LIONEL MESSI scored a hat-trick to give Barcelona a 4-3 win at 10-man Real Madrid in an electrifying and contentious 'El Clasico' that kept the three-way Spanish league title race wide open.
The result leaves Atletico Madrid top the table, with Madrid level on points in second and Barcelona a point behind in third with nine games remaining as the title race shapes up to be the closest in years.
In a game that saw three penalties, a red card and a host of missed chances, Andres Iniesta set the tone by rocketing home an early opener, only for Karim Benzema's brace to put the hosts ahead by the 24th.
The teams went into the break level at 2-2 after Messi slotted in an equaliser, only for Cristiano Ronaldo to re-establish Madrid's lead with a 55th-minute penalty.
But Messi scored a pair of penalties after that – including the 65th-minute equaliser after Sergio Ramos was sent off – to end Madrid's 31-game unbeaten run stretching back to the last clasico in October.
"It's unusual to see so many penalties called in a clasico," Barcelona full-back Jordi Alba said. "This win will give us a lot of momentum going forward."
Earlier, Diego Costa's 23rd goal followed Gabi Fernandez's opener as Atletico beat 10-man Real Betis 2-0 and now leads Madrid on head-to-head with the city rivals level on 70 points. Barcelona are on 69 points.
The high pace of play and buzzing atmosphere inside the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium left little doubt this was a "clasico" with much at stake.
Messi spotted Iniesta's run down the left side seven minutes in and slid a perfect ball clear into the area for him to lift into the top of goal to kickstart the memorable match.
Madrid winger Angel Di Maria troubled right back Dani Alves throughout, especially when he twice set up Benzema with crosses from the left side, with the France striker nodding home the first in the 20th before controlling the second to smash a right-footed volley beyond Victor Valdes.
Madrid's defence nodded off when Neymar and Messi's hopeful combination came to fruition and the Argentina star equalised before the half-time whistle.
Gareth Bale's speed provided problems for Barcelona down the right, but Ronaldo was equally troublesome along the left and he was tripped by Dani Alves after the break to set up the penalty for his league-leading 26th goal that put Madrid back on top. However, replays showed the contact had taken place just outside the penalty area.
But Barcelona replied when Ramos was shown a straight red for tangling with Neymar and Messi stepped to equalise again.
Benzema then came off as Madrid looked to defend the draw, with Barcelona patiently coming forward and Dani Alves sending a shot off the post in the 74th.
Iniesta was then taken down by Xabi Alonso and Dani Carvajal in the area to set up the 84th-minute spot kick that Messi slotted home for his 21st goal of the season.