Reports of Barcelona’s demise appear to have been somewhat premature. Since they were made to look leaden-footed by Juventus in the Champions League. But here, with a performance of grit, determination and supreme skill in the home of their greatest foe, the Catalan side looked very much alive, as they insisted that their grip on the La Liga title is not going to slip without a scrap. A corker from Ivan Rakitic and two astonishing goals from the ever-astonishing Lionel Messi gave them a victory which put them level at the top of the division.
Real, unbeaten in 12 prior to kick off, started at pace, and took the lead just before the half hour when Brazilian midfielder Casemiro tapped in from close range before Messi and Ivan Rakitic put Barcelona in front and Sergio Ramos was shown a red card for a wild lunge. Substitute James Rodriguez thought he had earned Madrid a point late on. But Messi, who scored his first with a superb jinking run and finish, fired in from the edge of the area to win it for Barcelona.
Both Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo had earlier missed good opportunities to give their sides the lead, with the Argentina international poking wide of an open goal before the break and the Real Madrid forward slicing over in the second half. Real – who have a game in hand on Barcelona – also felt they should have had a penalty when Ronaldo was clipped by Samuel Umtiti after only two minutes.
Down to 10 men after Ramos’ sending off and having pulled level with five minutes to spare, Zinedine Zidane’s outfit looked intent on a winner that would have effectively put the title beyond Barcelona. That left the space for the visitors to break away and score themselves. Tactical naivety from Zidane? Perhaps, but with a game in hand, La Liga still looks Real’s to lose.
It had started promisingly for the hosts, with Casemiro the unlikely early hero when he poked home after Ramos hit the post. However, when Gareth Bale limped off with an ankle problem, the momentum swung in Barcelona’s favour. Even with Brazil international Neymar suspended for Barcelona and Bale going off injured in the first half for Madrid, both sides boasted a plethora of attacking talent at the Bernabeu.
But it was the goalkeepers who looked, for a long time, to have come out on top as Marc-Andre ter Stegen and Keylor Navas made a series of fine saves to keep the score down. Barcelona’s Ter Stegen was equal to efforts from Ronaldo and Karim Benzema in the first half, before Paco Alcacer, Gerard Pique and Luis Suarez were all denied by Navas after the break. Ter Stegen made 12 saves in total, the most by a Barcelona keeper in La Liga since the 2003-04 season, but had little chance with either Casemiro’s opener or Rodriguez’s late leveller.
Eventually Barcelona’s class in attack also shone through, La Liga’s top goalscorer Messi leaving Navas well beaten with the winner. Barca, whose win put them top because of a better head-to-head record, have five games left, Real have six to play. Real Madrid have won the Champions League in two of the past three seasons, but have been less successful domestically – they are without a La Liga title since 2012, with Barcelona taking the trophy three times and Atletico Madrid once since then.
Real Madrid (4-3-3): Navas; Carvajal, Ramos, Nacho, Marcelo; Casemiro (Kovacic 70), Modric, Kroos; Bale (Asensio 39), Benzema (Rodriguez 82), Ronaldo.
Subs: Casilla (g), Isco, Danilo, Morata.
Booked: Casemiro, Kovacic, Carvajal.
Sent off: Ramos.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Ter Stegen; Roberto, Umtiti, Pique, Alba; Busquets, Rakitic, Iniesta; Messi, L Suarez, Alcacer (Andre Gomes 70).
Subs: Cillessen (g), D Suarez, Digne, Turan, Mascherano, Alena.
Booked: Umtiti, Messi.