Barcelona blew the La Liga title race wide open with a stunning victory over arch-rivals Real Madrid at the Santiago Berbabeu. In a match that the Catalan giants knew they had to win, a hat-trick from Lionel Messi helped them to a 4-3 victory as they completed a league double over Madrid. Neither of these sides went into the game top following Atletico Madrid’s convincing 2-0 win at Real Betis earlier in the day, and it remained that way at the final whistle. However, this result does mean that the race for the title is still very much a three-horse race.
Real Madrid went into the game as favorites having not lost in over 30 games since the previous Clasico finished 2-1 to Barca. And with Barcelona starting the game four points adrift of Real, you could be forgiven for thinking that Madrid would win comfortably.
But Gerard Martino & co. came with a point to prove and by the seventh minute they were ahead, much to the disbelief of the watching crowd. An inch-perfect pass from Lionel Messi into the feet of Andres Iniesta gave the Spaniard the perfect chance to open the scoring – and he did so with power, slamming the ball high into the net with his left foot.
Suddenly, Carlo Ancelotti looked worried, as did the rest of the stadium, but Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Angel Di Maria began to get out of their stride. A driving run from Bale preceded a pass to Benzema, who could only shoot straight at the keeper. And some dazzling step overs from Ronaldo showed that Madrid weren’t going to just lie down and roll over for Barca.
But it was Argentinian Di Maria who was the real hero, twice creating goals for Benzema to turn the tie around and make it 2-1. The first was a cross which was headed home by the Frenchman – much to Barca keeper Victor Valdes’ disappointment as he failed to push it away despite getting a hand to it. But the second was sublime from the forward. He took a Di Maria cross down on his knee, before volleying home.
Real Madrid had turned it around and were now in control like many expected they would be in a surprisingly friendly Clasico. The home team looked as if they were going to go into the break ahead, before Messi took things into his own hands to become the leading El Clasico goalscorer of all time, overtaking Alfredo Di Stéfano in the process. A chance for Neymar was snuffed out but the rebound fell to Messi and he leveled the tie. This sparked the first instance of play acting as Cesc Fabregas and Pepe squared up before both fell to the ground in an attempt to get the other sent off. The referee saw the incident and rightly awarded both a yellow.
That was to be the last time that the man in the middle was covered in glory though, as a series of controversial decisions took the limelight in the second half. The first was the decision to award Madrid a penalty following Dani Alves’ challenge on Ronaldo. There was contact, but it came outside the box – sparking furious protests. Ronaldo dispatched the penalty anyway and made it 3-2, sending the stadium into raptures. But the controversial decisions weren’t over yet.
A brilliant ball from Messi released Neymar – running in behind Sergio Ramos – and one on one with Diego Lopez the Brazilian went down under a challenge from Ramos. The referee pointed to the spot straight away whilst Ramos protested his innocence. TV replays proved inconclusive and some would say that Neymar dived – but the penalty was given and Ramos was sent off for the 19th time in his career. Messi stepped up to level the match once more and Madrid now had to play the remaining 26 minutes with 10 men.
Ancelotti introduced Raphael Varane for Benzema in a bid to close the game and take a point. It seemed to be working and Bale felt he should have had a penalty when he appeared to be fouled by Gerard Pique. The referee was unmoved and just to rub salt into Bale’s wounds, he awarded one final Barca spot kick. Iniesta was sandwiched between Xabi Alonso and Daniele Carvajal and the referee again pointed to the spot. There was no doubt about this penalty, and Messi completed his hat trick to win the game and catapult Barca back into the running for the title.
Real Madrid remain favorites to win the title but it is Atletico who sit top now. And they have a very real chance of being the first side other than Barca and Real to win the league since Valencia in 2004. It will be an exciting end to the season and one that will grip not just the nation of Spain, but the whole world.