As far as big matches go, this one takes the cake. Real Madrid vs Barcelona last night certainly did not disappoint.
If you needed an indication of the quality on display you just had to count the number of world cup winners on display. Barca had Zambrotta, Thuram and Ronaldinho; Real had Cannavaro, Roberto Carlos and Emerson.
Capello recalled stalwarts Ivan Helguera and Guti and again left Beckham on the bench. Barcelona left out Marquez and Edmilson with Andres Iniesta and Lilian thuram preferred by Rijkaard.
The game was barely minutes old when good build up play from Real released Sergio Ramos on the right. Playing at fullback, the Spaniard's cross took out a static Barca defence and Raul rose majestically to power his header past Victor Valdes. It was a terrific header from the much maligned Real captain who was naturally thrilled to have scored what was just his 2nd league goal all year.
You might have felt the worst for Barcelona right there and then as Real, buoyed by the excellent start, looked well in control with Robinho a constant threat.
But Barcelona aren't champions for nothing and they slowly started to impose their fluid passing style on the game and dominated proceedings. Lionel Messi in particular was their biggest threat as he bamboozled Roberto Carlos before teeing up Eidur Gudjohnsen who had to score from 8 yards out. He only found the side netting and one wonders if it had been Eto'o, whether Barca would have been level there and then.
Messi was proving to be a constant thorn in Real's side as he continued his elusive running and came close on several occasions. By then, Barca were firmly in the ascendency and it looked a question of when rather than if they would equalize. DIsplaying the brand of football which has won them fans all over the world, Barca dominated possesion and pinned Real back in their own half much to the annoyance of the Bernabeu.
Towards the end of the half came the game's key moment. Emerson, having already been booked, went in late on Messi in what was a clear yellow card offence. The Brazilian stayed down with a supposed injury however in what can only be described as gamesmanship as he was obviously trying to avoid the inevitable 2nd caution. Incredibly, the referee failed to realise his intentions and the long stoppage took the sting out of the incident and Emerson escaped the red card.
The half time whistle went with Barcelona wondering just how they were trailing and not having a numerical advantage.
No changes were made at the start of the 2nd half as the game continued its familiar pattern of Barcelona possession and stout defending from Real Madrid who were led brilliantly from the back by the Italian world cup captain Fabio Cannavaro. He marshalled the defence superbly and was resolute in the face of all the trickery from Ronaldinho and Messi.
Real had struck early in the first half and they did so again 5 minutes into the second half. Again the delivery was from the right - this time from Robinho - van Nistelrooy went in bravely for the ball and beat the challenge of Valdes who surely should have done better. 2-0 to Madrid and Barcelona had every right to feel aggrieved.
There was still time though to salvage a point but as it was in midweek, Barcelona struggled to break down a packed opponent's defence and if anything it looked like Real who were going to score again with van Nistelrooy agonisingly close to scoring a 2nd with a glorious chip from outside the area coming back off the bar.
Giuly and Saviola were both sent on but whatever momentum that was gained earlier was gone as Real stood firm to record a vital win which pulls them within 2 points of their great rivals.
A terrific end to end match played in tough conditions at such great skill only served to highlight the gulf in class between this clash and the English equivalent a few hours earlier between Liverpool and Manchester United.
Man of the Match - Raul
Rijkaard Regret - one does feel Barca's coach might have got it wrong by starting Deco, Xavi and Iniesta in midfield. They might have outnumbered Real there but were certainly outmuscled by Emerson and Diarra.
Beckham's Bane - the former England captain only saw limited action and despite all the postive noises coming from himself and Capello, his future at the Bernabeu is far from certain.
Iker Casillas 7
Safe when called upon
Sergio Ramos 8
Excellent game for the young Spaniard who looks much more comfortable at fullback
Ivan Helguera 7
Quietly efficient at the back, he might have played his way back into the manager's good books
Fabio Cannavaro 8
Showed why he is regarded as the best defender in the world - superb
Roberto Carlos 7
Solid if unspectecular - Real would take that
Lucky to stay on but was tireless in midfield
Mahamadou Diarra 6
Worked hard in midfield but is struggling to win over the Real fans who clearly prefer Guti
Guti 6 (Beckham)
Brilliant header to silence his critics, The captain led by example with commitment and aggression. All this playing in an unfavoured right sided role
Excellent in the first half in particular, he was far better than his much more illustrious compatriot Ronaldinho
Ruud van Nistelrooy 7 (Reyes)
Worked hard all game and took his goal well
Victor Valdes 6
At fault for the 2nd goal
Given a torrid time by Robinho, the Italian had a night to forget
Lillian Thuram 6
Would have been disappointed with the defence's overall performance
Carlos Puyol 6
Not one of his better games
Did his best to support the midfield but was wasteful in possession
Poor performance from the vice captain. Rijkaard needs more from him
Deco 6 (Giuly)
Hauled off early in the 2nd half, he was ineffective in a congested midfield
Neat and tidy but too similar to Xavi
Barca's best player, would have been disappointed to have missed several good chances
Plenty of possession but the magic wasn't here tonight
Gudjohnsen 5 (Saviola)
Barca need an out and out striker to replace Eto'o and for all of Gudjonsen's skill on the ball, he lacks the goalscorer's instinct of Eto'o and Larsson. Saviola, though less skilful, might be better suited to the team as he is direct and a true goal scorer.