|Rusty Ronaldo was handed a start for his debut Clasico appearance [AFP]|
Zlatan Ibrahimovic took only four minutes to score after coming on as a substitute at Camp Nou to lead Barcelona to a 1-0 victory over rivals Real Madrid.
The result sent the defending champions to the top of the Spanish league.
Real Madrid successfully frustrated the Barca attack until Ibrahimovic made the breakthrough by smashing a volley past Iker Casillas in the 56th minute.
Shortly afterwards, Barca midfielder Sergio Busquets foolishly picked up his second yellow card to leave his team down to 10 men for nearly 30 minutes of drama.
However, Real could not make the extra man count in a pulsating finish and the defending champions went to the top with 30 points from 12 games, two ahead of Real who slipped back to second.
Sevilla are third with 26, followed by Valencia and Deportivo La Coruna, who are both on 25 points.
“This was a very good test,” Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola said after the match.
“It’s always difficult against Madrid but even more so when you go in as favourite and them as a big underdog. That’s when Madrid is most dangerous.”
There were five candidates for the 2009 Ballon d’Or on display at the start, with favourite for the award Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta in the starting XI for Barca.
Another candidate, Ibrahimovic, was on the bench after his recent thigh strain.
Real, who have invested around $373 million in new signings over the close season, fielded Kaka and Ronaldo, even though the Portuguese winger had played only 20 minutes since his two-month layoff with an ankle injury.
Barca dominated the early exchanges but the first clear chance fell to the visitors after 19 minutes when Kaka set up Ronaldo for a free shot.
Victor Valdes saved with an outstretched foot.
Real grew in confidence, working hard to disrupt Barca’s midfield, and started to get behind their hosts’ defence with quick breaks.
Puyol flung himself across to block a shot from Marcelo but openings remained at a premium.
Thierry Henry made way for Ibrahimovic early in the second half but it was Real who streaked away on a counter-attack led by Ronaldo and, again, a despairing challenge from Puyol extinguished the danger in the area.
Saturday November 28
Sevilla 2-2 Malaga
Sunday November 29
Almeria 1-4 Athletic Bilbao
Wednesday December 2
Xerez v Barcelona
Barca broke the deadlock when Daniel Alves crossed deep to the back post and Ibrahimovic scored with a fierce volley.
The hosts were almost immediately on the back foot when Busquets’ deliberate handball saw him sent off.
A rusty-looking Ronaldo made way for Karim Benzema as Real pressed forward in search of an equaliser, but the Frenchman spurned a great chance hoofing over the bar at a corner.
Gerard Pique and Eric Abidal went close at the other end as the game opened up and Alves fed Messi for what should have been the decider at the end but Casillas pulled off a magnificent save.
Real lost midfielder Lassana Diarra to a red card in the last minute.
“We struggled today because Real played very well. They knew what they were doing, keeping it tight at the back and very compact,” Barca captain Carles Puyol said.
“Ibrahimovic is one of the best players in the world and, even though he wasn’t 100 percent, his goal was essential. You couldn’t have a better debut in a ‘clasico’ than he’s had.”
Deportivo La Coruna jumped to fifth place with 22 points with a 1-0 win at Racing Santander, while Athletic Bilbao maintained their recent strong form with a 4-1 win over Almeria.
Atletico Madrid climbed out of the relegation zone by beating Espanyol 4-0 with two goals from Sergio Aguero.
Also, Roberto Soldado scored his second hat trick of the season to lead Getafe 5-1 over Xerez, Tenerife hit back from 3-0 down to draw 3-3 against Valladolid and Osasuna beat Zaragoza 1-0.