Real Madrid were in stunning form when Barcelona came to visit the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium on 23 March, 2014. They had won their previous 17 matches at the famous ground and were unbeaten in 31 games.
Barca's Andres Iniesta—who was at the height of his 16-year career with Barcelona—gave little thought to recent history, however, when he ghosted on to a through ball by Lionel Messi to smash home the game's opening goal with a little more than six minutes on the clock. It was a quintessential Iniesta goal—finding space and applying the killer finish.
"The beauty of Iniesta was that he was able to make everything look simple, and he was able to do it perfectly," says Damia, a former Barcelona teammate. "He could just turn and go, and he always did it so naturally. He didn't need to do things spectacularly. He never had to show off. He's so talented in terms of skill. He was so good at interpreting spaces and finding the gaps. His movements are classy. If he got the ball, something happened nearly all the time."
Iniesta's early strike set the tone for a pulsating match in what was the peak years of the Messi-Ronaldo rivalry. Ronaldo was the reigning Ballon d'Or holder (and later that year retained the crown). By the end of the match, a boyish-looking, clean-shaven Messi, who was still only 26, had surpassed the legendary Alfredo Di Stefano as the all-time top scorer in the history of the Clasico.
Both teams were stocked with illustrious names. The only novelty among the lineups was the decision by Real Madrid's coach Carlo Ancelotti to play Diego Lopez in goal, ahead of the club's captain, Iker Casillas. Lopez, who now plays for Espanyol, had been Real Madrid's preferred league goalkeeper that season.
"Diego Lopez arrived at Real Madrid the season before under [previous coach] Jose Mourinho," says Jaime Rodriguez, a journalist with El Mundo. "Lopez played well, and Iker was relegated to the substitutes' bench. The following season, Ancelotti made a Solomonic decision—he played Iker in the cup games and Lopez in the league games.
"It was kind of a strange decision by Ancelotti. The practice of alternating goalkeepers has become a bit more common now, but at the time the situation generated a lot of noise that wasn't good for Ancelotti, and it wasn't good for any of the goalkeepers either. Ancelotti tried to make both of them happy, or tried to be fair, but in the end neither of them were at their best level that season."
Karim Benzema—who Gerard Pique and Javier Mascherano struggled to contain throughout the match—flashed in two goals midway through the first half to put Real Madrid ahead. Then a few minutes before half-time Messi pounced to square up the match again.
A trip by Dani Alves on Ronaldo (which appeared to be outside the box) led to a Real Madrid penalty 10 minutes into the second half, with Ronaldo converting it to give Real Madrid the lead again.
The game's decisive moment occurred in the 63rd minute. Messi picked up the ball close to the halfway line and threaded a pass into the path of Neymar Jr., taking out five Real Madrid defenders in one instant.
It was a big moment for the Brazilian. His first season at Barcelona had already triggered huge institutional turmoil. Two months before the clasico, Barcelona president Sandro Rosell resigned over misappropriation of funds in Neymar Jr.'s transfer from Santos the previous summer.
There were misgivings about the impact Neymar Jr.—flamboyant, possibly unsettling for Messi—would have on Barcelona's dressing room. The club's great ideological leader, Johan Cruyff, believed he would disrupt the balance of power in the team. "Messi and Neymar? I wouldn't put two captains on the same ship," he remarked famously.
"Neymar's time at Barcelona started with performances that weren't out of the ordinary," says Jordi Quixano, a journalist with El Pais. "By the end of the season, though, he finished with good stats. Above all, he provided more important assists than great goals.
"Neymar got on well with Messi. Neymar's connection with Messi was better than, say, Antoine Griezmann's is with Messi this season. When Neymar arrived at Barcelona, he understood that his role was to serve Messi even though Messi finally took him aside one day and told him: 'Go and play. Express yourself, and stop thinking I am the best.'
"With Griezmann, it is the contrary. Griezmann is a player who has arrived and doesn't know how to adapt to the team. The team plays in a certain way, and Griezmann doesn't have the tools that Neymar had to adapt. Neymar was explosive. He could dribble. He could decide a match.
"Griezmann has always been the player on the team that other players play for, and Barca doesn't play for Griezmann. He's just another cog in the machine. Any quality player that comes and has the predisposition to play on the wing, and to play for Messi—as Neymar did back in the 2013-2014 season—will do better than Griezmann."
When Neymar Jr. got on the end of Messi's through ball, he took one touch which took him into the box. Scrambling to cover, Sergio Ramos took him down. A penalty was awarded, which was converted by Messi. It was a straight red card for Ramos—the 19th in his career.
"Real Madrid fans are more forgiving when Ramos gets a red card in a clasico," says Rodriguez. "For example, when he got sent off towards the end of the 5-0 defeat at the Camp Nou under Mourinho in 2010. That was a red card out of desperation. He could have injured Messi badly. Even Real Madrid fans forgave him for that one because there was so much tension around. And in a clasico when Messi is around anyone would get desperate."
As the game entered its final throes, a tired Real Madrid conceded another penalty when Dani Carvajal and Xabi Alonso upended Iniesta in the box after some of Iniesta's deft football. Messi scored the penalty—marking his second hat-trick in a row—to close out the game 3-4 for Barcelona.
The win meant Barca narrowed the gap to one point on joint leaders, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid, at the top of the table, but their season would unravel shortly afterwards. Within a few weeks, they were dumped out of the UEFA Champions League quarter-final by Atletico and lost the final of the Copa del Rey 2-1 to Real Madrid, a final that will forever be remembered for Gareth Bale's galloping match winner.
Barcelona were in flux that season. They had just come off a 100-point league title victory, but their coach Tito Vilanova had to step down in the summer of 2013 because his condition had deteriorated following his throat cancer diagnosis. Sadly, Vilanova died in late April 2014, a little over a month after the historic 4-3 clasico. His successor Gerardo "El Tata" Martino was a poor fit and was ridiculed in the Spanish press for his shabby dress sense.
"There was a serious rumour that Messi's father advised Rosell to appoint him because he used to be his idol when Jorge Messi was young," says Quixano. "Rosell knew Martino from Rosell's years working in South America with Nike.
"Martino didn't convince the team. When he talked tactics, he knew less than the players. When a Barca player told him, 'hey, such-and-such thing is happening,' and he didn't know how to respond, the players lost confidence in him. They just went through the motions. They were like factory workers, punching in their time cards. They'd go training at the Ciudad Deportivo, do their shift, and go home again. Nothing more. The players disengaged that season under Martino."
The league title campaign went down to the wire. Real Madrid—who finished the season by winning the UEFA Champions League final in a dramatic 4-1 extra-time victory over Atletico Madrid—dropped points carelessly in the run-in to fall out of contention.
"Real Madrid played the fool for a while in April and May. Their minds were on the upcoming Champions League final because they lost a championship that they could have won by lacking focus," says Rodriguez.
In the last league game of the season, Atletico Madrid went to the Camp Nou to face Barcelona. It was the first time since 1951 that a head-to-head decider would conclude the title race. Atletico squeezed out a 1-1 draw. Diego Godin got the all-important second-half equaliser, against an insipid Barcelona side, to secure Atletico's first title since 1996.
"Atletico had a lot of merit in winning that title—to keep pace with a Real Madrid team that ended up winning the Champions League, and against a Barcelona team that had Messi, which is always dangerous," says Rodriguez. "But in the end, Barca and Real Madrid were the ones that lost the title, more than a case of Atletico winning it.
"It was almost like Barcelona were already on holidays for that title decider against Atletico. All they had to do was win a home game against an Atletico team with their tongues hanging out—Atletico were running on fumes by that stage of the season—to become champions.
"If Barca had to play that match against Real Madrid, they would have won, but against Atletico the feeling was that they didn't even care about losing, just so long as it wasn't to Real Madrid. It surprised me a lot the attitude of Barca. It was like they thought that Atletico winning the league title was the lesser of two evils."
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