Last Sunday was a very weird day for me. While my country (Venezuela) erupted with riots and protests against the government, I had the moral obligation of not watching something that I was waiting for the entire year: El Clásico. But then I thought that I should maybe take a mental rest from these last couple weeks of crazy, and switched from CNN to my local sports channel and watched something wonderful.
Obviously, I have no regrets.
They say that football is a state of mind. Real Madrid arrived to its field as a solid leader, happy to have qualified for the semifinals of the Champions League; Barça came in feeling a sense of depression, having recently been eliminated against Juve. But this is a sport of players, and Leo Messi came with a determination to tell the world that he is the best player in the world and that this league is pretty much alive. An excellent match for the Argentinian and a goal in the last minute of stoppage time gave the victory and consequential momentum to Barça.
Real Madrid missed an unmissable opportunity to have the league, if it was not sentenced already, to swing in their favor. One last play, a couple of fouls that had to arrive on Sergi Roberto but didn’t, a tremendous effort to overcome and equalize a match with numerical inferiority were thrown in the trash: details of a match, of a Clásico in which Real Madrid stayed alive when it was more complicated and let go when it was almost done. The Madrid players have another game pending against Celta de Vigo, scheduled for May 17, but lost their difference of three points on their rival, keeping the pulse alive for the championship. The azulgranas, on the other hand, now have a better goal average.
Barcelona, who played without the sanctioned Neymar, are also aiming to conquer the Copa del Rey in the final on May 27 against the modest Alavés, while Madrid continues in the Champions League, where they face Atleti on May 2.
Playing in a sold-out Santiago Bernabeu, the BBC formed by Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo jumped into the field, and Luis Enrique brought Paco Alcácer as a substitute for Neymar; making a double offensive line with the Uruguayan Luis Suárez. Messi played with freedom a little bit behind those two.
Los blancos, after a good start that resulted because of high pressing, a probable penalty given away by Umtiti (which wasn’t called by Hernandez, the referee) and some missed opportunities, wanted to carry its party calmly and accepted the dominance of Barcelona in terms of possession. After that start, partly because of the desire for the ball of the Catalans and also because Real Madrid felt comfortable defending and attacking with speed, the game changed and became another one. Barcelona, at a very slow pace, except when Messi appeared, played and played, without creating any clear-cut opportunities. Real Madrid, while defending itself with order, waited for its opportunity to run with speed and generate restlessness. The Barcelona attack only became dangerous when Messi appeared.
In a fight of styles, Real Madrid sought to exploit Barcelona’s weakness in defending set pieces. That’s where the current champions of Europe are dangerous, very dangerous. Marcelo picked up a rebound and put it to the far post, where Sergio Ramos took a shot and hit the post. The later rebound would then reach Casemiro, who with composure shot to finally make the game 1-0.
The match was put to Real Madrid’s face, but it had Messi in presence and spirit. The Argentinian, who received an elbow by Marcelo that if Hernandez had seen could have caused his expulsion, came back stronger (and swallowing blood) after retiring momentarily to take care of his bleeding mouth. It was a bad idea from the Brazilian, because the aggression finally activated La Pulga; he was able to level up with a brutal dribbling near the area, receiving the horizontal pass by Rakitic to overcome a perplexed Carvajal, and shooting at the goal with Keylor Navas already on the ground and at his mercy. It was yet another Messi masterpiece.
After the equalizer, Luka Modric forced Ter Stegen to fly again to save his hand-stinging shot, and then slightly after that, Bale fell down and left his place to the talented Marco Asensio.
From there to the last quarter of an hour there was time for another chance to be created by Barcelona, which an erratic Luis Suárez did not take advantage of. His partnership with Alcácer was ineffective at best, but Barca had Messi, Iniesta, and Busquets in command of the midfield, and that seemed enough.
Real Madrid, with Casemiro on a yellow and trying to avoid an expulsion, with Bale injured and replaced by Asensio, had great moments to do damage. Although Cristiano and Benzemá demonstrated power and speed whenever Barca allowed them, there were not too many clear-cut opportunities. The strategy of Zidane subtracted some comfort in Barcelona’s passing, sticking Kroos to Busquets and Modric to Iniesta.
In the second half, again Real Madrid started with force, so much so that they snatched the ball from Barcelona and Asensio started to shine. It was like an armament exchange at times. The attack by possession was taken by Real, the counterattack one by Barça. And the two found viable formulas. So much so that Ter Stegen and Keylor Navas became protagonists of the encounter.
With a lack of definition in the game, the match was increasingly becoming more a player’s match rather than a team’s. So, for Real Madrid appeared Marco Asensio, Marcelo, Keylor; and for Barcelona appeared Iniesta, Alba, Busquets, and of course, Messi. There were opportunities for both sides, although Barça began to control the match in the same way as they did much of the first half.
It was then when Ivan Rakitic – who wasn’t having a great match- appeared. The Croatian took advantage of poor defending by Kroos and Kovacic (who replaced Casemiro) to put a spectacular shot in the goal of the almost unbeatable Keylor Navas. After that goal, Luis Enrique’s team started to have the best chances of the game.
Piqué was presented with an opportunity to end the match, but his shot from inside the area was deflected by Navas. He then saved his team again in the 82′ after another great move by Messi.
What Zidane didn’t count on was the expulsion of Sergio Ramos (77′). The captain chased Messi with an improper foul when he had half a field ahead alone for him and saw the red card. His fifth in a Clásico, the seventeenth of his career in first division.
But it was the Madrid who tied the game. It was then, when the match seemed to define itself, when everything changed. Zidane chose to put James into the worst possible scenario. The Colombian was being forgotten, but he reminded everyone that he didn’t give up. The visitors were confident and the cafetero made his own mark to strike a pass by Marcelo in the area without any opposition. Busquets did not follow his man, and Rakitic let the Brazilian put the ball in the danger zone. The result was the left-footed shot of Rodríguez.
The last bullet would be for the little Argentinian, owner and master of the scene and the scorer’s table of La Liga with 31 goals. In the 92’ minute of the match, Messi entered through the center of the area, finished as if it were a penalty in movement and made the game 3-2 for Barcelona in stoppage time, achieving something that no one had ever done: Madrid lost for the first time in its history in the league with a goal in stoppage time. Leo did it.
But Leo did more. That celebration was the 500th of his career, distributed between Liga (343), UCL (94), Copa del Rey (43), Club World Cup and others (20). Of that impressive number, 23 goals have been against Real Madrid, a great advantage at number one of the table of top scorers at the Clásico: the second is Di Stéfano with 18 goals, while Cristiano Ronaldo has 16 goals.
Did he accomplish something even more? Yes. With this win, the Argentinian crack became the player to win the most Clásicos at the Santiago Bernabéu in La Liga. He played and won seven, a mark he shares with his team-mate Andrés Iniesta. Crazy.
And Messi, again, was the protagonist at the Bernabéu. The game went off the hands of Real Madrid in the last play and the league remains open. Of course, despite falling, Real Madrid continues to have an advantage, another match that they must win to collect again that margin of three points. This was one of the best Clásicos of recent times. Goals, situations and lots of excitement between two of the most powerful teams in the world.
Mental rest taken. Back to reality.