Lionel Messi struck two precision second-half penalties to complete his hat-trick and give Barcelona a priceless 4-3 victory over 10-man Real Madrid after what was a Clasico for the ages. After years where the niggling bickering both on and off the pitch drained much of the life out of one of the sport’s great rivalries, this was a wondrous return to the exceptional quality on show being allowed to come to the fore.
Curiously, with all eyes on the Bernabeu, it is now Atletico Madrid that lead the way in La Liga by virtue of their head-to-head record against their city rivals, although Barcelona have crucially cut the gap to a manageable single point. After a run of three defeats in six league games and continuing speculation about his job, Barcelona have now produced three performances which will have dampened those critics hailing the end of an era. Madrid, who suffered their first defeat since the last Clasico last October, will have to regroup but can still take much from a match that could have gone either way.
While the two penalties that ultimately decided the contest in Barcelona’s favor may garner much discussion, especially with the first of them leading to Sergio Ramos being shown red, it was only the one awarded to Madrid that was clearly a wrong decision. It would also do the match an awful discredit for the aftermath of such a breathtaking spectacle to be dominated by talk of refereeing decisions.
The first-half was a particularly thrilling affair, with Madrid showing no inclination to settle for a draw that would have served them far better. A relentless end-to-end encounter started with Andres Iniesta putting the visitors in front before a scintillating spell from Angel di Maria led to two assists for Karim Benzema.
Messi snapped upon a chance just before the break to ensure the period ended all square and the Argentine was central in a second half that was a tale of three penalties. The only one, though, that looked to be clearly awarded in error was the first. Cristiano Ronaldo, who was quiet for much of the game, was clipped by Dani Alves but clearly outside of the box. After Ronaldo fired home from the spot, the game-changing moment came when Neymar tumbled when through on goal after his ankle appeared to be inadvertently clipped by Ramos. A red card and a penalty was the result and Messi coolly converted. For the remaining 25 minutes, it was largely one-way traffic as Barcelona pushed for the winner they dearly needed. It finally came six minutes from time when Xabi Alonso clumsily brought down Iniesta and Messi’s penalty was this time struck with even greater precision.
As much as it was Messi’s excellence from the spot that decided the game, the Argentine’s movement was equally pivotal. Madrid appeared to lack a clear plan with how to deal with Messi dropping deep and it was those struggles that led to three of Barcelona’s four goals.
After Madrid had started well, pressing Barcelona admirably high up the pitch, it was Messi that created the opening for the game’s first goal seven minutes in. Ramos, not for the last time, came forward to try and close down the play, but Messi still found space in the pocket. With the whole Madrid defense dragged across to cover, Messi slipped in Iniesta outside and the world Cup winner drilled an unstoppable shot into the roof of the net.
The biggest difference between this Barcelona incarnation and the all-conquering side under Pep Guardiola, though, is their inability to control the game in quite the same way. Madrid always looked dangerous and they exposed a long-standing Barcelona weakness to go in front. Di Maria had a stunning spell of wing play as he terrorized Dani Alves, and twice caught out Javier Mascherano with pin-point crosses. First the Frenchman climbed above the converted center-back to head home from eight yards and then, when Mascherano failed to intercept a pull back, he controlled and smashed past Victor Valdes.
While he was clinical on those occasions, Benzema also missed a chance either side of his brace. And three minutes before the interval, Barcelona struck back. Ramos again came out of the back line to try and close down Messi, who this time shrugged off the challenge and played a sublime reverse pass into Neymar in the center of the box. When the ball came back to him, he slammed it low past Diego Lopez.
Benzema spurned further openings either side of the interval, the second created by Gareth Bale in one of his few contributions to the encounter. Ronaldo was equally anonymous, but was handed a chance to get on the score sheet 10 minutes after the interval. Alves hung out a leg to stop the Portuguese driving into the box, but the contact with his opponent had undeniably been a yard outside.
While Madrid were at that stage perhaps playing the better, there was never a sense that they were in control. One wonders the benefit they would have attained from being able to utilize a commanding midfield presence like the injured Sami Khedira. Instead, just past the hour mark Messi was left with too much space just inside the opposition half and sent Neymar through with a defense-splitting pass. Ramos chased him down and appeared aware of the danger of making contact. Yet there looked to be just a touch on Neymar’s ankle and, although likely incidental, the referee pointed to the spot before sending the defender on his way.
For the first time in the match, one team was happy to sit back as the other pushed on in search of a winner. Barcelona probed and probed, with Alves striking the foot of the post with a fierce drive. A draw would arguably have been a just result, but the visitors, spurred on by the energy off the bench of Pedro and Alexis Sanchez, made the most of their numerical advantage. Iniesta had already gone past Daniel Carvajal when Alonso came across and bundled him down. Messi found the net again and confirmed his place at the top of the all-time Clasico scoring charts with an extraordinary 21 goals in just 26 matches. In doing so he showed that both he and his team are far from a spent force.