James Lawton: Maestro Messi eclipses sulky Ronaldo

Although the gap is closing between Spain's big two, Barça's genius puts team ethic first, a trait still lacking in Real man

It is not true that Real Madrid played Barcelona off the Bernabeu park in the first half before suffering their latest subjection in moments of sublime skill and one flash of outrageous misfortune.

You do not play Barça off the park, not if they are in anything like their current composition.

You curb them, go to the source of their most exquisite strength with a hard and relentless purpose and you try to humanise them, flush out a few uncertainties and then go for the kill. Put another way, you try to get them to share occupancy of the same football planet by cutting off their supply lines from deep in defence.

Real, for much of the game and especially in that first half, could hardly have improved upon José Mourinho's gameplan.

They certainly created uncertainty, so to speak, and if anyone questions this they need only reflect on quite how close Lionel Messi came to receiving a second yellow. A generally excellent referee appeared to reach for his pocket, then reared back from such sacrilege like an altar boy about to be caught swigging the sacramental wine.

This certainly made a nonsense of the post-game assertion of Barça president, Sandro Rossell, who said: "Although it is politically incorrect to say so, the players today won without difficulty." What he might have said, without a whisper of complaint, was that if there were indeed serious difficulties – they started inside the first minute when catastrophic distribution by goalkeeper Victor Valdés led to Karim Benzema's opening goal – his team eventually overcame them with consummate style and the old, fine cutting edge.

There was another point to be made but in his new mood of discretion, Mourinho is likely to keep it within the walls of the dressing room. It was that even on a rare night of distracting irritation – his first yellow was for one yap too many – Messi ultimately ridiculed the idea that he and Cristiano Ronaldo are now operating on roughly the same level.

In the matter of scoring goals this is no doubt true but if we are talking about an absolute commitment to serving the team, to inflicting oneself on all aspects of its effort, we are not so much talking apples and oranges as grown-up genius and adolescent self-indulgence.

Even Ronaldo's basic execution, let alone his mindset, was mostly less than ordinary. He was back – and unforgivably on a night that promised Real their most significant evidence that finally they had put themselves in the position to genuinely challenge the Barça empire – in the worst of his petulant exit mode after years of brilliant achievement at Old Trafford. The sulky demeanour was, though, the least of his sins. Most killingly, he seemed utterly out of sync with Real's initially superbly orchestrated effort to first subdue, then attack the team that for so long had been their unanswerable nemesis.

When Real had the foundation of that instant strike, he not only miscued an opportunity well within his technical range but totally ignored the far more threatening position of his team-mate Angel di Maria. In the second half, Ronaldo had the perfect chance to freely head his team back into the lead after Messi, unearthing some trademarked creative brilliance in the middle of the spat he was having with both the referee and himself, had sent in the impressive, if frequently melodramatic, new Chilean striker Alexis Sanchez for the equaliser.

There we had the essential difference between the world's best player and most people's idea of his nearest challenger. It was, you had to believe, the gap between a master for all seasons and circumstances and a player of frequently astounding talent but sometimes feckless will.

No doubt Ronaldo will be forgiven quickly enough if he can again pick up the scoring touch that has been so vital to his team's progress, which now leaves them tied at the top of La Liga with a game in hand. Real may also draw some comfort from the fact that for considerable periods they were not only able to neutralise the Barça game but produce plenty of their own more direct menace.

That for the moment may be lost in the gloom that descended on the bars and the cafes of the Puerto del Sol when Cesc Fàbregas made the game safe for Barça after another eruption from the astonishing, if on this night, somewhat fortunate Messi. They say luck favours the brave and, also presumably, the preternaturally gifted. That anyway was a reasonable conclusion for Barça as they flew off to Japan to re-assert their status as the planet's No 1 club team.

However, they would be unwise to ignore the new weight of the footsteps at their heels. At the very least, they have to concede that Real were authentic participants in a match that reminded us why precisely Spanish football rules the world.

Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Life and Style
fashionCustomer complained about the visibly protruding ribs
The new dawn heralded by George Osborne has yet to rise
voicesJames Moore: As the Tories rub their hands together, the average voter will be asking why they're not getting a piece of the action
Dejan Lovren celebrates scoring for Southampton although the goal was later credited to Adam Lallana
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little