Lionel Messi blew the La Liga title race wide open when he netted a hat-trick in a 4-3 comeback win for the champions at 10-man Real Madrid in an action-paced ‘Clasico’ on Sunday.
Chasing a fifth title in six years, defeat for Barca at Real’s Bernabeu stadium would have all-but killed off their challenge and they came out swinging and took a seventh-minute lead when playmaker Andres Iniesta burst clear on the left and lashed the ball into the roof of the net.
It was fitting start to a game featuring some of the world’s most expensive and best-paid talent and watched by millions around the world.
Real, looking to restore their three-point lead at the top and undefeated in 31 matches in all competitions, were reeling but hit back with a Karim Benzema double before Messi’s first, a close-range snap shot through a crowd of players to make it 2-2 at the break.
Cristiano Ronaldo put Real ahead from the penalty spot 10 minutes into the second half after he was tripped by Dani Alves and the match turned when home captain Sergio Ramos was sent off for felling Neymar when he was through on goal in the 63rd.
Messi clipped home the resulting penalty to level at 3-3 and after some relentless Barca pressure struck the winner from the spot six minutes from time after Iniesta was knocked to the ground in the area.
The Real players were furious about both penalty decisions but Barca played a courageous game as they had promised and dominated possession, particularly after Ramos was dismissed, and thoroughly deserved the victory.
With nine games left, Real have 70 points, level with city neighbours Atletico Madrid, who won 2-0 at bottom side Real Betis in the earlier kickoff, and one ahead of third-placed Barca.
“We made some small mistakes and that’s why we did not win,” Ancelotti, said. “We fought and played with intensity but we have to forget this match. Wednesday’s game could be a key match in the season.”
Messi’s treble, his second in two games, meant the four-times World Player of the Year became the all-time top scorer in ‘Clasicos’ with 21 goals, surpassing Real great Alfredo Di Stefano who scored 18.
Magic and madness: this El Clasico had it all
Real problem in big games
Defeat may have been Los Blancos’s first in 32 games in all competitions, but they have now taken just one point from a possible 12 against Barca and Atletico this season. Carlo Ancelotti’s men also just managed to draw at high-flying Athletic Bilbao and Villarreal, which doesn’t bode well with difficult away trips to Sevilla and Real Sociedad to come in the next three league games.
Barca need a centre-back
Barca’s defending, particularly in the first half, was woeful. Javier Mascherano was the main culprit as he badly misjudged Angel di Maria’s cross for Karim Benzema’s second goal which put Madrid 2-1 in front. Carles Puyol’s departure from the club at the end of the season should free up funds to bring in the high quality central defender Barca have needed for the past two years since Puyol has become a peripheral figure due to injuries.
Messi back to his best
The Argentine forward said it would take him 10 games to hit top form after being sidelined for two months by a hamstring injury at the end of last year. He looked as good as ever on Sunday as he not only scored three times, but also set up Barca’s first goal, scored by Andres Iniesta, and the penalty from which Sergio Ramos saw a game-changing red card for a foul on Neymar.
Ramos’ red mist
Real Madrid appear to have three excellent central defenders in Sergio Ramos, Pepe and Raphael Varane. However, Ramos’ propensity to get himself sent-off at crucial moments remains a problem as he saw red for the 19th time as a Real player and already the third time this season.