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Friday 18 August 2017

Messi strikes with last kick of El Clasico to blow La Liga title race wide open

Real Madrid 2 Barcelona 3

Lionel Messi shows his name and number to the fans after scoring a late winner against Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Lionel Messi shows his name and number to the fans after scoring a late winner against Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Ed Malyon

You may bloody him and bruise him, but you will not stop him.

Two strikes from Lionel Messi, including a curling winner with the last kick of the game, hauled Barcelona back into the title race on a night where Real Madrid had, for six minutes, appeared to have secured the championship.

Real's late equaliser, neatly finished at the near post by James Rodriguez, would have been enough for 2-2 and the maintenance of a three-point lead that was unlikely to reeled in.

But as Barca's support celebrated in the top corner of the Bernabeu, the home fans left with a fresh uncertainty. The teams are level on points but Barca top the table by virtue of their head-to-head record. Madrid have a game in hand but they also have a Champions League campaign to fight. It will go down to the wire, just as this engrossing Clásico did.

With Barcelona solving the 'will-he, won't he' saga over Neymar's inclusion with a terse statement released some hours before kick-off, Real Madrid had solved their own 'should-he, shouldn't-he' tale by including Gareth Bale from the outset despite his lack of fitness.

Artistry

Real Madrid's Karim Benzema tries to keep the ball in play. Photo: Reuters
Real Madrid's Karim Benzema tries to keep the ball in play. Photo: Reuters

The answer, it turned out, was that they shouldn't have, with the Welshman lasting just under 40 minutes before being taken off injured again.

By that point it was already 1-1, his substitution breaking up what had been an enjoyably open first half laced with the testiness, artistry and violence we have come to expect from this fixture.

We have also come to expect questionable officiating, and this renewal was no different.

Real Madrid should have had a penalty when Cristiano Ronaldo got to a loose ball ahead of Samuel Umtiti but, even at a packed-out and unusually noisy Bernabeu, it is a strange convention of football that referees are reticent to give penalties early in games. This one, after 90 seconds, fell into that quirk of the rules and gave Barcelona an early lift.

Casemiro taps in Real Madrid's first goal of the game. Photo: Reuters
Casemiro taps in Real Madrid's first goal of the game. Photo: Reuters

The game felt like it could easily have tilted in either direction on refereeing decisions, with the penalty decision costing the hosts but Madrid were also fortunate not to lose Casemiro to a second yellow card when he cynically fouled Luis Suarez.

The Brazilian would punish them, becoming the unlikely scorer of the opener as he was first to react to Sergio Ramos' header coming back off the post.

He was punishing in other ways too, repeatedly clashing with Messi as the Argentine danced around him but it was Casemiro's compatriot Marcelo who did the most damage to the Barcelona number 10, leaving him bleeding from the mouth after an elbow.

It went unpunished by the officials, of course.

But, as a whole generation of defenders has now found, you may rough up the flea but you will not stop him.

Real Madrid goalkeeper Keylor Navas punches the ball clear. Photo: REUTERS
Real Madrid goalkeeper Keylor Navas punches the ball clear. Photo: REUTERS

Messi provided much of the game's quality and, when allowed to pick up the ball in central areas, caused chaos when running at Madrid's defence.

But the equaliser would come when there was no chaos. Instead, it was as serene a passage of play as you will see, with Messi nipping ahead of Luka Modric and then around Dani Carvajal before sliding home.

It was high-speed slalom taken to turf and it was the perfect way to restore parity in a game where Barca had been the better side, Madrid mainly staying in it through brutality after their bright opening faded.

Their second half display was far more constructive, and Karim Benzema was incredulous when his point-blank header was saved brilliantly by Marc-Andre Ter Stegen just when the hosts were dominating.

Ivan Rakitic celebrates scoring Barcelona's second goal with team mates. Photo: REUTERS
Ivan Rakitic celebrates scoring Barcelona's second goal with team mates. Photo: REUTERS

As in the first period, that strong start weakened and for 25 minutes the two goalkeepers traded high-quality saves, Ter Stegen impressing twice from close range and Keylor Navas producing three of his own dazzling stops in the Real goal.

But there was always the feeling, in a game so open and with such good chances being created, more goals would come. Indeed, it needed a stunning left-footed drive from Ivan Rakitic to score the game's third and breathe new life into La Liga's title race.

The Bernabeu roared in hope and desperation, hoping 17 minutes would be enough time but they would only need 13 of them - and just ten men - as substitute James Rodriguez stroked home at the near post, scoring with just his sixth touch.

Few celebrated as wildly as Sergio Ramos, who was sent off for a two-footed lunge on Messi and with James' goal came the feeling that it was done. The title was sealed.

Barring a complete collapse Real Madrid had won La Liga. Only a miracle could stop them.

That miracle was Messi, surviving 95 minutes' worth of battering to curl home a left-footed finish in the dying seconds. It was a goal to settle any title race, but whether it proves to be such a strike will only become clear down the line.

Irish Independent

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