By Kris Voakes
Between the two of them they cost more than €157 million 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 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 full-back Dani Carvajal, the €57.1m 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 from the right-hand side it appeared that his newest team-mate was liberated by the chance to get at one half of Madrid’s defence.
|FROM OUR COMMENTARY
|19'||THE CATALANS LEAD THE CLASICO!!! Neymar cuts back on his right before squeezing a strike into the bottom right corner!|
|78'||GOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAALLLL FOR BARCELONA!!! WONDERFUL STUFF FROM ALEXIS SANCHEZ! The Chilean lifts a wonderful chip over Diego Lopez from 20 yards after Neymar's pass! Fantastic! 2-0 Barca!|
|84'||Neymar leaves the Clasico to a standing ovation as he is substituted for Pedro! Quite a debut against Real Madrid!|
The result was a 19th-minute goal which 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 €100m move, was nothing more than a shadow. In a rejigged Madrid formation, nobody looked more ill at ease than the one man the change was made to cater for.
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 challenge 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, and 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. And 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.