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Barcelona vs. Real Madrid: Final score 3-2, La Liga race on after sensational edition of El Clásico

This was an El Clásico to remember.

Real Madrid CF v FC Barcelona - La Liga Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

This edition of El Clásico was dramatic and incredible to a wildly entertaining degree, with Barcelona coming back from a late equalizer from 10-man Real Madrid to stun their hosts at the Santiago Bernabeu. A last-second winner from Lionel Messi was his second goal in the biggest of moments, in a massive 3-2 win that will change the La Liga title race.

The match started cagily but still with the frenetic energy that so often accompanies El Clásico, with Barcelona trying to settle into a new tactical shape given some of the injuries and suspensions they’re dealing with — most notably Neymar — and Real Madrid not wanting them to have the time or comfort to find their groove. Madrid definitely had the better of the early chances, but Marc-Andre ter Stegen was putting in a strong showing in goal for Barcelona despite the defense in front of him lacking their usual calm, including stonewalling a shot from Cristiano Ronaldo that the Portuguese star is much more used to scoring from.

That lack of defensive calm cost Barcelona in a bad way, though, with three Madrid players getting free right in front of ter Stegen on a set piece just before the half-hour mark thanks to a bad breakdown in Barcelona’s marking scheme. Sergio Ramos was the first man on the ball, but his shot banged off the post and ter Stegen couldn’t get back in time to stop the rebound shot from an also-unmarked Casemiro at the far post.

Ter Stegen wasn’t the only Barcelona player upset at that turn of events, though, as Lionel Messi was already angered by having been left bleeding after eating a high elbow from Marcelo during a challenge for a header. That sparked the Argentine megastar into a higher level of play, the kind that sees him slalom through defenses on his own to score goals — just like he did five minutes after Real Madrid’s opener to level the scoreline for Barcelona.

The rest of the first half was a back-and-forth affair, with ter Stegen coming up big again for Barcelona and a cagey defense for Real Madrid just barely keeping their rivals at bay. The second half was much the same, but played at an even more frenetic level. Barcelona continued to lean heavily on ter Stegen to stop shots, and he responded magnificently, though Keylor Navas also came up big on what looked like a sure goal for Barcelona, stopping a Messi shot cold to keep the score even.

Barcelona were certainly getting their chances, but on a whole it generally felt like Real Madrid were the team more in control of the match, with Luka Modric and Toni Kroos creating tons of scoring chances for their team and doing a lot of work both on and off the ball. But Madrid struggled badly to convert that control into goals, a problem most typified when Marco Asensio and Cristiano Ronaldo broke clear on a counter attack, only for Ronaldo to send his shot sky-high despite having a clear chance at goal in the 67th minute.

That lack of precision cost Madrid dearly just six minutes later, because Ivan Rakitic popped up with an absolutely world-class goal to give Barcelona a 2-1 lead at the Santiago Bernabeu, and that goal left Madrid bitter and frustrated.

That frustration was embodied by their captain, Sergio Ramos, who was lucky not to break Messi’s leg four minutes later with a hard and late tackle that saw him earn an easy red card from the referee.

But Real Madrid weren’t done, despite the dire straits they found themselves in. Marcelo served up a divine ball to James Rodriguez, who got through Barcelona’s defense unmarked, for a huge equalizer despite being down to ten men.

It looked like Real Madrid were going to salvage that 2-2 draw — but a stoppage time stunner from Messi saw Barcelona scrape out a 3-2 win that will have huge title race implications in La Liga.

The result brings Barcelona level with Real Madrid in the standings, and they hold every key tiebreaker over their rivals. Madrid still have a game in hand, but if Barcelona can keep up the kind of form and quality that saw them win this match, there’s little reason not to think that they can stay in the driver’s seat — the pressure is all on Real Madrid right now.

Real Madrid: Keylor Navas; Marcelo, Sergio Ramos (red 77’), Nacho, Dani Carvajal, Casemiro (Mateo Kovacic 70’), Luka Modrić, Toni Kroos, Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema (James Rodriguez 82’), Gareth Bale (Marco Asensio 39’)

Goals: Casemiro (28’), Rodriguez (86’)

Barcelona: Marc-André ter Stegen; Jordi Alba, Samuel Umtiti, Gerard Piqué, Sergi Roberto, Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitić, Andrés Iniesta, Paco Alcácer (André Gomes 70’), Luis Suárez, Lionel Messi

Goals: Messi (33’, 90’+2), Rakitic (73’)

Three things we learned

Don’t make Lionel Messi angry

Before getting clobbered by Marcelo and starting to bleed profusely from the mouth in the opening spell of the match, Messi had a fairly quiet day. After being left on the pitch with blood all over his sleeve and face — and Marcelo’s elbow — we saw a much different and much angrier Messi.

That spelled trouble for Madrid, because once Messi got mad, the Barcelona attack that had been struggling to find fluidity and form started clicking, and it was all because of the diminutive Argentine. Despite playing with a bloody rag in his mouth for the rest of the first half, he put the team on his shoulders and drove them forward, especially after Madrid scored their opening goal. In fact, his goal was practically a solo effort, taking on and beating four Real Madrid players on his own after receiving a well-placed pass from Ivan Rakitic.

He was also key for Barcelona throughout the second half, constantly driving the ball forward and creating scoring chances to keep them in the match no matter how things looked for them. His final effort at the end of the match secured a massive win for Barcelona, one that, if things work out in the last few weeks, can easily see Barcelona capture the La Liga title.

Gareth Bale should not start again until he is actually healthy

Ever since Bale came back from his original calf injury, there’s been something just not right with the Welsh winger. He’s lacked a step of pace, his explosive acceleration has been missing, and that combination has robbed him of his normal sharpness in his game. And when he has been playing of late, he’s been struggling to finish matches without breaking down despite his prodigious work rate, and that’s a huge problem for Real Madrid.

Bale’s early departure from this match after breaking down yet again makes one thing completely clear for Madrid — they have to bench him until he’s actually, completely healthy again. He can be available on the bench when Zinedine Zidane and the team’s training staff feel he can help from there, but otherwise Bale needs to focus on getting healthy and back to the player he can be. Starting matches only seems to be making things worse for him right now, and that’s leaving the team in a lurch on a far too consistent basis of late.

Bale should also take a long look at his training program and perhaps even his diet, because spells of nagging injuries like this have been far too common during his career. They’re keeping him from being the truly elite player he can be, and if he wants to take that next step he needs to figure out what has to change to better protect and maintain his body, because his body is literally the thing that makes his career. If that fails on him, so does that illustrious footballing career.

Barcelona asked a lot of Marc-Andre ter Stegen, and he delivered

Barcelona’s attack scored the goals that gave them their draw, but the Man of the Match award should go to their goalkeeper, Marc-Andre ter Stegen. Many fans were critical of him on Madrid’s opening goal of the match, but it was ter Stegen constantly being on-point with his positioning and reactions that kept Barcelona in the match for the time they needed to score.

Time and again, Barcelona’s defense was too spread out after pushing fullbacks high up the pitch or uncovered by midfielders, forcing ter Stegen to step up and make save after save from excellent scoring chances from Real Madrid. And he came up huge, stonewalling them time after time. The goals he gave up were from situations that left him helpless, with three attackers in his face on a broken set piece, then an absolutely unmarked James Rodriguez for Madrid’s equalizer. But if it wasn’t for ter Stegen doing so well for the rest of the match, those moments wouldn’t have mattered, because Real Madrid would have waltzed their way to five goals or more.