Just when cracks began to appear following disappointing losses against Malaga in La Liga and Juventus in Champions League, a faint gleam of hope in the form of Lionel Messi – who since his early days has always been a ‘team man’ – sparked the Barcelona faithful in Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium. In hindsight, the Argentine would have felt disastrous after watching arch-rivals Real Madrid sail through the semi-finals with a win against Bayern Munich in the second leg and more importantly, watching old foe Cristiano Ronaldo bag a hat-trick to become the first player to net 100 goals in the Champions League.
All eyes were on Messi who had an onerous time on the field over two legs against Juventus and he had yet another difficult task on hand as Barcelona visited the high-flying Los Blancos in a bid to save their season. But who would have thought that the little genius would guide Barcelona to the top with a splendid curling finish past Keylor Navas in the very last kick of the El Clasico? The showdown could not have been more dramatic and perfectly scripted as Messi also became the first player to hit 500 goals for Barcelona in all competitions.
With the captain’s armband wrapped around his bicep, Messi had a glaring look on his face as he entered Santiago Bernabeu along with outgoing manager Luis Enrique to a sea of all-whites booing to push Barcelona’s morale down. As for Zinedine Zidane, his team would have been satisfied with a point to boost their title race chances with a game in hand.
There were a couple of changes for both the sides as Gareth Bale was finally declared fit as he surprisingly replaced Isco Calderon. For the defending champions, Neymar was clearly a big loss but they introduced Paco Alcacer in place of him. However, Isco’s exclusion was questionable after his last-minute winner against Sporting Gijon this month showed what he is capable of.
Madrid were on the front foot since the start and they were appealing for a penalty after 91 seconds when Cristiano Ronaldo was caught by Samuel Umtiti, and that proved to be just the start of a breathtaking game. The two teams went for each other since the word go and it was hard to keep up. Just minutes later, Barcelona’s midfield gave away the ball easily that gifted Ronaldo yet another chance as he surged ahead to take a shot but Marc-Andre ter Stegen palmed it away.
The Los Blancos kept threatening from the flanks and deservedly drew first blood in the 28th minute. As a result of Barca’s shaky defence, Stegen punched a corner straight to Marcelo, who crossed the ball inside the box and Sergio Ramos’ shot hit the post. Casemiro followed it up with a scrappy finish from three yards away into an empty net.
Barcelona reacted well from thereon, picking up passes and finding pockets of spaces in the final third. As a result of their swift movement, both Ramos and Nacho were caught out of position as Messi equalised within five minutes to indicate that there was still hope for Enrique to sign off on a good note. That was Messi’s 499th goal in all competitions for his beloved Barcelona. At that point, it seemed like it was Messi’s day at the Bernabeu.
Barcelona were the second best team going into the interval with Andres Iniesta and Messi the only two who managed to sneak in and create chances. Gerard Pique and Umtiti were vulnerable at the back, leaving room for the Madrid trio – Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, and Bale. However, Bale limped off the field and was replaced by youngster Marcos Asensio to bolster Real’s attack.
During the first 10 minutes of the second-half, Madrid came out on top and looked on course to restrict Messi from scoring his 500th goal. Madrid had nine shots one target in comparison to Barcelona’s one. In the 53rd minute, their 10th shot was denied by a brilliant save by Stegen as Marcelo took the advantage of his pace to deceive Sergio Roberto and cross the ball to Benzema. Just two minutes later, Alcacer squandered a chance to take the lead as he made a mess of Jordi Alba’s grounded pass.
Apart from Messi and Iniesta’s smooth functioning, Luis Suarez’s contribution was a bit of a concern as he failed to stretch Madrid’s backline. It was a good day at the office for both Navas and Stegen, with a flurry of shots being saved within every two minutes. Barcelona, quick at the break, saw themselves ahead in the 73rd minute as Ivan Rakitic slotted a stunner into the top corner. Things got worse for Madrid when Ramos received the 22nd red card of his career following a reckless two-footed challenge on Messi. Interestingly, Ramos did not win a single tackle or interception before getting sent off.
Benzema, like Suarez, was not able to find his feet and was replaced by James Rodriguez. The Colombian wasted no time in showing his worth with an equaliser five minutes from normal time to shift the momentum in favour of the home side. Barcelona, shocked by the goal, started to panic in the dying minutes as Madrid came close to sealing all three points but Asensio’s pass was deflected for a corner.
The game was perfectly poised at 2-2 for one final twist. A superb one-two between Asensio and Luka Modric opened space on the right but the former’s perfectly teed-up low cross was wasted by Ronaldo. Again on the break, it was Barcelona who held their nerve as Roberto surged ahead, dribbling past Nacho, Marcelo and Modric. His pass found Andre Gomes, who cut it inside for Jordi Alba. Fans were on the edge of their seats as the cutback rolled to Messi and he curled it for his 500th goal and Barcelona’s third to land a significant blow to Madrid’s title challenge.
What an incredible way to achieve a milestone. Messi had a bleeding mouth following Marcelo’s elbow, a black eye from the away game at Juventus but despite all that, he was found standing at the away end after the winner, holding his shirt out in front of Madrid supporters.
“Barca have been an incredible for many years but an important part of their history is owed to Messi,” Enrique said after the match.
“These are demanding games that require maximum physical and mental preparation. The fact that we made it 3-2 in the 92nd minute makes it a gargantuan morale booster,” he added.
What’s mind-boggling is that Messi has reached 500 goals in just 577 games, which shows how he has transformed even after shifting from a winger to a midfielder. Messi’s incredible performance on Sunday night was the perfect response to critics who recently pointed at his decline as he approaches his 30th birthday. His ongoing struggles with Argentina team are something very different and have got nothing to do with his performances. Many believe it’s Barcelona’s new tactical set-up that has the damage, but in reality, he has now playing at a deeper position in this side.
With this win, Barcelona have now gone level on points with Madrid and are top due to their head-to-head record. They have also ended Madrid’s 22-game unbeaten streak at home. However, it is Madrid’s title to lose given that they have a game to play which could be the decisive game of this season’s La Liga.