Messi works his magic
LIONEL Messi put on a dazzling display on Sunday to lead Barcelona to a thrilling 4-3 victory over archrivals Real Madrid, leaving the race for Spain's La Liga title wide open.
Messi, Barcelona's Argentinian star, scored three goals - including two on penalty kicks - and set up midfielder Andres Iniesta for his first goal in Real Madrid's Santiago Bernabeu stadium in the opening minutes of this latest Clasico.
With 25 minutes to play, Messi effectively turned the match around by once more carving open the Real Madrid back line with another pinpoint pass for Neymar, who tumbled to the ground under a challenge from Sergio Ramos. Ramos was sent off with a red card and Messi converted the resulting penalty with a powerful shot into the top corner.
There certainly was nothing subdued about the way the two teams launched into the match, playing at a frantic pace that provided early scoring opportunities at both ends of the pitch.
After seven minutes, Messi found Iniesta unmarked inside the box, and Iniesta opened Barcelona's account with an angled shot past Diego Lopez, the Real Madrid goalkeeper.
In recent years, the rivalry between Spain's two biggest clubs has also turned into a duel between their two biggest stars, Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi. Earlier this year, Ronaldo officially replaced Messi as the world's best player after winning Fifa's Ballon d'Or award.
But on Sunday, it was Messi who eclipsed Ronaldo, who - apart from scoring on a penalty kick - barely managed another shot on goal.
In fact, Real Madrid's most dangerous forward was Karim Benzema, who wasted an early opportunity but then scored two goals in quick succession to give his team the lead.
First, he planted a firm header that goalkeeper Victor Valdes reached but could not stop. Then, after a cross from Angel Di Maria, he controlled the ball with his knee before hitting an unstoppable volley past the hapless Valdes.
Two minutes later, Benzema nearly added a third, but his goal-bound effort was deflected by defender Pique.
"The team played well and tried everything," Carlo Ancelotti, Real Madrid's Italian coach, told reporters after the match. "We had many opportunities and we're not happy."
Now, La Liga is - more than ever - a three-club race. Atletico de Madrid won 2-0 on Sunday in Seville against Betis, with Diego Costa, its Brazilian-Spanish star and best striker, again adding his name to the score sheet.
The victory left Atletico leading the standings with 70 points, the same as Real Madrid; Atletico, however, have a head-to-head advantage. Barcelona have 69 points.
"We knew that, today, either La Liga started again or finished completely, and it seems to me that we didn't want to withdraw from the fight early," Barcelona coach Gerardo Martino said.
The referee, Alberto Undiano Mallenco, played an important part in a match that included three penalties, the red card against Ramos and seven yellow cards.
After Sunday's match, Ramos, the Real Madrid captain, led the criticism of the referee.
"We hope Undiano will not referee us again, because, by coincidence, things always happen," he said.