MADRID — A Lionel Messi hat-trick decided a La Liga Clasico filled with even more than usual incident and controversy as Barcelona won 4-3 at Real Madrid — and kicked the La Liga title race wide open.
Referee Alberto Undiano Mallenco was a key figure in a game which saw three penalties, broken records, a red card and pretty much everything else. Andres Iniesta scored early for Barca, Karim Benzema hit back twice for Madrid, before Messi equalized – all before half-time.
The second half was just as hectic – and more controversial – with Cristiano Ronaldo’s penalty putting his side back ahead before Messi had the final say with two spot kicks of his own. Oh – and Madrid’s Sergio Ramos was also sent off for a professional foul.
Both coaches began the game with their expected line-ups, including all of their biggest stars. And Barca immediately set out to try and outnumber Madrid in midfield and dominate through keeping possession of the ball. That plan appeared to be working to perfection inside eight minutes when an intricate passing move cut easily through the home back-line and Messi timed his final pass perfectly for Iniesta to wallop the ball high to the net.
Madrid looked dangerous on the counter, but could not get a hold of the ball with its midfield chasing shadows. Messi was sent clean through, but as the stadium gasped he pulled his shot across goal and wide. The Argentine was soon involved again, sending Neymar free, but Madrid left-back Marcelo just about got back to block.
It seemed Barcelona would pull away, but the equalizer arrived instead when Angel Di Maria skinned Dani Alves to cross and Benzema got up over Mascherano with a header that Victor Valdes got a hand to but could not keep out. And it was soon 2-1 to Madrid when Di Maria [again!] made the space to get the ball across and an unmarked Benzema [again!] controlled the ball and smashed home. Two goals in four minutes and this stadium, which had been subdued by doubt, was suddenly bouncing with joy.
Alves and Mascherano, though, were both having absolute shockers – and both were [again!] at fault when Benzema almost had his hat-trick, only a scrambling Gerard Pique cleared from the goaline. Howling fans also wanted a penalty when a Ronaldo free-kick appeared to hit Cesc Fabregas’ arm as he jumped in the defensive wall.
Barca was rocking, but Messi calmed it down. The Argentine came into midfield to exchange passes with Fabregas, then threaded the ball in to Neymar, who mis-controlled, but Messi had had kept running and he thumped ball low to net when it ran free. Amid the mayhem Pepe and Fabregas were booked for some handbags as the goalscorer avoided the melee and joyfully celebrated.
There was still time for Benzema to again tower over the whole Barca defense and send a header just wide before half-time came and we could all breathe again. And remember that Messi’s goal made him the single all time Clasico goalscorer with 19.
Ronaldo had been quieter during the first half – except for regularly venting his frustration regularly at Undiano Malenco’s decisions. One went the Portuguese’s way though when the official awarded a penalty after the contact with Alves was outside the box. CR7 didn’t care. He picked himself up and made it 3-2.
It was Messi’s turn again, and he did not disappoint with an inch-perfect ball from midfield to send Neymar sprinting through. Ramos hared back and the referee saw enough contact to say penalty and a red card for the Madrid defender. Again the decision was debatable. And again the spot-kick aim was true.
Italian coach Ancelotti immediately withdrew Benzema to shore up his defence with Raphael Varane, and the ten men sat back to defend a point which would still keep them in control of the La Liga race.
Barca had 25 minutes to make their extra man count, and they made hard work of it. A Dani Alves piledriver hit the post, and Martino threw on attacking substitutes Pedro Rodriguez and Alexis Sanchez. But it took another penalty with just eight minutes left to settle the game as Undiano Mallenco pointed to the spot after Iniesta wriggled past Alonso inside the box and the Blancos midfielder slyly kicked his Spain teammate.
Messi hammered the penalty to the top corner for his hat-trick. And celebrated taking his clasico tally to 21 as eerie silence rang around most of the the Bernabeu. Madrid’s goose was cooked and Barca – despite its clear defensive failings being highlighted yet again — was back to within a point of Madrid near the top of the table.
Los Blancos will likely lament the Ramos sending off, but it was Ancelotti’s side’s inability to deal with Messi which cost it the game. The coach will come under pressure now, having lost both Clasicos, and taken only one point from two meetings with Atletico Madrid who, for now, move atop the La Liga standings on head-to-head record over its city neighbors.