Trailing After 1 Minute, Barcelona Is in First After 90
Cesc Fàbregas, left, Lionel Messi and Barcelona are back on top in La Liga, tied with Real Madrid but ahead on goal difference.
Pouncing on a stunning goalkeeping error, Real Madrid took the lead after only 21 seconds. But Barcelona, soccer’s top team the past three years, rallied and restored its chances of a fourth consecutive Spanish title with a 3-1 victory.
Instead of opening a 6-point lead in the Spanish standings, Real Madrid is now tied with Barcelona, but behind on goal difference. Real Madrid, which had won 15 in a row in all competitions, has lost 11 of the last 12 matches in the teams’ famed rivalry, known as the clásico.
Saturday’s match may simply be remembered as the tipping point that never quite tipped.
The start to the match was remarkable, and it looked like something out of a rec league match. Barcelona goalkeeper Victor Valdés mis-hit a short pass out of the box, passing the ball directly to the feet of Real Madrid’s Ángel Di María. He crossed it back into the middle, Mesut Özil fired a volley that took a deflection and Karim Benzema pounced, stabbing the ball out of midair and into the net with an acrobatic, if dinky, jump kick with only 21 seconds gone.
Madrid’s Santiago Bernabéu stadium, frequently likened to an opera house during other matches because of its calm crowd, turned into a white-flag-waving madhouse as a steady mist fell. But Barcelona tied the score before halftime, and at the final whistle its midfielder linchpin, Xavi, whose short passes are like a drumbeat for Barcelona’s rhythm, thrust his arms in the air as downcast Real Madrid fans headed for the exits.
The victory reaffirmed the dominance and brilliance of Barcelona’s ball control and short passing game, a style that usually blends seamlessly with the blinding skill of its attacking leaders, Xavi, Lionel Messi and Andrés Iniesta.
But it was Alexis Sánchez, one of Barcelona’s off-season signings, who tied the score with a well-placed low strike after Messi’s precise pass found him open in space in the 30th minute. Messi showed his impressive skills, maintaining his balance as he took the ball in his half and weaved through multiple defenders before feeding the ball to Sánchez.
Real Madrid defenders had some early success against Messi, battling with him for possession. Xabi Alonso picked up a yellow card for rubbing Messi’s head inappropriately, but Messi was also given a yellow card for arguing with a referee.
When Messi fouled Alonso late in the half, the fans wanted a red card and their whistles let him know it. But the referee, David Fernández Borbalán, disagreed, and the last sign of ear-splitting noise came when the officials left the field for halftime.
“I thought Messi could have been sent off, but until I see it again I won’t say more in case I’m wrong,” Real Madrid Coach José Mourinho said.
Cristiano Ronaldo, Real Madrid’s star winger, might as well have been a target of the crowd’s unhappiness. His inability to convert on free kicks and scoring chances sapped some of the life out of the stadium.
He fluffed an open shot early and missed a golden opportunity on a header with the outcome still in the balance. His touch deserted him in important moments as well. Real Madrid appeared more dangerous when Özil and Di María combined on the right side.
Xavi put Barcelona ahead, 2-1, when his volley deflected off defender Marcelo and trickled past the wrong-footed goalkeeper Iker Casillas in the 53rd minute.
Cesc Fàbregas’s diving header in the 66th minute gave Barcelona some breathing room, at 3-1, after Messi found Dani Alves down the right flank and Alves provided a perfect cross to Fàbregas at the back post. Much of the match’s remaining minutes featured Barcelona waltzing up the field, controlling possession, in front of a tired Real Madrid.
“A clásico is always special and losing always hurts more than any other match,” Real Madrid defender Sergio Ramos said. “It hurts even more losing at home with all the hope we had put into this match.”
IN OTHER GAMES Manchester United delivered an emphatic response to its humiliating exit from the European Champions League last week, rediscovering its scoring touch in a 4-1 victory over Wolverhampton in England’s Premier League. Arsenal’s Robin van Persie took his league-high goals tally to 15 in a 1-0 victory over Everton that lifted the Gunners into the top four. … Lazio climbed back into the Serie A title hunt with a 3-2 win at last-place Lecce. (AP)