Messi 2 Ronaldo 2
Barcelona 2 Real Madrid 2
World’s two greatest players illuminate El Clasico to put Catalan politics in the shade
It was supposed to be El Clasico like no other, with 'More than a Club' hosting 'More than a Game' and 98,000 fans at the Nou Camp offering a unique declaration of support for Catalan independence.
Ultimately, though, this wonderful, balmy night provided something very familiar -- another dazzling showcase for two men who have to be hailed as 'More than a Player'.
The final score was Lionel Messi 2 Cristiano Ronaldo 2, the little Argentinian genius and the preening Portuguese maestro, two of the finest players of any era, illuminating the 222nd episode of football's glitziest rivalry as only they can.
Indeed, for all of the political overtones here, it was just the amazing sound and fury of a thunderous game which the night will be remembered for. It was what we have come to expect from the Clasico in its thoroughly modern 21st century form; expansive, niggly, full-blooded, occasionally fantastically skilful and always completely engrossing.
Outside the Nou Camp, supporters of a Catalan break from Spain were in feverish mood, handing out protest leaflets. Inside the stadium, though, you suspect Tito Vilanova, Barcelona's coach, was simply trying to tell his men to relax, because it was just a football match. "We want to win for sporting reasons -- it has nothing to do with politics," as declared in his pre-match stance.
He knew in Spain's current parlous economic state, Barca fans were going to make a grand statement in Catalonia's greatest cathedral by brandishing cards before the game to create an extraordinary image in the form of a gigantic mosaic of the province's La Senyera flag and that, 17 minutes and 14 seconds into each half, they were going to cry "Independencia!" to remind the whole of Spain that it was in 1714 that Catalans could last boast independence.
It was dramatic stuff to both witness and hear. "Catalonia -- Europe's Next State" proclaimed the banner behind one of the goals. Offering a diplomat's face, Vilanova swore that all he was interested in were the three points that would take Barcelona 11 points clear of Jose Mourinho's men.
To that end, he had to create some kind of defence to cope with Cristiano Ronaldo, in the mood to score his third hat-trick in a week. With Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique injured, Alex Song had to be sacrificed in central defence, Adriano drafted in his place, and the resultant three-man backline looked for a good half an hour to be all at sea.
Barca looked ruffled, not even having had their first shot on goal by the time the first chant for independence, accompanied by thousands of waving flags, went up in the 18th minute. The law of sod was that it would only inspire a Real assault.
So, first, Sergio Ramos headed just wide from a corner when he really should have scored and then, after some lovely interplay between Sami Khedira and Karim Benzema, the Frenchman freed Ronaldo on the left edge of the box and his low, crisp strike beat Victor Valdes at his near post.
It meant more history for 'CR7', as the first man to score in six consecutive Clasicos and the way Barcelona were floundering at that point suggested he might have a field day, especially when Dani Alves was taken off, maybe as a tactical move rather than out of necessity.
Seconds later, the defence evaporated again as Angel Di Maria found Benzema in glorious isolation in the box only for the No 9 to scruffily scoop his shot against the post and Khedira to just miss out with his rebound. Barcelona looked in need of divine intervention.
Instead, they received help from the least divine figure on the pitch as Pepe, hitherto notable only for one of his absurd bouts of play-acting, made a terrible hash of trying to head away a Pedro cross which bobbled in the area.
Who should the ball fall to in the six-yard box but Madrid's worst nightmare. Looking to avoid a third consecutive scoreless night at the Nou Camp -- something that has not happened for four years -- Messi greedily put that prospect to bed by crashing home his volley.
The great man had been unusually quiet attacking from deep but after the break, he was back to his genie finest. When Xabi Alonso hacked him down outside the box, his 25-yard free-kick, curled past Iker Casillas, was a moment of rare beauty.
It was so exhilarating that the crowd even missed their cue 17 minutes and 14 seconds into the second half but the home cries were again silenced when Mesut Ozil's lovely through ball guided in Ronaldo for his second.
In a dizzying finish, after Messi and Andres Iniesta had come close, Alves' replacement Martin Montoya hit the bar and Pedro flashed one just wide.
Barcelona were left frustrated but still eight points clear and as the fans took home their yellow and red flags, you can be assured they were talking of two great footballers, not politics. (© Daily Telegraph, London)