With controversy again threatening to derail the biggest club game in the world, El Clasico needed a saviour and it got one.
On Sunday night the Bernabeu hosted some of the most talented players on the planet as Real Madrid took on Barcelona but, as has too often been the case in recent seasons, that talent, skill, power and pace looked like it would be overshadowed by dubious decisions, embarrassing altercations, blame and post-match tirades. There was no shortage of the aforementioned and unwanted extras but when the dust settles on another ding-dong battle between the world’s biggest clubs the match should be remembered for another magical performance by Lionel Messi.
Barca’s Argentine wizard was involved in all four of his side’s goals, scoring three and assisting Andres Iniesta for the opener, as the Catalans edged out their hosts in a seven-goal thriller that shoves them firmly back in the mix for the title. Tata Martino’s men trailed Madrid by four points going into the game and a failure to leave with three points would have left their title hopes in jeopardy. As it was, Messi took the game by the scruff of the neck, albeit in a more flowery fashion, to drag his side back from the brink of defeat on two occasions and see them move to within a point of their hosts and new leaders Atletico Madrid at the top of the table.
His perfect performance was a timely reminder that Cristiano Ronaldo’s lifting of the Ballon d’Or in January may well be an exception rather than the rule. Messi is a man used to being lauded over as the best player in the world thanks to four straight liftings of Ronaldo’s current individual prize but the momentum has swung firmly to the side of the Portuguese this season. The momentum had swung firmly to the Spanish capital in the title race, too, leaving Madrid as favourites going into the match but Messi and co. proved Los Blaugrana should not be written off.
Almost as importantly his man-of-the-match performance ensured El Clasico really was a classic despite the controversy that more often than not comes hand-in-hand with it. Think pig’s heads, eye gauging, red cards and tasty challenges aplenty. The Clasico is never usually a game for the faint-hearted but the joy of Messi is that he gets on with the game in its most beautiful format and that didn’t change at the Bernabeu despite the mayhem that unfolded around him.
The 26-year-old dropped deeper to help build the Barca attacks and it was from his sublime pass from the centre out to Iniesta on the left that allowed the Spanish international to thump in the first goal of the night and score his first ever goal at the Bernabeu. It was the perfect start for the Catalans but in the first-half Messi may not have even been the best Argentine on the pitch, let alone the best player. His international teammate Angel Di Maria almost single-handedly turned the game on its head with two pin-point crossed for Karim Benzema to score twice in quick succession and give Carlo Ancelotti’s men the lead.
Messi, or ‘La Pulga’ as he’s affectionately known, went into the game having become Barca’s all-time leading scorer with 371 goals thanks to a hat-trick in the 7-0 victory over Osasuna the previous weekend and another bit of history was in the making at the Bernabeu. The Argentine scored his side’s leveller just before half-time to move him level with Madrid legend Hugo Sanchez in La Liga’s scoring charts with 234 strikes and to become the all-time leading scorer in Clasico matches. That record was soon to be overtaken on Sanchez’s old stomping ground.
The match had avoided controversy up until that point but when Cesc Fabregas brushed past Madrid defender Pepe to celebrate with his teammates tempers flared. The pair went head-to-head and both fell to the ground before Barca midfielder Sergio Busquets stepped on Pepe’s head in the mayhem that ensued. Intentional or unintentional, it wasn’t pretty and the touch paper had been lit for a feisty second half just minutes before the interval.
But while the majority rushed to get involved, either through calming the situation or making things worse, Messi did as Messi does and picked the ball up before running back to the halfway line. He didn’t lose his head, he never does. This was with the score at 2-2 and with the second half still to come. Messi just wanted to get on with things and play football.
It was a refreshing sight amongst the madness and it got better in the second half as Messi hauled his side back from 3-2 down, courtesy of a controversial Ronaldo penalty when Dani Alves first made contact outside the penalty box, with two penalties of his own. The first didn’t escape its own controversy as Sergio Ramos saw red for bringing Neymar down when through on goal but the beauty was in the pass of the night as the Argentine slid a beautiful ball through for the Brazilian that caught Ramos out of position. It was just that Messi should step-up and score after cutting open Madrid’s back line with one sublime pass.
There was little doubt after his second spot-kick after Xabi Alonso and Dani Carvajal sandwiched Iniesta inside the box as the hosts tried desperately to cling on for a vital point. Messi wasn’t going to be miss and his strike into the top corner left Madrid goalkeeper Diego Lopez with no chance and sent the 300-plus visiting supporters high up in the top tier of the Bernabeu into delirium. It was enough to win the game and it was enough to give Messi most of the plaudits.
It was a shame, therefore, that his record-breaking performance was only in the background immediately after the match. Controversial comments from Madrid’s star players including Ronaldo and Ramos took the headlines. “The referee made so many mistakes,” said Ronaldo. “They have to assign a referee who lives up to the game's importance. He was pale and very nervous. I'm not trying to justify myself. There were a lot of things. Some people wanted Barça to stay in the title race and they did.” Ramos said he hopes Alberto Undiano never referees another Madrid match again while his brother and agent Rene said the official should be axed.
Come the end of the season the match could be remembered as one that potentially decided the destination of the title but instead of focusing on the officiating and the controversy it should be remembered for another classic performance for arguably the greatest player that has ever played the game. Messi broke more records and scored a Clasico hat-trick, his second in as many weeks, to take his side from potentially title also-rans to potential title winners. You can tire of the histrionics often associated with recent meetings between the two sides but you can never tire of Lionel Messi - and he’s still only 26.