Both teams had bad defense. Barcelona had the worse of the two. However, the Clasico stood up to the expectations of millions of neutral fans. Goals, cards, playacting, brutality – you name it, you got it. And in hindsight, as Robert Anthony once said,

Most people don’t think. They just rearrange their prejudices.

This Clasico did not have any neutral. They had their support either for Real Madrid or Barcelona – some way or the other.

It seemed that Carlo Ancelotti would have taken his lessons from the last Clasico. And a deeper inspection would reveal that with the exception of Atletico Madrid, Barcelona and maybe Juventus, Real Madrid have not faced quality oppositions. Their record this season against the three mentioned is nothing but pedestrian. And all their exploits are against lesser teams.

Barcelona on the other hand have suffered. And due to their profligacy, have surrendered their position atop of La Liga to Atletico and Real after more than a year.

Going into the match, billed as the one to decide the La Liga title race this season, both teams took a wary stance. Neither manager spoke with disdain against the other, nor was there a lack mutual respect – this was scarce in the Mourinho-era. Martino and Ancelotti, thorough gentlemen that they are, focussed on their respective teams and while a huge segment played down Barcelona’s chances, the wily Italian was as cautious as ever. But in the end, despite all their quality in the final third, Madrid still proved to be weak defensively – a little stronger than Barcelona though.

For Martino it was like a dead end with a huge wall in the end. And if he failed to jump over the wall the fall would be too hard for him to get back up. His biggest mistake perhaps was to start Neymar ahead of Pedro and Alexis. While Barcelona are brave enough to play their brand of football even at the backyard of their fiercest rival, they lack the conviction to start youngsters like Bartra. When Madrid can start Raphael Varane, Manchester City can start Matija Nastasić in big matches, why can’t Barcelona start Marc Bartra in such matches?

FC Barcelona Starting Line-up: Valdés, Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Jordi Alba, Sergio, Xavi, Iniesta, Cesc, Messi and Neymar.

Barcelona Bench: Pinto, Bartra, Adriano, Song, Sergi Roberto, Pedro, Alexis.

Real Madrid Starting Line-up: Diego López, Carvajal, Pepe, Ramos, Marcelo, Alonso, Modrić, Di María, Ronaldo, Benzema, Bale.

Real Madrid Bench: Casillas, Varane, Coentrão, Nacho, Morata, Isco, Illarra.

The best players on the pitch were the two Argentines – Lionel Messi & Angel Di Maria, and of course Andres Iniesta. While Iniesta and Messi ended Real’s undefeated run in 31 matches and the last time they lost, was at the Camp Nou – the undefeated run came a full circle indeed, Di Maria caused enough trouble for the Blaugranas and had a wonderful match.

While Ancelotti fielded his best players, Martino chose to field an off-form Neymar and a slow moving Cesc Fabregas. The problem with these two players is that Neymar doesn’t contribute much defensively and Fabregas isn’t particularly fast to cope with the relatively faster Madrid defense.

Ideally, Martino should have started Messi, Pedro and Alexis in lieu of Messi, Cesc and Neymar. Neymar was given the day off this past Tuesday and instead of mentally preparing himself for this Sunday’s league-deciding ‘Clasico’ against Real Madrid, the 22-year-old hoped on the first plane to Paris to join his compatriot and PSG captain, Thiago Silva at Disneyland, Paris. Thoroughly unprofessional to say the least. And his form on the pitch was as appalling as it was unsurprising.

Like every other Clasico (sans the last one at Camp Nou), Real Madrid were pressing relentlessly. They literally ran to get a grip of the game, and had it not been for Barcelona’s lack of defenders (Mascherano is strictly NOT a defender), Madrid would have been wiped out of the game much earlier.

Their pressing was relentless, but it looked as if they prepared only to press. Once they got the ball, more often than not, they did not circulate it well among themselves. While they pushed to draw first blood, Barcelona with Xavi as the fulcrum weaved past them with Messi in the final third providing an amazing assist for Iniesta to open the scoring – 25 passes around the Madrid players and then the back of the goal. Ancelotti’s men were clueless.

Barcelona players are passing the ball at least 25 times to reach the goal, while Real Madrid’s Xabi Alonso is doing this all in a single pass,Roberto Mancini in 2012.

Barcelona did actually pass 25 times to score their first goal. Alonso however, couldn’t do it in a single pass. He didn’t come close either.

Score: Real Madrid 0-1 FC Barcelona (Iniesta 7’)

When the Catalans were gradually getting hold of the game, Real Madrid got an equaliser from Karim Benzema, who also had a stunning outing alongside Di Maria. But prior to that, Di Maria skimmed past the so-called Barcelona defense and set up Benzema brilliantly, who hit it just over the crossbar. Di Maria’s intent was clear and so was Benzema’s. The rest were still looking to get into the game.

Messi then brilliantly controlled a through ball from Fabregas, only to squander the chance. While Barcelona had a grip on the game, Madrid, with their blistering offense made a few forays into the Barcelona half and during one such move, Bale played Di Maria on the left wing and an immaculate cross found Benzema and the Frenchman powerfully headed the ball past an outstretched Valdes, who did remarkably well to get to the ball. Real Madrid were back on level terms.

While Pique took the responsibility to mark Ronaldo, Mascherano was given the task to tame Benzema – and he failed miserably.

Score: Real Madrid 1-1 FC Barcelona (Karim Benzema 20’)

Four minutes later, Modric again found himself in the Barcelona half and played the ball to Marcelo and from there it went to Di Maria, who chipped the ball (that was a feeble cross, feebler, given Di Maria’s usual crosses) and as usual Mascherano made a mess of it and missed the header completely for the ball to land on Benzema’s lap, who had nothing but a hapless Victor Valdes and an entire goal ahead of him. A clever finish and Madrid had the lead. Mascherano emphasized the importance of having a proper centre back next season.

Score: Real Madrid 2-1 FC Barcelona (Karim Benzema 24’)

Di Maria again blitzed down the left wing and his cross found Benzema. Again. Mascherano was miles away from Benzema and the Frenchman controlled the ball deftly and got a shot past Valdes only for Pique to make a brilliant goal-line save. Benzema was denied his hattrick and at that juncture, Martino should have used his first substitution to get Marc Bartra on the pitch in place of the former Liverpool midfielder.

Ronaldo had a surprisingly quiet evening given his unusually high standards, and moreover, he doesn’t look as threatening from set pieces as he used to be once.

Minutes before the halftime whistle, Xavi, Messi, Fabregas and Neymar combined with as many as eight Madrid players around them and found the back of the net from a beautifully composed goal.

Score: Real Madrid 2-2 FC Barcelona (Lionel Messi 42’)

And then things got ugly. Pepe picked up a fight with Fabregas and both went down a little too easily. While television footage later showed that Sergio Busquets might have stamped Pepe on the head, but if you think retrospectively, it was Karma who came back and bit Pepe, for what he did to Messi in the 68th minute of their Copa del Rey quarter-final first leg in January 2012. Serves him right, perhaps!

Till now Neymar’s assist (he had nothing else to do either, apart from passing it to Lionel Messi) was his only telling contribution in the match, and after halftime, Barcelona should have come out with Bartra (in place of Mascherano) and either of Pedro or Alexis (in place of Neymar)

Minutes before halftime, Daniel Carvajal combined well with Bale and put in a succulent cross from the right wing, for Benzema to put it just wide. Mascherano was again like a deer caught in the headlights and was literally clueless about things going on around him.

Halftime Score: Real Madrid 2-2 FC Barcelona

The controversial decisions started coming thick and fast in the second half.

Five minutes into the second half Bale slipped past the Barcelona midfield and gave a through ball to Benzema who had only Valdes in front of him. He struck and Valdes saved. The Frenchman was clearly offside but the linesman missed it.

Dani Alves was having a terrible night. No help from the player ahead of him on the right flank (read Neymar), and barraging runs by Di Maria – too much for any fullback. He then clipped Ronaldo, just outside the penalty box. Alberto Undiano Mallenco pointed to the spot without a moment’s hesitation and Ronaldo who doesn’t usually miss didn’t.

Score: Real Madrid 3-2 FC Barcelona (Cristiano Ronaldo 55’)

Messi had scored. Ronaldo had to score. And he did.

Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo | High Five: Five Greatest Rivalries

Messi sublime. Ronaldo not quite.

Just after the hour mark (when perhaps Martino too had had enough of the Neymar-nonsense), Pedro was about to be introduced. An amazing through ball from Messi found the lacklustre Neymar who went down after a clip on the left ankle from Sergio Ramos, with only Diego Lopez to beat ahead of him. It was a penalty for sure, but a red card to Ramos was a little harsh as Marcelo was last defender (marginally though) inside the box. While Messi doesn’t have as immaculate result from the spot as Ronaldo does for Real Madrid, the Argentine took his time and despite Diego Lopez anticipating the right direction he failed to reach the ball.

Score: Real Madrid 3-3 FC Barcelona (Lionel Messi 65’)

Coping with Barcelona with a defender down is a daunting task and Ancelotti was not prepared to take up the challenge. Subsequently Benzema, who had a superb outing, was substituted with Raphael Varane. All this while Xavi and Busquets were controlling the game in the midfield brilliantly. They did not push too hard but were deft enough to find the gaps. Despite all the criticism that Jose Mourinho brought on himself and Real Madrid, his team was much more solid than that of Ancelotti’s. While the personnel on the pitch hasn’t changed much, especially in the defensive third, the one controlling them has and they somehow do not seem to be as resolute.

While Barcelona over the years have had an aversion to shooting and testing the goalkeepers from distance, they seem to have come in terms that gradually and Dani Alves, who otherwise had a forgettable night hit the bar with a stunning effort – an effort for which Diego Lopez had no answer to. Mascherano too shot from distance which went just above the crossbar, perhaps in an attempt to make amends for his otherwise shambolic performance.

It was then that Andres Iniesta slalomed past Alonso and Ronaldo and went inside the box to be blocked by the former and Carvajal. Yet another penalty which the Catalans deserved. Messi had a brace by then and then after the spotkick, he became the first player to score a hattrick against Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Score: Real Madrid 3-4 FC Barcelona (Lionel Messi 84’)

Xavi Alonso got booked for dissent, Ronaldo got booked for elbowing, Di Maria made way for Isco, Luka Modric got booked too and then made way for Morata. These were inconsequential and a too little too late.

Of all the things in this match, everybody will remember the goal by Andres Iniesta – archetypical of Barcelona’s brand of football and reminiscent of the goal scored by Esteban Cambiasso against Serbia & Montenegro, in 2006 FIFA World Cup. Surprisingly, that goal was preceded by 25 passes as well. And the only player present both the times was Javier Mascherano – ironically the worst Barcelona player on the pitch last night. Messi was on the bench in 2006.

Gerard Pique, amidst all the criticism that he has received this season, played the best match and Xavi showed no signs that he is moving into the wrong side of 30. What most fans are worried about is how will the club ever replace Xavi, once he decides to bid adieu? What most fans should worry about is how will the club ever replace Iniesta, once he decides to hand his boots? Yes, he was that good last night and so many more night before that.

While Neymar shone brightly in the last Clasico and Bale went into oblivion, the Brazilian seemed out of sorts and Bale, still not good enough to play for Madrid, against a heavyweight opposition. Maybe the atmosphere at the Bernabeu during a Clasico got to him.

A Clasico without records being shattered and new ones recorded is perhaps incomplete.

From 1-0 to 1-1 to 2-1 to 2-2 to 3-2 to 3-3 to 3-4 – someone or the other got into the history books.

  1. Iniesta scored his 50th goal for Barcelona – in the 50 games that he scored Barcelona won 46 times and drew 4 times. Winner.
  2. Messi went past Real Madrid legend, Alfredo Di Stefano in most goals in El Clasico. Messi 21 goals in 27 matches, Di Stefano 18 goals in 30 matches. Champion.
  3. With 236 goals in La Liga, Messi (268 matches) is now second in the all-time goalscorer table of La Liga overtaking Hugo Sanchez (347 matches) with 234 goals and 15 short of Telmo Zarra (251 goals in 277 matches). Relentless.
  4. Messi became the first Barcelona player to score 2 Clasico hattricks. The first was when he was on the 10th of March 2007, 3 months before his 20th birthday. Genius.
  5. Messi is now the foreigner with the highest number of goals in the domestic league of Spain, beating Hugo Sanchez. Virtuoso.
  6. Cristiano Ronaldo is now the 4th highest goalscorer for Real Madrid with 243 goals, surpassing Ferenc Puskas. Machine.
  7. Sergio Ramos got the 19th red card of his career. It all started in 2005 (against Espanyol), Ramos has now received 19 red cards in 9 seasons – 2.11 per season. Brutal.

Real Madrid are now second in La Liga with 70 points. Atletico first with 70 points too, but by virtue of better head-to-head record. In the end if all three teams are tied at the top with similar points Real cannot win La Liga because both Atletico and Barcelona have better head-to-head record.

"Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." Bale failed better.

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Bale failed better.

While Barcelona play Celta Vigo (12th) at Camp Nou and Atletico play Granada (11th) at the Vicente Calderon, Real travel to Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán to take on Sevilla (5th).

La Liga has never gotten so close in the last few years, and Barcelona despite being the “the worst Barcelona of many, many years” still has a lot of quality.