It was a throwback to last season in terms of who the individual star attractions were this weekend—even if Atletico Madrid were the team to take centre stage. Los Rojiblancos took top spot in La Liga the day after Luis Aragones death. A fitting tribute.
However, in the absence of Neymar and Gareth Bale—both of whom missed their club’s games through injuries—it was the old faces of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo who had the expectations of Barcelona and Real Madrid on their shoulders.
Messi was the first up. The Argentine was looking to end a run of eight league matches without a goal—he had not scored since his strike against Almeria back in September.
And when Alexis Sanchez dinked Barca into the lead at Camp Nou against Valencia, from a Messi pass, it looked like La Blaugrana could potentially run riot against a Los Che side that have undergone plenty of changes during the past month.
It didn’t quite work out like that, though.
Minutes into the second half, Valencia, under new manager Pizzi, had managed to claw their way into the lead via goals from Dani Parejo and Pablo Piatti.
Then came Messi’s chance to equalise, to end his goal drought in the league.
Seeing as it was a penalty, it wasn’t a chance Barca’s No. 10 was about to pass up. He fired his ninth league goal of the season past Diego Alves from 12 yards.
With the weight of waiting for a league goal lifted from his shoulders, the expectation inside the ground was that Messi would go onto score again and see off the Valencian challenge.
It never came, though.
Messi was impressive, but it wasn’t enough. He managed eight shots on Alves’ goal, three of which were on target while also playing six key passes, according to whoscored.com.
By the time the final whistle sounded, all Messi had to show for his efforts was his penalty—which wasn’t even worth a point.
There’s no doubt the result was a blow for Leo and his teammates, but there were positive signs that Messi is approaching his best form again.
And so the baton was passed on to Ronaldo, who started in his usual forward position as Madrid took on Athletic Bilbao at the New San Mames.
Following a goalless first half, Ronaldo thought he had opened the scoring in the early stages of the second period. However, despite his ginger wagging, replays showed he was offside when he fired beyond Gorka Iraizoz.
Moments later, his free-kick didn't even beat the wall.
When Los Blancos eventually found the breakthrough, shortly after the hour mark, Ronaldo might not have been the scorer, but he was the provider.
Benzema slid in Madrid's No. 7, and rather than take the shot on, he unselfishly teed up Jese Rodriguez for his third league goal of the campaign. It was Ronaldo's sixth assist in La Liga this season.
Then things got interesting—for the match and for Ronaldo. Within 10 seconds of coming on, Ibai Gomez had equalised for Athletic, and then, barely two minutes later, Cristiano saw red.
After seeing a penalty appeal turned down, his anger got the better of him. First he scraped his hand down Carlos Gurpegi's face, then, not content with that, he became embroiled in a game of foreheads with Ander Iturraspe.
The referee dished out the red card. Ronaldo, pending an appeal, which is not advisable, will face a spell on the sidelines suspended.
Ibai came close to winning the match for Athletic. His wonderful dipping effort was tipped over by Diego Lopez, who then made a comfortable save from an Aritz Aduriz header.
Carlo Ancelotti's side held out for a point though in a weekend in which everything went right for Atletico Madrid.