|Messi the difference in Bernabeu encounter|
The latest instalment of El Clasico was preceded with a minute’s silence for Adolfo Suarez, the Prime Minister who united Spain after the reign of General Franco. Once the formalities were over, the only thing uniting Real Madrid and Barcelona was their desire to strike a blow to the other’s title hopes.
This game began at the pace we’ve come to expect in meeting of these two sides. Neymar had the first shot in anger in the third minute, and following a half-hearted Ronaldo penalty appeal, Iniesta drew first blood for Barcelona. A well-timed ball from Messi found the Spanish midfielder in plenty of space and he blasted a left footed shot across Diego Lopez and in off the woodwork.
That goal provoked Madrid and they responded swiftly. While all talk before the match was about Ronaldo and Messi, Bale and Neymar, it was Angel Di Maria who was running the show. He teed up Benzema in the 12th minute but the Frenchman squandered the opportunity, blasting over from close range. A few minutes later however the centre forward made no such mistake. Di Maria the provider again, Benzema rose highest to power a header past a despairing Valdes. The keeper got a hand to it, but it served only to place the ball in the top corner.
Di Maria and Madrid had their tails up, and three minutes later they took the lead. Di Maria was giving Dani Alves a torrid time down the left, and it was his cross again that found Benzema on the edge of the six yard box. A good first touch was followed by a smart volley with his right foot. The Barcelona players looked stricken as Ancelotti lost his usual composure celebrating on the sidelines.
With the combination of Di Maria and Benzema proving so effective, Barcelona would have been well advised to shackle them. The problem with that being that leaves space for messrs Bale and Ronaldo. So it was no surprise when Di Maria once more found space on the left flank to put in a cross. The ball eventually found its way to Benzema who shifted it onto his left and aimed for the bottom corner. Only a last-ditch block on the line from Gerard Pique prevented the French striker from completing a perfect hatrick.
It was all Madrid for large periods of the first half. When in possession, Barcelona faced a white wall near impossible to break down. Five minutes before half time however, Messi found a way through. His pass to Neymar inside the box deflected back into his path and he made no mistake, finishing low to Diego Lopez’ left. As Messi celebrated becoming the all time top scorer in El Clasico (19), Pepe and Fabregas rubbed noses and proceeded to fall to the floor. Both were awarded yellow cards for their efforts. There was still just time for Benzema to flash another header wide before the teams trudged down the tunnel. The 400 million people watching had time to draw their collective breath.
The second half didn’t spark to life until the 53rd minute. A jinking run from Ronaldo was ended abruptly with a trip from Dani Alves just outside the box. Incredibly however, the referee Undiano Mallenco pointed to the spot, despite the protests from the Barcelona players. Unconcerned with the Barca players’ feelings, Ronaldo dispatched the penalty to give Madrid a one goal lead that was to last just ten minutes.
As Ronaldo had scored the penalty, it was Messi’s turn to influence the game once more. His slide-rule pass to Neymar was inch perfect and the Brazilian went down in the box following minimal contact from Sergio Ramos. The Spanish centre-half was duly shown the 19th red card of his career. It was his third in an El Clasico, and the 13th shown in the past 14 meetings between these two sides. Messi made no mistake with the spot-kick.
Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti sacrificed Benzema for compatriot Rafael Varane as he looked to protect the draw which would leave his side four points ahead of their bitter rivals. Zinedine Zidane was on hand to console Benzema as he came off without attaining his hat-trick.
Gerard Martino also made a change, taking off a disappointing Neymar and replacing him with Pedro. Calls had been made for Pedro’s inclusion from the start, given Neymar’s recent run of poor form as opposed to the Spaniard’s 14 goals and 8 assists this season.
The game died down again following Messi’s penalty, with both sides fighting hard for possession in the middle of the park but failing to make any significant breakthroughs. Dani Alves struck the base of the left post in the 73rd minute but the rebound failed to find any players in blue and red. Martino brought on Alexis Sanchez another player who had cause to be disappointed not to start the game. The Chilean had 17 goals and 7 assists before this weekend. Cesc Fabregas made way after an underwhelming performance.
It was neither Sanchez nor Pedro who were to make the vital contribution to the game however. Andres Iniesta, who had been lively all evening, found himself near the left by-line being marked by Carvajo and Alonso. As he tried to drift through the non-existent space between them, he found contact and went down. The referee pointed to the spot once more amidst howls of protests from the Bernabeu faithful. Messi blasted the penalty high into the roof of the net to secure his 26th career hat-trick. He scored his first against the same opponents way back in 2007.
The game ended scrappily as Madrid struggled to reclaim the ball from their opponents. Martino may have introduced a Plan B to this Barcelona side’s armoury, with crosses and diagonal balls not uncommon in games, yet this was all Plan A. Patient build up play, supporting the player on the ball. Alonso, Ronaldo and Modric received yellow cards for kicking the shadows they chased in the closing stages.
85,454 people in the Bernabeu to witness the latest in a long line of classic El Clasicos. When the final whistle blew, all that could be heard was the jubilant singing of the travelling Barcelona supporters.
Celebrating too will be Atletico Madrid. This result leaves them top of La Liga following their 2-0 victory away to Real Betis earlier this evening. Level on points with their bitter city rivals, they have a better head to head record. Barcelona’s victory brings them to within a point of the Madrid sides. Real Madrid must finish clear points ahead of both sides to claim the championship.
The last La Liga El Clasico of the season is by no means the last time these two magnificent sides will meet. They lock horns once more in the Copa Del Rey final on April 16th, and there is still the possibility that they will meet in the semi-finals or final of the Champions League. After matches like this one, we can only hope.