Gareth Bale will have to await his chance to make an impact on a clásico. It was Spanish football's other big summer signing, Neymar Santos Junior, who took the Barcelona-Real Madrid rivalry into a new era. Bale departed on the hour, having taken another step towards full fitness but he did so having been largely frustrated; when Neymar departed 23 minutes later, he left to a thunderous ovation.

The Brazilian scored one goal in the first half and helped provide the other for Alexis Sánchez to finish brilliantly late in the second and take Barcelona into what – just – proved an unassailable lead.

This was not a classic clásico. Barcelona were getting nervous when Neymar sent the substitute striker Alexis Sánchez through for a superb finish in the 79th minute. Finally, the Catalans had the cushion they needed. There was still time for Sami Khedira's late chance, saved by Víctor Valdés, and Dani Alves's nutmeg on Cristiano Ronaldo, then in the last minute Ronaldo released Jesé to score and afterwards, Madrid pointed to two penalty shouts denied.

But, ultimately, it was Neymar who decided it. For once, it was not about Leo Messi and Ronaldo. Or at least not only. This game was billed as Neymar, Barcelona's €58m striker from Santos, versus Bale, the planet's most expensive player.

After 17 clásicos in three years came an eight month hiatus. José Mourinho had departed and for the first time in a decade both clubs went into the season with new managers. There was a sense that the rivalry needed redefining; that there was a search for a new story and new identities. On the evidence of this game, for Madrid the search is still on.

Carlo Ancelotti surprised everyone, with Sergio Ramos in central midfield and Bale, Ronaldo and Ángel Di Maria up front. There was no No9 in the team and the plan did not succeed.

Bale got the first touch of the 226th clásico and his was the first shot too. But while he looked the most threatening of Madrid's players early on, the threat was fleeting. Bale did not always look comfortable, getting a yellow card just before half-time for a high foot, and nor did Madrid.

There was much dialogue and raising of hands, a hint of uncertainty in the movement and positioning as the home side, who had also left out their striker, began taking control and the lead.

Gerardo Martino had overlooked Sánchez in favour of a formation that allowed Xavi, Andrés Iniesta and Cesc Fábregas to play together. And with Messi drifting right and often out of the game, Neymar stepped forward in the 18th minute. Iniesta created for Neymar in the inside-left position and he took two swift touches to control before guiding the ball into the far corner with his right foot. Less than two minutes later, Iniesta produced an even better pass, this time into the right-hand channel. Messi went racing into the area but his effort drifted wide.

For a long time, that felt like an important miss too: Madrid still struggled to get a foothold but it takes little for Madrid to score here and there was a stark warning in the last minute of the first half when Ronaldo pulled back a hard, low cross with his left foot. Khedira skidded in to make contact and Valdés saved on the goal line. The ball ran free and when Khedira got up he demanded a penalty.

The ball had hit the full-back Adriano's hand. "If he had given a penalty the game and the result would have been different," Ancelotti said.

The threat never really went away. Neymar had the best chance of the second half's opening exchanges when his shot was pushed away by Diego López after a glorious diagonal ball reached him from Iniesta but 12 minutes in Ronaldo had an opportunity to equalise.

This time Iniesta lost possession to Khedira, who found Luka Modric and his angled pass put Ronaldo in only for Valdés to save sharply at the near post.

By then, Ancelotti had removed Ramos, later admitting that he played the defender in midfield because of doubts over Asier Illaramendi's fitness, and soon after Bale departed too. "I think for the first few matches he has to find how to combine with his team-mates," Ancelotti said. "Physically, he was good. He needs to look for more combinations, to improve his movement and look for spaces. He was not bad in the hour that he played."

Madrid began to have more of the ball and only Di María's heavy touch on 65 minutes prevented him from getting in.

Then Karim Benzema, offside, headed over. There was an edginess to Barcelona now, nerves. Symbolic of that was the introduction of Alex Song for Iniesta.

"Yes," said a smiling Martino later, "it was a defensive change. We had a good first half but a difficult second."

Ronaldo appealed vociferously for a penalty, beating his hands on the floor when the referee ignored him after Javier Mascherano appeared to bring him down. Then Benzema smashed a shot off the bar from 20 yards. "It's always the same," complained the Real Madrid full-back Marcelo. "Both penalties were very clear."

At the other end, Barcelona tried to make sure. And then, Sánchez did. Racing through, he controlled, cut back, stepped away from Pepe and clipped a beautifully weighted finish over López from 20 yards.

It had been Neymar's pass. It had been Neymar's night.