The Brazilian was the difference as Barcelona took the spoils, but the Welshman remains a long way from the level Real Madrid needs him to be at.The two players cost more than 157 million euros combined this summer, but any casual observer tuning into Barcelona’s clash with Real Madrid on Saturday would have been forgiven for thinking Gareth Bale had left Tottenham on a free transfer and Neymar’s switch from Santos had accounted for the lot.
The Brazilian scored the opening goal of Barca’s 2-1 Clasico win at Camp Nou and it was no more than he deserved. A constant threat up against Madrid fullback Dani Carvajal, the 57.1 million euro signing could not have wished for a better debut in the Spanish season’s main event.
For so much of the summer and the embryonic league campaign there have been questions asked of Neymar’s compatibility with Lionel Messi in the Blaugrana’s forward line. Yet with the Argentine starting on the right, it appeared that his newest teammate was liberated by the chance to get at one half of Madrid’s defense.
The result was a 19th-minute goal that broke open the contest and an entire evening of trouble for the Blancos’ back line. An assist for Alexis Sanchez’s sensational second just capped off his showing. The standing ovation he received on exiting the field in the 84th minute could easily have gone on for a few minutes more.
Yet on the other side of the coin there was Bale. The Welshman, still patently short of fitness following his world record-breaking 100 million euro move, was nothing more than a shadow. In an adjusted Madrid formation, nobody looked less at ease than the man the change was made to cater to.
So rarely seen on the ball, Bale was also left wanting when his pace was needed to help put Barca under pressure. About the only thing he managed to achieve was winning his side a free kick when his hospital pass put Cristiano Ronaldo under pressure and resulted in a foul from Adriano.
It was only his second start for Madrid, and it looked it. With no cohesion at all in the forward line, Carlo Ancelotti was punished for his experiment. When Bale was replaced on the hour mark by Karim Benzema, it came as no surprise that the visitors’ fortunes immediately improved.
The following quarter of an hour saw the capital club forge a number of good openings, including a stonewall penalty shout and a fierce effort off the bar from the French substitute. Although Sanchez would wrap up the three points, Jese’s late goal was a just reward for a decent final half-hour for Madrid.
Bale will undoubtedly improve with time, especially when he gets back to somewhere near match fitness. But right now, he is a shadow of the player he was at Tottenham and the pressure on him will only build until he gets back to that scintillating level once more.
What makes it worse in the short term is the fact that Neymar has already hit the ground running with league-leading Barca, and Saturday’s fixture was a clear barometer of exactly how things are going for the summer’s two biggest-name signings.
The brilliant Brazilian and the weary Welshman may both find themselves in La Liga now, but for now they remain leagues apart.