The Clasico lived up to all the hype as Lionel Messi scored a hat-trick to lift Barcelona to a 4-3 win over Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu, blowing the title race wide open.
With both sides in the title hunt, they could have cancelled each other out. Instead, both sides provided high-octane entertainment throughout.
Barcelona led early on, but they had to show tremendous resolve to rally from behind on two occasions. And with time ticking down, Messi kept his cool to net the winning penalty.
Atletico Madrid were the big winners as their victory at Real Betis earlier in the day put them at the top of the table—level on points with Real and one point ahead of Barca.
Neymar’s selection had been in doubt leading up to the game, but Tata Martino gave him the nod and he came close to opening the scoring on four minutes.
A well-weighted pass from Messi set the Brazilian clear, but he could only fire his shot straight at Diego Lopez.
Seven minutes in, Andres Iniesta showed Neymar exactly how to finish with the opening goal.
Messi was again the architect, hitting Iniesta with a superb pass. The Spain star took one touch to get the ball out of his feet before smashing a shot beyond Lopez.
Real were quick to respond, with Angel Di Maria slicing through the Barca defence to tee up Benzema. The striker had the goal gaping eight yards out, but somehow fired over the bar.
Messi has been playing his way back into form in recent weeks, following his injury troubles, and he burst clear. The only surprise was that the net did not bulge, as the Argentine superstar dragged his shot wide.
Messi ended up ruing the miss. Having been off target with his shooting, Benzema showed there was nothing wrong with his heading.
Di Maria, who was proving a thorn in the side of the Barca defence, dug out a cross that Benzema rose high to meet. He made crisp contact, and the effort proved too hot for Victor Valdes to handle.
Real’s celebrations were temporarily cut short, however, as Di Maria collapsed and required treatment before carrying on.
Whatever treatment he received, it certainly worked. Di Maria continued to torment Barca and fashioned a second goal for Benzema.
Ángel Di María: Has created as many chances (4) in the first half vs Barcelona as Barcelona have managed as a whole #ElClasico— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) March 23, 2014
The winger got to the byline, and pulled the ball back for Benzema. There was plenty still to do, but Benzema made it look simple as he controlled the ball with his thigh before firing a volley into the corner.
Real were rampant and only the outstretched right boot of Gerard Pique denied Benzema a hat-trick in six minutes—again from a Di Maria cross.
Barca weathered the storm and their talisman, Messi, drew them level shortly before half-time. He bounced off a couple of challenges and exchanged passes with Neymar before firing beyond Lopez.
It really was breathless stuff, which thrilled those within the Bernabeu and the many millions watching on television.
Still, not everyone was satisfied with their viewing:
I'm not complaining about the entertainment or the attacking emphasis but surely the odd bit of basic defending wouldn't go amiss?— Tony Barrett (@TonyBarretTimes) March 23, 2014
Gareth Bale was a shade quiet in the opening 45 minutes, but the Welshman burst onto the scene on 53 minutes. A blistering run left Madrid players trailing in his wake and he slipped in a neat pass for Benzema. The forward made clean contact with his shot, but was thwarted by a strong save from Valdes.
Cristiano Ronaldo, like Bale, was on the periphery in the first half. But he rose to the occasion on 55 minutes to put Real back into the lead.
A driving run drew the challenge from Dani Alves, and Ronaldo tumbled in the box. The contact looked to be outside, but a penalty was awarded and Ronaldo drilled the spot kick into the corner.
There was controversy about the Real penalty, and it was a similar story at the other end on 65 minutes. Neymar dashed into the box and under minimal contact from Sergio Ramos, he tumbled to the floor.
Messi tucked the spot-kick away, rubbing salt into the Real wounds as Ramos was shown a red card for denying a clear goal-scoring opportunity.
That's the 70th time that Lionel Messi has scored 2+ goals in a La Liga game for Barcelona. pic.twitter.com/Cqo3sQUsSU— Squawka Football (@Squawka) March 23, 2014
Alves, who had a tough time containing Di Maria, came close to snatching the win for Barca but his shot from 20 yards on 74 minutes crashed against the post and bounced to safety.
Just when it appeared the two sides would take a point apiece, controversy reared its head again. Iniesta went for a gap between Daniel Carvajal and Xabi Alonso and won a penalty.
Messi kept his nerve to slot the ball into the top corner to win the match for Barca.
With nine games remaining in the Liga season, Atletico and Real are level on points—with Barca a further point adrift. This title race appears certain to go down to the wire.
There is certainly added spice on account of Barcelona entertaining Atletico on the final day of the season. It could be winner-take-all, or they may cancel each other out and open the door for Real.
Either way, Real will not give up fight as boss Carlo Ancelotti is convinced the title will be decided on the final day.
.@MrAncelotti: “I’ve said it many times, the league will be decided in the last match. We have to continue fighting. We need to react."— Real Madrid C.F. (@realmadriden) March 23, 2014
Ancelotti also feels his side did not deserve to leave the match empty handed.
Angel Di Maria: B+
Plenty of the pre-match talk was about the attacking flair of Messi, Neymar, Bale and Ronaldo. Di Maria was somewhat overlooked, but no one could ignore him on the field. Barca full-back Alves may well have nightmares about Di Maria as he teased and tormented and fashioned chance after chance.
Lionel Messi: A
It’s been a season that many players would view as a stellar one, but by Messi’s high standards it has been frustrating. He has been hampered by injuries, but against Real on the major stage he delivered. He was at his creative best for Iniesta’s goal and also scored a hat-trick to clinch a vital win.
Cristiano Ronaldo: C
Messi stole the show, and it is fair to say Ronaldo was short of his best. He did get a goal, but it came from the penalty spot and he could never truly exert his class on the game.