El Clasico: Real Madrid bosses Barca, propelled by an age-old rivalry's new stars

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Real Madrid's Federico Valverde is congratulated by teammates after scoring during La Liga soccer match between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona in Madrid, Spain, Sunday, Oct. 16, 2022. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

The greatest Clasicos have always been defined by a magnificent blend of pomp and class. They have been grandiose occasions that somehow exceeded hype, because the quality of soccer was so ludicrously high. And they have been elevated and punctuated by stars — the ingredient that, in recent years, had gone missing.

The games had remained momentous. But for a few barren years, as Cristiano Ronaldo jetted to Turin and Lionel Messi to Paris, they were no longer classics. The quality dipped. Both clubs slumped. And global sport's greatest rivalry suffered.

On Sunday, though, it was revitalized, and resurrected in part by a new generation of stars. Real Madrid and Barcelona clashed at the summit of La Liga. And Madrid won 3-1, largely because Vinicius Jr. and Federico Valverde were wearing white.

Neither has established himself on the level that Luka Modric or Andres Iniesta or Neymar maintained for years. But they are the blossoming faces of a rivalry that required new world-class blood. And they ignited it on Sunday, just as they'd unlocked a Champions League final in May. Vini made Sunday's first goal with a majestic burst behind the Barca back four. And he expertly conducted the move that led to the second.

Valverde finished off that move with the type of banger that has buoyed him into the sport's elite. His breakout has been gradual, and therefore under-appreciated. He was not named among the top 100 players in the world last year. But he belongs in the top 25, and is rising. He was the best player at the Bernabeu on Sunday, and could be many a time for years to come.

The first goal wasn't solely Vini's making. It was also a creation of Toni Kroos and Karim Benzema. Kroos' ability on the ball — and on Sunday, while in motion, even with Sergio Busquets hauling him down by the shoulders — remains second to none. Benzema will likely soon win the Ballon d'Or — his first, at age 34.

They, too, contributed to Real Madrid's supremacy.

But Real was the winner, and is the La Liga favorite, and currently holds the rivalry's upper hand, because it has found the players who'll become the rivalry's protagonists throughout this decade. It has meshed them with serial winners like Modric and Kroos who still have plenty more to give.

Barca might have found a couple as well, and one of them toyed with Madridista nerves late on. Ansu Fati, two weeks shy of his 20th birthday, diced up Real, and put a goal on a plate for Ferran Torres to make it 2-1. The Spanish teen nearly equalized a couple minutes later, as Madrid, once comfortable, suddenly looked vulnerable.

But Valverde ended the 187th league Clasico with a bursting run from back to front. Even after 90 minutes of tireless running, of physical prowess and technical skill, he carried the ball at menacing pace, and bore down on the Barca defense. He fed Rodrygo, who won and scored the penalty that made it 3-1, and said good night.

The Bernabeu bounced, and saluted its team, and celebrated a biannual game with renewed personality. It delivered on Sunday, as it so often has over the years, and as it should continue to do for years to come.