Messi reminds the Bernabeu who he is
This season’s La Liga title race which came to a conclusion last month was resurrected by April’s thrilling Clásico which saw Lionel Messi score his 500th goal for Barcelona.
Real Madrid came into the game 3 points ahead of Barcelona with a game in hand, the pressure was squarely on the shoulders of the Catalans. During the build-up to the game Lucho played up the importance of the fixture, “it is a decisive game with the competition nearing its end, it could almost end the league or leave the door open” and “There is no better place for a Barça win than the Santiago Bernabéu” were some of the more notable quotes from his pre-match press conference. By contrast, Zidane minimised the impact , “Whatever happens, this will not be a decisive clash. We’ve got seven finals still to play and tomorrow is the first of those. We’ll take it game by game because every single one is crucial” he said in press conference. This Clásico would be Luis Enrique’s last as Barcelona coach and Zidane’s first at the Bernabeu.
Both coaches opted for their usual big game lineups, Neymar was the only notable absentee for Barcelona due to suspension and Zizou took a gamble starting Bale who had only just recovered from injury.
Immediately after kickoff Barça assumed the shape of a 4–4–2 with Paco Alcacer taking up the position of the wide left midfielder and Rakitic on the right, Messi and Suarez stayed upfront.
Real dominated the first 5 minutes of the game with high tempo passing, intense pressing and plenty of movement. Despite this, they were unable to craft any clear cut chances other than a pretty clear penalty shout after Umtiti fouled Ronaldo in the second minute. Barca’s first meaningful chance of the game came in the 11th minute after some sumptous midfield buildup resulted in Messi finding Jordi Alba on the overlap. Alba’s cutback found Suárez at the top of the box but his low shot went just wide of the par post.
From the 10th minute onward Barça steadily gained more control of the game, monopolising the ball and slowing the tempo of the game. Their offside trap as well was working to a T, frustrating Real. As soon as Lionel Messi got into the match, dropping deep to receive the ball and helping Busquets and Iniesta with buildup play, a pseudo midfield diamond was created. Real were unable to cope and opted to foul Messi whenever he started running with the ball, Casemiro in particular was lucky to end the first half with only one yellow card. Whenever Madrid had their brief spells of possession they went route one with Modric making himself the outlet for the killer ball. This period of play saw Benzema and Suárez pull a few saves out of the goalkeepers, the match was a stalemate at this point but Barça arguably had the upper hand.
Real took the lead in the 28th minute through a set piece, Barça’s achilles heel for much of this season. A quick counter by Madrid was ended by a great Pique slide tackle on Gareth Bale, the ensuing corner was taken by Kroos. Ter Stegen punched it away however the ball landed on the chest of Marcelo who controlled and floated it back into the box, Sergio Ramos was was unmarked immediately got on the end of it and managed to hit the ball against the near post. The ball leisurely strolled across the six yard box before Casemiro slid in to finish at the far post, 1–0 to Los Blancos.
Despite going behind, Barça showed mental strength and continued to dominate the game, playing their usual slow patient buildup in Real’s half. Sergio Busquets was crucial in helping Barca maintain possession by making some stellar interceptions. Messi and Rakitic often swapped positions while Barça had the ball, this interplay paid dividends in the 33rd minute as they equalised. Following another superb buildup phase, Messi received the ball from Sergi Roberto and passed it to Busquets and made a run into the space at the top of Real’s box. Busquets then passed the ball to Rakitic who laid it off into Messi’s path who deftly touched the ball past Carvajal leaving him for dead before unleashing a powerful low shot in the bottom right corner of the goal, his first goal against Real Madrid since 2014.
Unlike Barça, Real were clearly shaken by the goal as their backline gave away the ball on two occasions in quick succession but Barça were profligate and failed to capitalise. Modric tested Ter Stegen in the 36th minute with a good shot from outside the area, unfortunately for Madrid in that same minute Gareth Bale was forced to come off due to reaggravation of his injury. Zidane’s gamble failed so he brought on Asensio to replace the welshman, this surprised most spectators (myself included) as most of us would have expected Isco instead due to his electric form.
Jordi Alba, who had an excellent first half nearly scored a volley in the 43rd when he made a run into the box trying to get on the end of a floated Suarez cross, a reverse of the combination which produced Barca’s first chance of note earlier in the game. Messi also came very close to scoring from a corner right at the end of the first half. The referee then blew the whistle and the two teams went into the tunnels level.
Zidane’s halftime team talk clearly served to motivate Real as they came out in the second half all guns blazing. Both Benzema and Kroos drew remarkable saves out of Ter Stegen. After 10 minutes of relentless pressure on the Blaugrana box, Real began to wane and reverted to their usual game plan. Barça then took their turn in the exchange of blows as Paco and Pique drew saved out of Keylor Navas, both goalkeepers were having fantastic games.
The hottest heads on both teams Carvajal and Suarez had a spat in the 62nd minute, it was the first time tempers flared in what had been a fairly disciplined game. A few minutes later Cristiano Ronaldo missed two chances in quick succession; one acrobatic and the other horrific. Suárez then joined the missing party after he volleyed a shot against Navas following a wonderful outside of the boot through pass from Iniesta. The two coaches then decided to shuffle their decks. Luis Enrique made his first and only substitution of the game in the 70th minute, bringing on Andre Gomes in for Paco Alcacer; Zidane opted to bring on Kovacic for Casemiro who had been begging for a red card all game.
The game was end to end up until Barca took the lead in the 73rd minute through Ivan Rakitic. Carvajal tackled the ball from Messi at the top of the box, the ball then fell to the Croat who faked Kroos with his right foot and then found the back of the net with a devastating left foot shot to the far post. Sergio Ramos got his customary red card 4 minutes later for a studs up two footed tackle on Messi; interestingly Ramos had zero tackles and interceptions prior to being sent off.
In the 80th minute Gerard Pique missed another great chance to score; this time a 1-on-1 in the box but Navas came out on top once again. After this, Zidane opted to bring on the star of Real’s bench this season, James for Karim Benzema in the 82nd minute to grab a goal. 3 minutes later he did just that, scoring from point blank range from a Marcelo cross in the 6 yard box. Real took the initiative after this and continued to pepper the Barcelona goal, despite being a man down.
Los Blancos would come to rue their all out attacking play in the 92nd minute when Barça won the 3 points courtesy of another Lionel Messi goal. Sergi Roberto made a powerful sprint from inside his own half into Real’s defensive third beating several players along the way. He then passed the ball to Andre Gomes, who hesistated for just the amount of time before slipping the ball into Jordi Alba on the overlap. Alba’s cutback found Lionel Messi inside the area whose side-footed finish found the bottom corner.
The unsung hero of the game was Jordi Alba, who had a Dani Alves esque performance. Due to Neymar’s absence the responsibility of proving width on Barca’s left wing fell entirely on Alba’s shoulders and he excelled, playing almost 3 positions simultaneously. Man of the match however, was undoubtedly la pulga. Messi ran Real ragged from the first minute to the last. The diminutive Argentine gave one of his best ever Clasico performances, his unparalleled dribbling, passing and finishing ability were on show for the world to witness once more.