot and getting ready to pack his bags.
Only he knows whether Paris Saint-Germain’s Qatari money will put an end to his career at Barcelona yet, undoubtedly, if he leaves for Ligue 1, the Catalans will find it almost impossible to replace him.
This was nothing more than a pre-season match and obviously wasn’t going to affect the overall record between these two old rivals which stands at 93 wins for Real, 91 for Barcelona.
Their last meeting was quite incredible. Messi’s last gasp winner, his 500th for the club – it was quite a night.
Neymar went down inside the opening minute of the game with a possible injury but he soon got up and carried on
Dani Carvajal moves forward with the ball after dispossessing Brazilian Neymar during the first half
Gareth Bale powers his way through the Barcelona defence as Real Madrid pressed for an equaliser
Asensio celebrates after scoring the equaliser for Real Madrid in the first half at the Hard Rock Stadium
But in terms of excitement on the pitch and atmosphere in the stands, the first El Clasico to be staged away from Spain for 35 years – the previous one was way back in 1982 during a bizarre post-season tournament in Venezuela which was staged just before that summer’s World Cup – was well worth the exorbitant prices most paid for the privilege of watching these two titans of European football at work. Even despite the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo, the only big name missing who is resting and has not been in the US these past two weeks or so.
How can the action not be thrilling with the likes of Messi, Neymar, Bale and Modric on show? It’s impossible not to get excited when the diminutive Argentine has the ball at his magic feet and, to his and his fellow superstars credit, they gave their all in typically sticky, sultry Miami conditions.
Add in all the rivalry, the bitterness and resentment which has been built up since 1902 and you’ve got some highly entertaining pre-season fare, the likes of which don’t come around very often.
Of course, Madrid had the last laugh in May, winning La Liga and the Champions League but actually arrived here off the back of two defeats – a penalty shoot-out defeat to Manchester United before City also did a number on them in Los Angeles, running out 4-1 winners.
They had their moments here but, on the whole, weren’t as sharp as their fiercest rivals.
Barca, meanwhile, arrived in South Florida after beating United and Juventus but the ongoing uncertainty surrounding Neymar has cast a serious cloud over their two week stay here.
Pique celebrates scoring the winning goal as Barcelona took control in Miami against rivals Real Madrid
Bale looks on during a frustrating night for the Wales international as he failed to get on the scoresheet
Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane tries hard to hide his disappointment after his side lost to Barcelona
Zidane is followed by his players as they leave the pitch in Miami after the 3-2 defeat by Barcelona
The Brazilian started for Ernesto Valverde’s side and, while the rest of his team-mates head home, he will fly to China to perform commercial obligations on behalf of the club.
To their credit , and much to the obvious delight of the organisers, both teams didn’t hold back with their starting XI’s. Messi and Luis Suarez started in attack while Bale, Modric and Karim Benzema were all unleashed by manager Zinedine Zidane.
Neymar’s first involvement was to fall to the ground and clutch his ankle. For a moment it looked like his evening would be over before it began, though he was back on the pitch in time to see Messi open the scoring with just three minutes on the clock.
The Argentine ace waltzed into the box and lifted a shot past Keylor Navas via a deflection off Raphael Varane. And it wasn’t long before the Costa Rican international was picking the ball out of the back of the net once again.
Neymar, who began to start moving freely, squared the ball and it found Rakitic’s whose finish was clinically struck.
What a start for Barcelona. Real had barely escaped their own half and were lucky not to fall further behind on 13 minutes when Suarez fired over from close range.
Yet with Madrid’s first effort on goal, Zidane’s side pulled one back. Croatian Kovacic evaded a challenge just outside the box before arrowing the ball past the outstretched hand of Jasper Cillessen.
Sergio Busquets battles to win the ball from Real Madrid’s Casemiro as Barcelona try to spring another attack
Carvajal takes on Barcelona’s Luis Suarez as the Uruguayan attempts to win the ball back for his side
Suddenly, we had a game on our hands.Benzema, who’d barely had a sniff, dragged just wide on 19 minutes with Cillessen beaten. Navas remained the busier keeper, however, and was on hand to repel Messi once again on 31 minutes.
It was a key save because on 35 minutes, Asensio levelled for Madrid. Los Blancos were counter-attacking dangerously and it was left to Modric who squared for the Spaniard who took full advantage of Jordi Alba missing the ball to rifle past a horribly exposed Cillessen.
All the star men returned after the break and it wasn’t long before the goals were back too. Neymar’s free-kick was inviting and Pique’s finish unerring.
Rakitic was lucky to escape red on the hour mark when he appeared to push referee Jair Marrufo and just moments later, the artist known as Messi exited stage left following another masterful display.
Neymar left the field on 72 minutes, perhaps for the last time wearing Barca colours though make no mistake, these teams will be back here in the future.
Whether the Brazilian will be in the ranks remains to be seen. Either way, those in attendance here won’t forget this match in a hurry.