Game on – Messi magic puts Real Madrid to the sword

Were Real Madrid getting away with things? Were they looking leggy, and thereby dangling too many opportunities in front of their opponents? Were they being left off the hook by sides that lacked the wherewithal to punish them? Or were they doing what the best sides do – digging out results in the manner of champions.

I asked these questions at the end of the March and suggested that April, with seven La Liga and two Champions League fixtures to negotiate, would likely give us some answers.

In fairness to Zinedine Zidane’s men, they had negotiated the month more or less in the manner of previous months since Christmas, finding more and more ways of getting results. On Sunday night in the 174th edition of the Clasico, they looked like they had done it again.

Down to ten men and having conceded a 73rd minute Rakitic stunner, they looked disjointed, jaded, out on their feet.

But then Marcelo (not for the first time) was given far too much time and space on the left to centre, and substitute James Rodriguez ghosted in unmarked at the near post to grab an unlikely equaliser.

That should have been that. Indeed, Real appeared to be finishing the stronger. But with seconds left in injury time, Sergi Roberto took off on a lung busting run from the edge of his own penalty area, a run of 70 yards that ultimately led to Lionel Messi putting Zidane’s men to the sword – something few other sides have been able to do this season.

And in a matter of moments, the face of the La Liga title race had changed.

Now, Barcelona sit joint top with their hosts albeit having played a game more. Crucially, however, they hold the head to head advantage over their great rivals.

Real should still be favourites. But how will they react to such a blow? A game in hand, yes, but Barca have the easier run in. Moreover, Los Merengues have the added complication of a two-legged Champions League semi-final with city rivals Atletico Madrid to cope with.

Suddenly, the finishing line and a first league title since 2012 looks a bit further away.

Speaking to the media after the game, Madrid’s former Galaticos Manager was, understandably, keen to reiterate that fate was still very much in his team’s hands:

Clearly it would have been better to win all three points but we have to accept it and move on. We still depend on ourselves.

For Barca, the game was almost their season in microcosm. Still capable of stunning brilliance on the ball, they continue to lack their old intensity when they lose it.

That lack of energy and desire to win it back, to close down space and passing channels, looked like robbing them of the victory their bravery and attacking play deserved.

And yet again, as so often this season, they were bailed out by the brilliance of Lionel Messi – who scored two magical goals to bring his league tally to an eye-watering 31.

In so doing, the Argentine breathed renewed life not just into his team mates, but into the title race as well.

The Author

Paul Little

Freelance football columnist. European Football with the Irish Daily Star. Hold the Back Page podcast regular. Family and Renaissance Man. Dublin born, Wicklow resident.

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