Jude Bellingham illuminated El Clasico with a long-range stunner and a last-gasp winner as Real Madrid snatched victory at Barcelona.
Saturday’s La Liga meeting saw home side Barca take the lead through Ilkay Gundogan’s first goal since leaving Manchester City on a free transfer this summer.
Madrid were slow to get going and at times struggled to summon much of a goal threat, but Bellingham — yes, who else again? — stepped up to level the scores with a thunderous shot from range.
And the Englishman did not stop there, adding a dramatic late winner in time added on.
Here’s our expert writers’ analysis of the clash…
Golden Gundogan gets his goal
The more comfortable Gundogan feels the better Barcelona look on a football pitch. This is probably one of the biggest learnings the Catalans could take from this Clasico — because his display was one of the main reasons why Xavi’s plan worked so well against Ancelotti’s side in the first half.
The 33-year-old scored his first goal in a Barca shirt as we witnessed the version of Gundogan that City fans were so used to seeing in big matches. He also became Barcelona’s second-oldest goalscorer in a Clasico this century, and the sixth of all time from either side, behind Luka Modric, Karim Benzema, Sergio Ramos, Sergio Aguero and Cristiano Ronaldo.
It was at the same time amusing to see Gundogan score on the day that Xavi placed him so far from the opposition’s box. He started as a holding midfielder in front of the centre-backs.
Xavi imagined Gundogan fitting into his system as an attacking midfielder or even as a false nine. But the struggles Oriol Romeu has had recently forced him into a change of approach, and the German has completed the job as few could.
Against Madrid, he didn’t misplace any dangerous pass, helped assure a fluid build-up and read how to step into the attack when needed. From a physical point of view, he might be far from his best — and some can even argue that Barcelona compromised too much by offering him a huge salary and a three-year deal at his age. But Xavi is certainly not going to complain because he has been improving Barcelona in every role he is asked to play.
Madrid’s sluggish start
Carlo Ancelotti’s side did not begin the game brightly. They really could — and should — have been two goals behind inside the first quarter-hour.
Their sluggish start was summed up in how passive they were collectively and individually as they conceded so early. Aurelien Tchouameni’s half-hearted challenge only poked the ball into a more dangerous area, while David Alaba’s attempted clearance only set up Gundogan for his (admittedly very cool) finish.
That goal showed how Barca were just mentally sharper; Dani Carvajal and Antonio Rudiger were closer to the loose ball, but Gundogan was more awake to what was happening.
Mick Jagger and Ronnie Wood in the house for #ElClásico!
— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) October 28, 2023
It almost happened again a few minutes later, too. None of Carvajal, Federico Valverde or Toni Kroos were decisive enough in clearing the ball, and super-sharp Gavi seized the opportunity to win it back and set up Fermin Lopez for a shot off the post. Barca hit the post in the second half too, through an Inigo Martinez header.
Throughout the first half, Ancelotti and his assistants Davide Ancelotti and Francesco Mauri were frantically shouting at the players to try to sort out what was going wrong. It was reminiscent of last month’s ‘derbi’ at Atletico Madrid, when Real were 2-0 down early, and eventually lost 3-1. Thanks to Bellingham, they eventually came away with a victory over their biggest rivals.
A new role for Cancelo
The big tactical question mark in Barcelona’s line-up was how Xavi would deploy Joao Cancelo. The Portuguese appeared surplus to requirements with Ronald Araujo lining up at right-back as he usually does against Vinicius Junior. On paper, that left Cancelo as a right winger in a 4-3-3, but his years of tucking into Pep Guardiola’s midfield at Manchester City raised all kinds of intriguing possibilities.
As it turned out, Cancelo really was just a winger, though not in a standard 4-3-3 but the familiar 3-2-4-1 shape that Xavi’s side often use in possession. Offensively, it didn’t really come together. He didn’t offer the one-v-one sizzle on the wing that Lamine Yamal or Raphinha could have, and his high and wide positioning kept him from helping out much in midfield.
But this wasn’t about the attack. Cancelo’s main job as a full-back moonlighting on the wing was to help Barcelona defend forward. When Madrid built up, he was often the nearest defender to Toni Kroos, who loves to drop out to the left-back pocket to distribute. When Barcelona were pushed back into their own half, Cancelo tracked the overlapping left-back Ferland Mendy, leaving Araujo free to focus on Vinicius Jr.
That did work: Cancelo’s defensive awareness and alert switching between assignments helped prevent Madrid from overloading their favoured left side, allowing Barcelona to control the early stages of the match.
But nobody seemed able to do anything about that man again: Jude Bellingham.
Bellingham of the Bernabeu does it in Montjuic
Jude Bellingham’s first Clasico was shaping up to be a frustrating occasion, being overshadowed by Gavi in their personal battle of the outstanding young La Liga midfielders.
But his amazing start to his Madrid career reached even more fantastic heights when Gavi’s defensive header fell to him just under 30 yards from the Barca goal, with 68 minutes played.
The 20-year-old took one touch to get the ball under control, another to set it for a shot, and he then smashed an unstoppable drive past Marc-Andre ter Stegen. The German keeper might be disappointed with his attempt to save it, but the ball was struck just too powerfully, just too sweetly.
Everything that Bellingham attempts at the moment is coming off. That was his 12th goal for the club (in his first 13 games). It meant he is now the first Real player to score in his first La Liga game, in his Champions League debut and his first Clasico.
It was an incredible moment, but also completely in keeping with the ‘Roy of the Rovers’ nature of the Englishman’s first months in Spain.
And he did not stop there.
If Bellingham’s first goal was just incredible, his second was almost impossible to believe it was actually happening. But when Dani Carvajal’s cross was touched on by Luka Modric, there was Madrid’s number five, arriving just in the right place at exactly the perfect time.
There was no doubt at all that he would apply the finishing touch, knocking the ball calmly between Ter Stegen’s legs and into the net, turning away to celebrate as the Barca crowd just could not take in what they were seeing.
Nobody, not Zinedine Zidane, not Cristiano Ronaldo, not Alfredo di Stefano, has ever had such a start to their career at Real Madrid. It seems unlikely that any player, ever, has made such an immediate impact at this level.
There is something almost supernatural about what we are witnessing, and there appears to be absolutely no limit to what Bellingham will go on to achieve over his Real Madrid career.
For most of the afternoon, Bellingham was notable mostly for his absence. He was getting involved in midfield, sure, but that’s not the spectacle Madrid fans have come to expect from him. Where was La Liga’s leading goalscorer?
Bellingham started the match in a fairly reserved role, on the left side of Carlo Ancelotti’s attacking midfield, but the always energetic Gavi stayed close while his team-mates limited traffic in Barcelona’s third. The few times Bellingham slipped behind the back line, Gavi was right there with him. He got on the end of a couple passes in the box but couldn’t turn them into shots.
Less than 20 minutes into the first half, Ancelotti pushed Bellingham higher and more central. When that didn’t work, he brought on Joselu as a true number nine. Instead of choking off Bellingham’s attacking contributions, the substitution unleashed him.
The first goal was a wonder strike that had less to do with tactics than Bellingham enjoying the season of his life. But the stoppage time winner was what Madrid has come to expect from him: an athletic, late-arriving run and surgical finish. Bellingham has more goals this season than Erling Haaland and he’s not slowing down.
Vinicius Jr and Xavi’s tense exchange
In the first half there was a bit of drama on the touchline as Xavi and Vinicius Junior were involved in an exchange of views. The Barca manager was on the edge of his technical area and he reacted to Vinicius Jr’s claims of a foul by Ronald Araujo. Xavi seemed to be making the point that there wasn’t much in it — which Vinicius Jr took exception to. Xavi place his hands around the Brazilian’s face — in an apparent peace-making gesture, and it didn’t escalate further.
Real Madrid’s star forward did spend much of the first half frustrated by Araujo’s man marking, once again. But again thanks to Bellingham, that really did not matter.
(Top photo: Pedro Salado/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)