Lionel Messi is back, and so are Barcelona. After his treble against the relegation-fighting Osasuna previous week at Camp Nou, the Argentine stole the limelight with another hat-trick. This time against their eternal rivals and title favourites Real Madrid.
The return-leg of El Clasico was played in front of a packed Santiago Bernabeu crowd, under the shadow of sad demise of former Spain president and reformist Adolfo Suarez. The customary pre-match silence did enough to mellow down the simmering tension inside the cauldron.
However, once the match started to pick its frenetic pace, the focus soon shifted towards the stars in the ground. The early exchanges of passes from the Catalan outfit, showed why the effeminate term of beautiful and effective short passes have come to be associated with the team. That of tika-taka.
And thanks to one such move, involving the very best in controlling and delivering the ball, Barcelona drew the first blood. It was only the seventh minute of the match, when an exquisite first-ball left-footed drive from Andres Iniesta found the back of the net. Seconds earlier, the midfielder was left alone in the D following a smooth dissection of Madrid defence by Messi.
Then goals started raining in yet another Clasico. In one of the counter-attacks, Angel di Maria forced through the right flank and sent a perfect cross for French front-man Karim Benzema to connect. The header, from a rising Benzema, did enough to beat Victor Valdes.
Against the run of play, the home team found themselves leading within four minutes after the equaliser, in the 24th minute. And this time too, Benzema feasted from a di Maria delivery. The only difference was, this time, the Frenchman used his feet to drill through.
Despite enjoying greater ball possession, Barcelona took some 20 minutes to find the equaliser. Three minutes before the break, a sneaky Messi used his nimble left-foot to squeeze one past Madrid goal-keeper Diego Lopez. That made the scoreline read 2-2.
Cristiano Ronaldo, who was invisible the entire first half, tricked Dani Alves in clipping his trailing left-foot at the edge of Barcelona goal-mouth. The referee, who was conducting the match in every sense possible worthy of a classic, bloated for the first time and awarded a penalty for Ronaldo`s effort.
It was a poor decision, considering the fact that the contact happened outside the box. And La Liga`s leading scorer wasn`t to be failed in such a grand stage. In the touchline, Carlo Ancelotti celebrated the goal with disdain, eking the crowd for some more noise.
But, the former Paris Saint-Germain boss soon realised why Barcelona-Real Madrid matches are called classics. In one swift move from Barcelona, Sergio Ramos found himself chasing Neymar in the Real Madrid own half. Just when the Madrid defender was trying to overtake the Brazilian, both the players tripped. The referee deemed it enough to show a direct red card to Ramos, and a penalty to the visitors. A harsh decision.
From the spot, Messi equalised for the second time. That`s 3-3.
Ancelotti sacrificed the two-goal hero, Benzema, to bring Raphael Varane. But with still thirty minutes left in the match, Barcelona increased their tempo against the10-men Real Madrid. After a period of protracted build-up, Andres Iniesta finally found an opening by darting inside the Real Madrid from the left flank, only to find Xabi Alonso clumsily blocking his advance resulting in a goal-line melee. Thus arrived the third penalty for the night.
Messi – the Barcelona penalty taker, came forward and left all the Real Madrid fans complaining the decision.
The win provides Tata Martino`s side an opportunity to refocus on the title fight. The defending champions have now reduced Real Madrid`s lead to just one point with nine matches left in the season. However, this time, it is a three-way fight – with the other Madrid team, Atletico leading the table on head-to-head result.
With this season` s El Clasico fixture in the league over, now the focus will be on Barcelona-Atletico Madrid. The result from the return leg of the fixture between these two teams will decide which team lifts the trophy.