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

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The Independent Football

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.