Magic amid Clasico mayhem

Barcelona talisman Lionel Messi posing with his jersey and silencing the baying Real Madrid fans with his 92nd-minute winner at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Barcelona talisman Lionel Messi posing with his jersey and silencing the baying Real Madrid fans with his 92nd-minute winner at the Santiago Bernabeu.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Battered and bruised, Messi's last-gasp goal ensures title race will go down to the wire

MADRID • The very last kick of the 'Clasico' could not have been more perfectly executed nor more dramatically delivered, Lionel Messi guiding the ball inside the post to take his team top of LaLiga.

It was the 500th goal of his career and few have been more significant. It prompted Barcelona manager Luis Enrique to say: "He is the best player in history."

Just when it seemed all was lost, there may be life in LaLiga; there is life in Barcelona, too, after the 3-2 victory.

With five games to go, they are leaders on their head-to-head record, and although Real Madrid have a game in hand, and Zinedine Zidane rightly says "we still depend on ourselves", nothing feels impossible now.

As the match neared the end on Sunday, Barcelona thought they had been denied.

There was a kind of crushing inevitability about the way James Rodriguez scored with five minutes to go. His goal made it 2-2, a scoreline that, had it stood, would have all but clinched the title, and in an appropriate way.

  • MESSI’S 500 FOR BARCA

    343 

    LaLiga goals

    94 

    Champions League goals 

    43 

    Copa del Rey goals 

    12 

    Spanish Super Cup goals 

    Uefa Super Cup goals 

    Club World Cup goals

    Season by season breakdown - 2004-05: 2005-06: 8 2006-07: 17 2007-08: 16 2008-09: 38 2009-10: 47 2010-11: 53 2011-12: 73 2012-13: 60 2013-14: 41 2014-15: 58 2015-16: 41 2016-17: 47

This was a portrait of Real this season, a late goal from a substitute, another comeback, fans erupting in joy. Real, down to 10 men after Sergio Ramos' 77th-minute red card, doing it again.

In fact, it was Barcelona who did it again. With the final seconds slipping away, Sergi Roberto ran from deep and just kept on running. Andre Gomes went with him, and so did Jordi Alba.

When he pulled it back, Messi curled his shot into the corner.

The Argentinian forward had a black eye from the last game, a bleeding mouth from this one, and he was still standing at the north end of Santiago Bernabeu holding his shirt out, disbelief engulfing everything, when the referee blew the final whistle.

"He is incredibly decisive at all times," Enrique said. "I have seen a lot of football, it is a great pleasure that he is one of us."

He and Barca captain Andres Iniesta called on Messi, whose contract expires at the end of next season, not to follow him in leaving the Camp Nou.

"Barca is an incredible club with many years of history, but without doubt an important part of that history is Leo Messi," Enrique said.

Iniesta said: "I think the great thing about Leo is that he continues to surprise."

What a game this had been, and what a finish it had - one that reflected the 92 minutes that went before.

"It is marvellous for us to win in the 92nd minute. It is something that is normally more a characteristic of our rivals, but we like to do it too," said Enrique.

It had been wonderful, wild and open to the end. Emotions swung with attacks. A classic 'Clasico' in which, if Messi stood above them all, it was not because others did not stand tall. It had been captivating from start to finish.

"It was a match between two wonderful teams that gave everything to win and in truth either side could have been victorious," Enrique said.

Zidane was left to lament his side's over-adventurous nature, conceding in stoppage time after being reduced to 10 men.

Messi had cancelled out Casemiro's opener before half time.

But Barca looked well on the road to victory when Ivan Rakitic's stunning effort put them 2-1 in front before Real captain Ramos was sent off for a wild lunge on Messi.

However, Real rallied as substitute Rodriguez equalised.

"Drawing the game with 10 men, to press high up the field is dangerous and we paid for that," said Zidane.

"I can't criticise the players for anything, though. We gave our all, but we didn't manage to get the three points. We didn't deserve to lose, but that is football."

Real now need to take at least 16 points from their final six LaLiga games to be guaranteed the title.

"There will be much more of a title race, but it is still in our own hands," said Zidane.

THE GUARDIAN, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 25, 2017, with the headline 'Magic amid Clasico mayhem'. Print Edition | Subscribe