BARCELONA (Reuters) - Neymar stole the limelight from Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale with a goal and an assist as Barcelona secured a 2-1 win over bitter rivals Real Madrid in Saturday’s La Liga ‘Clasico’ at the Nou Camp.
In a match watched by millions of people around the world, Barca landed an early blow in the title race thanks to the Brazilian’s clinical 19th-minute finish and a sublime chip from substitute Alexis Sanchez 11 minutes from time.
Jese came off the bench to pull a goal back in the first minute of added time but it was little more than a consolation for Real, who were outplayed for long periods and slip six points behind the champions with 10 matches played.
After a predictably cagey start with few chances in the 167th league meeting between the world’s two richest clubs by income, Neymar opened the scoring when he collected the ball from Andres Iniesta on the left of the penalty area.
Cutting inside on to his right foot, his low shot was slightly deflected by Real fullback Dani Carvajal before zipping past goalkeeper Diego Lopez into the far corner of the net.
Real battled after the break and Karim Benzema, who replaced world record signing Bale on the hour, smashed a shot against the bar before Alexis scored with an exquisite chip over Lopez from just outside the area after being played through by Neymar.
“I am very happy to score such a special goal but above all for the three points,” Neymar said in an interview with Spanish television broadcaster Canal Plus.
“It was very exciting to score in a match that all players want to be a part of,” added the 21-year-old, bought from Santos for 57 million euros ($79 million) in the close season.
Unbeaten Barca’s victory, their ninth in the league this season, puts them on 28 points ahead of Real, who are third, at the top of the standings.
Second-placed Atletico Madrid are four points behind Barca before their game at home to Real Betis on Sunday.
“These are the kind of games when everyone really suffers but I am just happy for the team and for the three points,” Alexis told Canal Plus.
“I don’t think this win will be decisive,” added the Chilean. “There is a long way to go and the championship is not over by any means.”
Real coach Carlo Ancelotti opted for a starting formation that looked to be designed specifically to thwart Argentine World Player of the Year Messi.
Madrid captain Sergio Ramos, who normally plays at center back, was deployed to operate just in front of central defenders Pepe and Raphael Varane.
Up front, 100 million-euro Wales winger Bale started in the middle, with Ronaldo on the left and Angel Di Maria on the right.
Ancelotti’s Barca counterpart Gerardo Martino deployed Neymar on the left wing and Cesc Fabregas in a forward roving role with Messi in his customary deep-lying position through the middle.
As they belted out the team’s anthem before kickoff, the Barca fans transformed the giant arena into a huge mosaic in the club colors with a message of support - Forca Tito! - for their ailing former coach Tito Vilanova who is battling cancer.
On the pitch, Barca should have been 2-0 ahead two minutes after Neymar’s opener when Iniesta sent Messi clear but he placed his shot wide of the post when one-on-one with Lopez.
The Real players were furious with referee Alberto Undiano Mallenco shortly before the break when he waved away their appeals for a penalty after the ball appeared to brush Adriano’s arm in the area.
Real looked more dangerous in the second half and Ronaldo drew a fine save from Victor Valdes with a fierce strike in the 58th minute before they had another penalty appeal rejected when there was contact between the Portuguese winger and Javier Mascherano in the Barca area.
Jese’s goal came too late for Real to stage a comeback and Ancelotti and his team must now regroup before Wednesday’s league game at home to Sevilla.
There was little of the bad blood that had marred some of Barca and Real’s encounters in recent years, although the Madrid club’s players and officials continued their complaints about the referee in post-match interviews.
“There are some things you cannot fight against,” Ramos told Canal Plus. “There was a clear penalty for handball in the first half and then the incident with Ronaldo in the second.
“But I think that all Madrid fans should be proud of the team as we battled until the last minute. It’s been a long time since we saw Barca under pressure at the end and running the clock down like that,” added the Spain international.
Espanyol’s bid to secure a lucrative place in Europe next season suffered a setback when they were beaten 3-0 at Levante, who climbed above the Barcelona-based side into seventh spot.
Malaga’s poor form continued as they lost 5-0 at home to Celta Vigo, the Qatar-owned club’s third straight defeat.
Bernd Schuster’s side are 16th, level on nine points with Celta who are one place higher.
Granada won 1-0 at fellow mid-table side Elche.
Writing by Iain Rogers in Madrid, editing by Ken Ferris