Neymar, Messi, Bale and Ronaldo Watch: Record-Breaking Leo Steals the Show
It really was a classic Clasico on Sunday night as Liga champions FC Barcelona edged arch-rivals Real Madrid in a seven-goal thriller in which the world’s three most expensive players were all on display at the Santiago Bernabeu. A global audience of some 400 million, as per CNN, looked on in sheer wonderment.
However, what of the those trio of Galacticos, Barca’s recent club-record £50 million signing Neymar and the Los Blancos duo of Cristiano Ronaldo and Planet Football’s costliest star Gareth Bale, as well as the Catalans’ main man Lionel Messi?
Well, you can find out just how that quartet of world stars performed in the Spanish capital here.
There were more than a few raised eyebrows pre-match when the visitors' starting lineup was announced and contained the name of the Brazil international, when most experts had assumed that under-pressure head coach Tata Martino would have stuck with the same starting XI that annihilated Osasuna 7-0 at Camp Nou last weekend.
However, the Argentine opted instead to recall the 22-year-old for the champions’ biggest match of their entire campaign so far, although in hindsight, perhaps Martino would have been better served going with either Alexis Sanchez or Pedro.
Neymar started the contest brightly enough, shooting straight at Diego Lopez early on from a tight angle after being slipped through on goal by Messi, but by the half-hour mark, the youngster had drifted out of proceedings as he was forced to briefly switch flanks from right to left—with little effect.
Even though the Brazilian did have a hand to play in Messi’s first goal just before the break after playing a one-two with his team-mate in the Madrid box, he was about to be given the hook when he played his most important role of the entire night with less than half an hour remaining.
Played clean through on goal, the forward found his heels clipped by covering Madrid defender Sergio Ramos, resulting in only one possible outcome, a penalty to Barca and a 19th red card for the Real skipper as Messi fired home a second equaliser on the night.
Meanwhile, minutes later, Neymar was then taken off by Martino to be replaced by Pedro, with the Barcelona boss surely glad he had not made that change moments earlier.
The world’s most expensive player endured a disappointing night as both his side saw their recent run of 17 straight wins at home in all competitions come to an end with defeat to Barcelona, while the Welsh winger himself failed to influence the contest as he would have hoped.
In fact, the £86 million world-record signing barely touched the ball in the frantic opening exchanges, embarking on one early run at the visitors’ back four while generally remaining on the margins in the first half.
But Bale began the second period with more purpose and intent, firstly going on an explosive dribble past three Barca players before releasing Karim Benzema for what was the Frenchman’s sixth clear opening of the match, only for Victor Valdes to deny the striker and keep the score at 2-2.
The 24-year-old could have even killed off the Catalans just before the hour mark by giving the home side a two-goal lead after a neat exchange of passes involving frontmen Ronaldo and Benzema. But after the latter’s brilliant through ball, Bale could only shoot straight at Valdes once again, and Madrid barely threatened again in the match thereafter.
It was a frustrating night all-round at the Santiago Bernabeu for the recently crowned FIFA World Player of the Year, despite the Portuguese scoring his 42nd goal in all competitions this season, and his 26th in La Liga. Real Madrid lost top spot in the table to city-rivals Atletico de Madrid on the basis of their head-to-head records this season.
Ronaldo had his usual eventful opening 45 minutes against Barcelona without ever really threatening to make a lasting impression on proceedings. He was involved in two contentious penalty appeals at both ends of the half, in between which the playmaker had just one effort on goal that was easily saved by Valdes in the visitors’ goal.
However, 10 minutes after the break, Ronaldo picked up possession and drove at a retreating Barca back line before being tripped by Dani Alves, although subsequent replays did show the incident to have taken place outside the area in yet another moment of high controversy on the night.
Ronaldo, though, blocked out the distractions to fire low past Valdes’ right hand and put Los Blancos back in front 3-2, with still over half an hour of a pulsating encounter remaining. It was the 79th goal that had been scored this season between Madrid’s prolific attacking front three.
Unfortunately for the home side, that was the 29-year-old’s last meaningful involvement, with Ronaldo’s only other moment of note being his late caution for a flailing elbow on Javier Mascherano in an incident that summed up the playmaker’s increasingly frustrating evening at the White House.
All the talk in the Spanish capital in the buildup to El Clasico was of a return to form for the four-time FIFA Ballon d’Or winner after the Argentina international had been forced to miss two months of the season on either side of the midseason winter break with a hamstring injury.
It took the little magician all of seven minutes to give credence to those suggestions as he first played Andres Iniesta through for the opening strike of this epic seven-goal thriller. While the 26-year-old did serve up a collector’s item after 15 minutes by missing the target when one-on-one with Diego Lopez, Messi did make up for that aberration by scoring Barcelona’s equaliser just before half-time.
It was that goal, his 19th strike against Madrid, which took Messi past Real Madrid legend Alfredo Di Stefano as the highest scorer in Clasicos in La Liga, although the brilliant playmaker was not finished.
With less than half an hour remaining and his side trailing 3-2 and in danger of losing their grip on the Liga crown, Messi kept his cool to fire home a pair of penalties with his trusty left foot to keep the Catalans alive in the title race. They now trail both Atletico de Madrid and Madrid by just a point with only nine matches left to play.
Meanwhile for Messi, not only was it an incredible 26th career hat-trick, with his first ironically also coming against Los Blancos back in March 2007, but, it was also his 34th goal in only 34 games in all competitions this season, 21 of which have come in just 22 La Liga fixtures.
Lionel Messi's El Clasico in numbers: 3 goals, 6 shots, 4 key passes, 1 assist, 1 take-on, 100% tackles won, 88% pass completion rate.— Squawka Football (@Squawka) March 23, 2014
As a result, Messi has now also moved above Madrid hero Hugo Sanchez into second place in the all-time Liga goalscoring list by netting for the 236th time in 268 matches for his club.
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