What a match! What more could you ask for? Seven goals, three penalties and a sending off in an incredible Clásico at the Santiago Bernabéu. For the neutral it was thrilling stuff but for Barça it was a glorious night to remember, twice coming from behind to edge a deserved 3-4 victory which leaves the Liga title race wide open with nine games to go. Leo Messi capped a man-of-the-match performance with a hat-trick that not only smashed Alfredo di Stefano’s goals-scored-in-clásicos record and took him past Hugo Sanchez into second place in the all-time league goals scored in Spain, it has also improved his outside chance of regaining the Pichichi trophy.
Both teams lined up as predicted with Neymar being confirmed on Barça’s right wing but there was a slight change in defence as Mascherano started to the right of Piqué. Barça immediately looked tuned in and in the 4th minute Messi sent Neymar through on the right but there was a tight angle and the Brazilian shot straight at Diego Lopez. Within a minute Bale robbed Iniesta at the other end giving Benzema his first chance but the Frenchman pulled his shot wide.
Barça knew it would be necessary to move the ball quickly and in the 7th minute there was a fine long build-up which ended with Fabregas playing the ball inside to Messi who switched play to the left where Iniesta had found some space, and following his goal last week he sent another fierce shot that flew past Lopez and in off the underside of the bar.
It was a great start for Barça but Madrid still had plenty to offer. Benzema was a constant threat in the Barça area and Di Maria began to find space from where he could cross. In the 12th minute the Argentinian dribbled in from the left before touching the ball through to the Frenchman who swept the ball over from 12 yards.
It appeared to be a blip from Barça who continued to dominate. In the 15th minute Fabregas delivered a magnificent pass from his own half for Messi who looked sure to score as he broke into the area but he pulled his shot disappointing past the far post. It was a great chance for Messi to make it 0-2 but within 10 minutes Madrid were ahead.
The first Madrid goal seemed to come from nothing. Bale played the ball wide to Di Maria who had enough time to whip in a cross and Benzema got above Mascherano to power a header which Valdés, despite a valiant attempt, could only palm the ball against the post and in. Just over three minutes later Xavi failed to follow Di Maria’s run to the left, Marcelo touched the ball on and Di Maria’s cross evaded Mascherano and Benzema controlled with class before volleying firmly past Valdés.
The double blow was a serious test of Barça’s character and for a short while the big Madrid win predicted by some looked likely. In the 26th minute Di Maria again worked his magic on the left before crossing to the far post where Benzema controlled and then was only denied a six-minute hat-trick by Piqué’s saving clearance off the line.
Little by little Barça regained composure and set about taking control again. Barça’s extra man in midfield helped to gain more possession with Iniesta, Xavi and Fabregas all looking good with the ball. Neymar was not having too much luck on the right wing but his insistence would pay off in the end. Barça kept working the ball and shortly before half time the reward came with Messi’s first goal. The Argentinian began the move, playing a short wall pass off Fabregas,and after receiving the return, he tried to find Neymar near the penalty spot, Carvajal put a boot in and Messi was quickest to react, nipping in between three white shirts and cracking a low shot past Lopez from 8 yards. Fabregas and Pepe were both booked for a clash as Barça celebrated the equalizer though Pepe’s part was the uglier, pushing his head into Fabregas’s and continuing forward till both players fell in a heap, but Busquets was the luckiest as Undiano failed to see him step on Pepe’s face as he lay acting on the ground. There was still time before the break for Carvajal to cross for Benzema but this time the Madrid striker headed narrowly wide.
It was breathtaking stuff and there was little let up in the second period. Again Barça took quick control of possession but the first chance of the half fell to Madrid in the 52nd minute after a strong Bale run set up another chance for Benzema but Valdés dived low to his right to save. Two minutes later Madrid went ahead again when referee Undiano Mallenco judged Alves’s trip on Ronaldo to be inside the area when the replay showed the foul was inches outside. It was Victor Valdés’s chance for heroism on probably his last Barça appearance at the Bernabéu, but despite a good dive Ronaldo’s penalty was too well struck into the corner. 3-2. Thirty-five minutes to play and Barça now need to score twice to stay in the title race.
Again Barça could have crumbled at this point. Valdés needed to be quick off his line to block Benzema’s effort after Bale’s clever back-heel, but the team reacted again with Iniesta’s deflected shot going close after a half-cleared corner. The truth is that neither side could completely control the other team tonight and the game could have gone either way. The difference was that Leo Messi is the most difficult player in the world to neutralize and not for the first time Xabi Alonso found it impossible. In the 63rd minute the Argentinian found space to pick his pass through for Neymar who went down as he went past Ramos and Undiano pointed to the spot. It wasn’t an easy one to call and although there may have been contact Neymar seemed to fall easily. For the horrible Ramos it meant a red card, and Messi held his nerve to send the penalty out of the reach of Lopez’s dive.
Madrid now had their backs to the wall. Varane replaced Benzema and the home team reverted to a 4-4-1 with just Ronaldo forward: could they hold on at 3-3 for 25 minutes? Pedro came on in place of Neymar and Madrid sat deeper and deeper. Barça pushed forward but there was no easy way through with Madrid defending in numbers. Busquets headed over from a corner then in the 74th minute Alves tried his luck from 20 yards but saw his low shot bounce out off the inside of the far post.
Martino brought on Alexis for Fabregas but time was running out. Madrid managed a couple of attacks to give their defence a breather and Barça’s only attempt was a long-distance drive from Mascherano that cleared the bar by a yard. Then with just seven minutes left on the clock the magical Iniesta dribbled in from the left. His quick footwork pushed the ball between Alonso and Carvajal but as he tried to go through the Madrid pair sandwiched him and Undiano pointed for yet another penalty. Before this season no team had ever been awarded two penalties against Madrid at the Bernabéu. Back in October Ivan Rakitic scored the first but missed the second of Sevilla’s penalties in Madrid’s 7-3 win. Could Messi make it two out of two and put Barça back in the title race? The pressure was enormous but Messi fired his second penalty the same way as the first, only this time a little higher and a little further away from Lopez’s dive as it flew in the top corner.
There was no coming back for Madrid’s ten men. Isco and Morata were thrown on near the end but Ancelotti took off Modric and Di Maria meaning he subbed off his three best players on the night. There only remained the pleasure of seeing the frustrated Ronaldo booked for an elbow on Mascherano.
This was a fantastically entertaining game with the perfect result for Barça. Analysis is beyond me now as I need to get some sleep for an early start tomorrow. Suffice to say this is not just a historic victory, it could also prove to make a big psychological difference for both teams in all three competitions. Nothing has been decided yet. it’s a crazy league with Atlético now top. But, oh boy, Madrid 3 Barça 4, what a deliciously sweet victory!
Madrid: Diego Lopez; Carvajal, Pepe, Ramos, Marcelo; Modric (Morata m90), Alonso, Di Maria (Isco m85); Bale, Benzema (Varane m66), Ronaldo.
Barça: Valdés 7; Alves 7, Mascherano 6, Piqué 7.5, Alba 7; Xavi 6.5, Busquets 6.5, Fabregas 7 (Alexis m78, 6.5); Neymar 6.5 (Pedro m68, 7), Messi 9.5, Iniesta 8.5.
Goals: m7 Iniesta 0-1, m20 Benzema 1-1, m24 Benzema 2-1, m43 Messi 2-2, m55 Ronaldo (pen) 3-2, m65 Messi (pen) 3-3, m84 Messi (pen) 3-4.
Yellow cards: m35 Di Maria, m44 Fabregas, m44 Pepe, m66 Busquets, m84 Alonso, m86 Ronaldo, m88 Modric.
Red card: m63 Ramos.