Everything had appeared in Real Madrid’s favour. With Barcelona faltering in recent weeks and Atletico also in their slipstream, Carlo Ancelotti’s side approached the Clasico with confidence and the comfortable cushion of a four-point advantage over their fierce foes. All they had to do was defend it.
But they couldn’t. Defending, in fact, was far from the strong point of either side on Sunday. Andres Iniesta was allowed time and space to escape alone on the left and blast Barca into an early lead. Then, Karim Benzema twice took advantage of poor marking from the Catalans to turn it around before Lionel Messi negotiated his way through a crowd of Madrid defenders to make it 2-2 at half-time.
The second half was a tale of three penalties: Madrid got the first when Cristiano Ronaldo went down outside the area in what looked an innocuous challenge by Dani Alves; Neymar then threw himself to the ground after a collision which saw Sergio Ramos sent off and Messi make it 3-3; and lastly, Xabi Alonso and Dani Carvajal caught Iniesta with six minutes left in what seemed a more clear-cut spot kick. Messi did the rest to seal his second Clasico treble and, more importantly, win the game for Barcelona.
Barca, against all the odds and contrary to their recent form, had refused to lie down. Under fire and under pressure, Gerardo Martino’s men came with a plan and executed it, living to fight another day. This, the Argentine coach had said before the game, was their last chance – and they took it.
But Madrid made a mess of it. Many in Madrid will look to the referee and feel that they were unfairly left a man down when they game reached its scintillating climax, yet the home side should have been in control of their destiny by that late stage.
“We played against 12 – it’s always the same,” Ronaldo said afterwards. “I have been here five years now and I’m slowly understanding how things work.” The Portuguese was a peripheral figure for much of the game, however, and will be frustrated above all with his own performance. This was a chance for he and his team-mates to stamp their authority on the title race, take a step towards La Liga and leave Barca battling the demons.
Instead, Barca are right back in it, Atletico finish the weekend as Liga leaders and it’s Madrid left to pick up the pieces. Blaming the referee is all very well, but they were ultimately undone by poor defending so the Real inquisition must begin at home.